It wasn’t until my trip to Nagaland that I really appreciated the ancient art of grazing, which predates the vegetable market (remember that) vegetable market, — yes GenZ, that was a thing) and online grocery shopping. So, there I was, on the side of the road, down the hilltop of Longwa village looking for my food.
I was living in Mon district and looking for food in the villages of Tijit, Longwa, and Chenwetnyue.
After some help, I managed to get some very tasty stems of knotweed (Hanahan). and for the one who loves her Rasam Extra sour, this stem was a revelation. “It’s not even just about what’s growing in our backyard, it’s also growing in our sacred forest and our neighbors’ homes,” says Vungnothan Zimik, known among friends as Athan, who is a Former banker-chef. The Nagas are a veritable storehouse of folklore and gastronomic secrets that were passed down by their forefathers.
Athan (seated) and Lidang Konyak are looking for kinimi knotweed. , Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
“If you ask me in the morning what I’ll have for lunch, I won’t have an answer, because it’s often what dishes my neighbors have shared with me or what herbs they’ve made And have moved on,” he says.
As 37-year-old Athan remembers the sacred forest of his childhood, his eyes gleam with excitement. “It was a place that provided generously,” he says. “I would often go in search of food with my elders. The villagers give a signal to go to the forest early in the morning, and other villagers join in.
He remembers the importance of taking only what was needed and leaving the rest for others. “We have always respected the land and its produce,” he says. “It was okay to pluck a fruit from a neighbor’s land if we were hungry, but we only took enough to satisfy our hunger.”
(clockwise) Forged Leaves – Fiddle Fig Fern with Fish Mint, Pennywort and Mint, and Perilla Powder, White Naga Beans Salad with Raw Ginger and Lungrihan, Stinky Bean Salad with Naga King Peppers, Steamed Green Beans and Fermented Wild Olives | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
But even in this simple act, his family instilled in him the values of sharing and generosity, says Athan. He fondly remembers the time he chose too much, and his uncle gently reminds him of the importance of giving up something for others. “Eat as much as you can and leave the rest. When someone else comes, they can fill their stomachs when they are hungry,” his uncle had said.
Altruism and looking out for each other are not only values among Naga tribes, but a way of life. Selfishness is rejected, and altruism and devotion are held in high esteem. As Athan says, “Anyone who acts out of greed is strongly condemned in our village. Sharing and looking out for each other is the norm.”
Nagaland has 17 tribes and eating in tribal communities not only fosters independence and self-reliance but also provides access to fresh and nutrient-rich food.
ethical material sourcing
In recent years, Nagaland has also seen a growing interest among travelers, especially cooks, who are trying to explore its unique and diverse cuisine. Chef Vanshika Bhatia, Chef and Partner of OMO, “I have been here twice, just to get the freshest and most ethical ingredients for my restaurant in Gurugram.” Vanshika appreciates the pride farmers take in avoiding monoculture and enriching the soil with nutrients. She also values the personal relationships she builds with them, often searching out lesser-known plant parts to incorporate into her recipes.
Chef Vanshika Bhatia of OMO Cafe with a local in Mon district, Nagaland | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
She prepares dishes inspired by various indigenous communities across India, such as Naga, Kodava, Kumaoni and Garhwali. Showcasing the freshest produce available while honoring the roots of Indian culinary heritage through modern interpretations, OMO’s menu adapts to the season.
One such discovery was passion fruit leaves, which taste like guava. “My Appreciation for SirarakhongThe chili and the ax have also grown through these travels,” said Vanshika. Vivid crimson color and versatile flavor of sirkakhongThe chili makes it a prized ingredient beyond state borders, while the pungent aroma and flavor of axone, a fermented soybean delicacy, can trigger a love-hate relationship. Regardless, it is an integral part of Naga cuisine and a must-try for adventurous food enthusiasts.
While many believe that Naga cuisine consists primarily of meat, Mon native Grace Muivah points out that “eighty percent of what you’ll find on a Naga thali at home will be vegetarian,” although any Naga meal may include bamboo shoots and Pork is a staple. ,
Steamed Rice and Lentils on a Naga Thali with Mint, Steamed Beans and Roasted Smelly Bean Salad with Naga King Chilli | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Unlike the mainland, there is no concept of a spice box Here – the food served is flavored with naga chili for spice, tree tomatoes and sumac berries for sourness, and naga spring salt, axone and perilla seeds for savory flavor. Sweets are usually not served and are sometimes made with jaggery or an extract of sugarcane juice. Of course, there’s the addition of some dried fish or wild mushrooms to add that umami zing.
About 73% of people in Nagaland depend on agriculture, Mon district engages in community farming to grow a variety of crops including rice, maize, millet, sugarcane, tubers, coffee, and everyday herbs grown in backyards are grown or cultivated.
Anouk Wangsa with his coffee beans | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Grace, who runs Nagaram Coffee at Gurugram’s OMO Cafe, is also searching Nagaland for ingredients, especially Arabica coffee beans. She finally finds them on a short trek, where Anouk Wangsa, a 32-year-old member of the Konyak tribe, and more than 30 other farmers grow coffee bushes under tall wild fruit trees deep in the forest. “Though it grows in different districts of the state, we get it exclusively from Mon as they are all nano-lots,” she explains. Nano lot refers to coffee sourced from a single, specially disciplined plot of land in a single farm.
With his eyes glued to the lush green surroundings of Nagaland, Delhi-based pastry chef Adarsh Mishra’s notebook is brimming with ideas. “For me, finding food is like a treasure hunt, and every ingredient I find sparks my imagination for the next big recipe,” says the 27-year-old.
The writer was in Nagaland at the invitation of OMO Cafe in Gurugram.
Pork, Prime Meat
Meat, especially pork, is a major protein source in Naga cuisine, and smoking it over a wood fire is a popular way of adding flavor. Smoked meat is used in a variety of dishes, including stews, curries, and chutneys. The slaughter of a pig is a part of any Naga festival, and all parts of the pig are used in the preparation of food. Excess meat is distributed among neighbors or preserved, indicating a strong sense of shared living and respect for food. “Nothing goes to waste here. We also enjoy the local chicken stew a lot. It’s great nutrition for new moms and people recovering from illness,” Lidang Konyak, a popular food blogger and native of Mon district in Nagaland Kinimi says. In fact, Lidang reveals a tradition in his tribe of going to new mothers with live chickens, so that they can feast on them in order to recover faster and regain strength after childbirth.