From snails in yam curry to Colocasia leaves cooked with banana stems, discover the world of authentic cuisine from Nagalandbeyond Raja Mircha and Axone.
“We are very sorry…Today is Good Friday, so we can only serve you a vegetarian meal,” Rev. Rakongaolü Lawrence apologized with a deep sense of regret. We asked him not to make a fuss about it, as vegetarian dishes were more than welcome in meat-rich Nagaland. Exploring 4×4 trails across the state for the Department of Tourism with off-road specialists Wander Beyond Boundaries gave us the chance to stay in remote villages where we gratefully shared all the villagers locals have prepared…
Another definition of vegetarian food…
Glad no country chickens were sacrificed for us this time around, breakfast at the pastor’s in Zelome village in Phek district felt like a blessing. It was a meal consisting of rice, dal, fried potatoes, boiled cabbage and yongchak (stinky beans) chutney when the melodious tinkling of yam curry made us notice the snails in it. “B-but, pastor, you said everything was vegetarian!” Lawrence looked at us quizzically for a moment, broke into his beaming smile, and explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “Snails don’t have blood. And anything without blood is…” “Vegetarian! we sounded like obedient schoolboys, logic dawning on us.
“You just have to suck the meat out of it.” We have tasted snails in a butter and garlic sauce on our travels through Germany, but this was our first time trying snails in India. Unlike their EU counterparts, these snails are tiny and found in rice paddies. The flesh is just a little but definitely tasty and worth the effort – like sucking the tightly stuck marrow from a stubborn bone. Once we were done, we tossed the shellfish to the dogs, who happily munched on this unlikely snack. What a perfect arrangement to leave no trace! Yet, we could imagine the reaction of our parents if they heard about our culinary adventures. “Isn’t there anything better to eat?” they asked sarcastically.
Meat, the great equalizer
We ate inside the kitchen, marveling at all the local ingredients and utensils hanging in the nooks or lining the walls – valves, baskets, taosbushels of Naga lason (garlic), Naga basil bunches, oval shrub tomatoes, titaguti (Naga brinjal) and other herbs. The kitchen is where most meals are eaten, usually on a three-legged wooden or aluminum plate. As a rule, above the fireplace, pieces of pork, fat, intestines, venison, fish and other meats are left to dry and smoke. We thanked Lawrence and his wife Virhiinyi for the great meal. Outside their house, corn was hung to dry in sheaves to be sown the following season.
Gahuri (pork) is Nagaland’s favorite meat, apart from chicken and fish, while mithun (semi-domesticated cattle) are sacrificed at community festivals. Dogs are a delight too and it was quite an experience traveling with Buster, the 7 year old Labrador of WBB founder Nidhi Salgame. Our host Deo Krome waved with his tao (machete) if he could eat Buster. Ironically, the next moment he was playing with him and his grandchildren. In Akhwego, President Nienthso’s wife casually asked if we were going to eat Buster after he died! In Moya, while petting Buster, the elders noticed that he could easily feed 50 people! President Kusumeiu recommended that dog meat soup is really invigorating if you are sick. We haven’t had the heart or the opportunity so far, but who knows…
Most Nagas are omnivorous and readily eat anything that moves or has stopped moving. Hunting is part of the tradition and they often head into the forests to hunt squirrels, hare or something more substantial. Meat is often cooked with tubers, beans, squash and green vegetables. A trip to Keeda Bazaar in Kohima or the Supermaket in Dimapur, especially the Wednesday Bazaar, is a revelation – eels, snails, silkworm larvae, woodworms, hornets, grubs and everything from frogs to dogs are a to win !
The heat is on for vegetarians
Amazingly, Naga cuisine is complemented by many vegetarian dishes – Naga dal, kholar (beans) and vegetables like pumpkin, potato, sweet potato, squash, yam and colocasia. Apart from staple rice, the Nagas consume maize and millets like Job’s tears (Coix-lacryma jobi) and foxtail millet (Setaria italic). Very little oil or masalas are used, and boiling is the preferred cooking method. Raja morich (royal pepper) or Bhoot jolokia and its more or less spicy cousins are the main spice.
Yongchak (Parkia speciosa) was in season, hanging like garlands in the markets. The long twisted bean grows wild throughout Nagaland in clusters on tall trees and is a popular legume in Northeast and Southeast Asia, known as Petai Where Sator. Here it is believed to be an influence from Manipur where a salad called eromba is made. Besides its inherent gasification, Yongchak contains sulfur compounds and amino acids, similar to shiitake, truffles and asparagus that cause urine to smell the next day, hence its popular nickname “stinky bean”. The outer skin is scraped, washed several times with water, sliced and ready to use raw or cooked. Often paired with strongly flavored ingredients like naga morich (Raja Mircha), garlic, dried shrimp and fermented fish, it is widely made into chutney or sautéed in a pickle.
When leaves count…
No meal is complete without the usual “porridge” – a wedge of cabbage, a slice of steamed squash or blanched greens, many of which are packed with medicinal benefits. The most popular are lai patta (Brassica juncea) or vegetable mustard leaves, mejenga patta or Sichuan pepper leaves (Zanthoxylum oxphyllum), eskos/iskus patta (pumpkin leaves) and slip patta or longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens), called muhyingtahi in Sangtam and let’s go in Kheza.
Sometimes Naga lasoon (garlic) chives are tossed into a quick salad. Another delicacy is dhekia saak (Diplazium esculentum) or fern fern, with recurving tendrils like the ends of a fiddle/fiddle! Greens love tenga patta literally “sour leaves”, also called gasor Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis ) and kochu patta or colocasia leaves are also eaten, as well as chopped and cooked with banana stems and rice in a porridge like gahuri dana(pig food). Himalayan knotweed leaves (Wallichi Ladybug ) are used in dishes like gallo— a rice porridge with meat and stuffed green vegetables, typical of the Angami tribe.