With growing wealth and prosperity, Indians have become keen to explore cuisines from around the world. Restaurants have mushroomed in major towns serving everything from Mediterranean to East Asian fare. But while we become more acquainted with delicacies from countries around the world, it’s worth asking whether we have enough knowledge about the regional cuisines of our country. One region of India that has completely fallen below the radar gastronomically is the Northeast. With very few exceptions, most Indians’ knowledge of Northeastern food is limited to momos and even they are available in a mutated form on dingy lanes and bylanes of Delhi.
Delhi Haat is usually the go-to place for tasting culinary delights from various states of India. But the menus at the stalls of Northeastern states hardly have any authentic dishes from the region. So, in order to experience authentic Northeastern flavours, you have to look beyond Delhi Haat. While the options are limited, there are now some great places serving great Northeastern fare in Delhi.
Possibly the oldest institution which provides a genuine Northeastern culinary experience is Rosang Café located in Safdarjung Enclave. The restaurant was opened in 2003 by Mary Lalboi and her husband Muan Tonsing. Mary, an accomplished cook herself, has been the brain behind the restaurant. She played a key role in designing the menu and crafted starters and desserts to go along with traditional dishes. It’s probably the only restaurant which serves authentic dishes from all the 8 states of the region. There is Jadoh ( rice and pork combination) from Mehalaya, Ngatok ( no-oil fish curry) from Arunachal, Wahan Modsen (stir fried Pork cubes) from Tripura, Singju (veg salad) from Manipur and many others. The distinctive flavour of these dishes comes from the spices and herbs used, typical to the region, like Lengmasel (Mizo Basil), Pasikhawm (Naga Corriander) and Michinga which are unique to Northeast and sourced directly from there. Even their paneer gravy called Sana Thonga, which looks similar to the gravies you would find elsewhere, tastes completely different.
If you don’t want to explore all eight states but only the robust cuisine of Nagaland, there are two great options in South Delhi. They are Nagaland Kitchen in Green Park extension and Dzukou Tribal Kitchen in Hauz Khas market.
Nagaland Kitchen was opened in 2010 by Chuba Manen along with his sisters Washimenla and Tuluyinla. Pork oil, extracted from pork meat is used to prepare most non-vegetarian dishes which gives a very distinctive taste to the cuisine. This restaurant also sources key spices and herbs straight from Nagaland. Varieties of chilli, pepper and garlic native to Nagaland along with other unique ingredients like Akhuni (fermented soya beans), Anishi (paste of fermented Yam leaves) and Naga King Chilli have been brought in from the state. Bambooshoot gravies of fish, pork and chicken as well as Pork Akhuni are some of the main dishes on the menu. The use of Naga King Chilli makes the food extra spicy whereas the bamboo shoots impart their own unique flavour to various dishes.
The second prominent joint is Dzukou Tribal Kitchen which opened in 2011. Karen Yepthomi, who is the founder of Dzukou and herself a chef, designed the menu and made sure it had authentic Naga fare. Unlike Nagaland Kitchen, Karen in her restaurant does not use oil separately to prepare any pork-based dish. She says, “The beauty of Naga cuisine is that no oil is required because the pork itself contains enough fat for cooking.” Dzukou too imports herbs and spices directly from North East. Two key ingredients are Nappa (a herb similar to lemon basil) and Amgothi (another unique herb). There are many interesting dishes on the menu but one that is bound to catch the attention is Naga Rajma Curry with fresh bamboo shoot. This is not your typical North Indian Rajma. This Northeastern curry isn’t thick and spicy. It is light and is infused with the subtle fresh flavor and aroma of Nappa. It goes perfectly well with traditional Naga sticky rice.
If you are looking for the cuisine of Mizoram, Mizo Diner in Safdarjung Enclave is a good option. Opened in 2014 by David Lalrammawia, this restaurant is designed to give a laidback feel. “The pork meat you find in a Mizo market has a natural taste of its own, unlike in Delhi. So what I do is, I buy smoked pork from the local market which I then boil for a unique flavor, “ David tells Guardian 20. “Most dishes today in my restaurant have been modified to suit the palette of those residing in Delhi because most of them are not used to boiled food items, which is the custom back at my place, “ adds David. Dishes like Vawksa Erfu (pork fat deep fried in its own oil), Bai (vegetables boiled with herbs), Sachek (Intestines of any animal with traditional Mizo seasoning) and Vawku Bawl (Roasted pig head sesame seed and ginger) receive their unique flavor from authentic herbs like Anthur (Dried leaves with a tangy taste) and Lengser (a herb with great aroma and taste). These herbs are sent to David by his mother form Mizoram regularly.
The wonderful and varied cuisine of Northeast is just like the region— beautiful and diverse. While the cuisines of other regions of India bear a great affinity with each other, Northeastern food has a completely different flavour owing to the use of unique indigenous herbs, while spices form the crux of basic food items in the rest of India. It is an acquired taste but one that more and more people are willing to try out.