Beyond the momo! Forget stereotypes, northeastern cuisine is a smorgasbord of unique ingredients, flavours and recipes
Momos may be devoured by residents from the seven sisters (and one brother), but it’s not quite a northeastern staple.
Pigeon-holing momos at the vanguard of traditional NE cuisine is akin to labelling vada pav as a Maharashtrian flagship food or idli sambar as “south Indian”.
A lot else figures higher up the food hierarchy (bharli vangi or avial, to begin with). But at least the vada pav and idli can trace their origins back to Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, respectively.
The momo took shape in Tibet. Since February 2015, Delhi-based culinary expert Sneha Saikia has been trying to dispel a rash of misconceptions among city slickers about northeastern food, including its apparent lack of palatability, as a few in a social media discussion seemed to believe.
Saikia, who is from Assam, teamed up with chef and restaurateur Karen Yepthomi who runs Dzukou, a restaurant for Nagaland cuisine in Delhi’s Hauz Khas, for a pop-up on Assamese cuisine there.
“There is a certain demographic in Delhi that is enthusiastic about exploring food from different parts of India and open to Northeast cuisine,” says Saikia who has since been doing popups at different restaurants across the NCR since then.
Yet, despite having travelled through India and studying in different schools — her father was an army man — Saikia has faced bullying because of the food that people from her native state eat.
The NE Palate
“I travel to Guwahati and my family village at least three times a year and have explored the different cuisines of my state, including the tribal fare. For my pop-up offerings, I have introduced unique ingredients from the region such as jute, cane, red-ant eggs and silkworms. I meticulously source everything from Assam to ensure quality,” she says.
Typically, her pop-ups are for 45-50 people, priced at Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000 per person, and include both vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes from Assam such as bhoja maas with bhut jolokia chutney (fried small fish with a bhoot jolokia sauce); tora phool aru haanhor koni bhaji (moringa stir-fried with duck eggs); khorisa alu-pitika (mashed potato with bamboo shoots); haanh kumura (duck cooked with ash gourd) and mosur dali aru komola pitika (steamed and mashed red lentils with oranges).
Bhut jolokia aka the ghost pepper was certified the hottest chilli pepper on the planet by The Guinness World Records. It is cultivated mainly in Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Like Saikia, there are others from the Northeast who have been taunted for the food they eat. “The most outrageous thing I’ve heard is: ‘Northeast mein toh kutte honge hi nahi shaayad?’ When I asked why, he said audaciously, ‘Sab toh tum log kha gaye honge.’ Even in 21st century, I’m amazed to find people who think we eat raw meat and wild leaves,” says Akum Imchen, a student from Nagaland, who is preparing for the civil services examination in Delhi. Nishi Gohain, a student from Assam, says his landlady was apprehensive about leasing out the apartment. “Before I shifted, she strictly warned me against cooking any sort of ‘weird’ meat, bamboo shoots or akhuni (fermented soyabean). She said neighbours would complain if I cooked anything that smells ‘foul’ or ‘unappetising’. Whatever that means.”
Mary Lalboi, a teacher from Manipur who moved to Delhi 15 years back to start Rosang, feels that recent debates about banning momos — which is today a favourite street food across India — is a waste of time.
“Momos represent new trends in food in metros and along with snacks from other parts of India also show that people of this country are becoming more inclusive about food and culture,” says Lalboi, who recently relaunched her restaurant in south Delhi with an expanded menu with signature dishes from all the eight northeastern states.
She feels that, rather than meats and another non-vegetarian fare, the problem that many people in Delhi have with her northeastern cuisine is the unfamiliar aromas linked to unique ingredients from the region and the process of fermentation that is an important part of the cuisine.
“Even though beef and buffalo meat are common ingredients in our cuisine, I have kept it out of the menu at Rosang because I respect the sentiments of many of my friends, customers and neighbours over the years in Delhi — Punjabis, Jats, Gujjars and Biharis — who have always come forward to support me in my business venture and other issues. It is because of them that I could survive in this city.” However, she is not willing to compromise on the unique flavours of the Northeast.
“I will not change the flavour of the traditional thukpa soup, for instance, even if many people from north India find it too bland; however, I have created many appetisers and sauces using spices and chillies from the Northeast since we don’t have the concept of small eats,” she says.
Assamese actor Adil Hussain, a regular at Rosang and a home cook himself, believes social media platforms are playing an important part in helping people understand and accept northeastern cuisine.
“There are many in Delhi who want to understand different cultures, including the northeastern ones. For them, food provides an easy access to the region without having to travel. Restaurants such as Rosang are a celebration of India’s plurality and diversity.”
Yeti, The Himalayan Kitchen, a favourite hangout for Nepali, Tibetan, Bhutanese and Sikkimese food, is back at Hauz Khas Village since April, after it was shut down for over a year.
“Menu-wise we have changed nothing and have the same hand-picked dishes, many of which came from the family kitchens of previous owners,” says entrepreneur Joy Singh who, along with Rahul Kundan, owns the lounge bar Raasta. The duo are the new owners of Yeti which had been set up by Ardahun Pinky Passah from Meghalaya and Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan, in 2012. And even though the basic menu remains the same, Singh and his team are open to new ideas that come from many of the guests.
Momos inevitably feature prominently on Yeti’s menu and come in aloo, chicken, mutton and buff variations. “Our chefs, many of whom are from Nepal, are given a free-hand with all the spices, plating and recipes. We, however, ensure that everything is freshly produced in our kitchen, including the dough for the momos,” explains Prashant Singh, the food & beverages consultant for the restaurant.
The aloo or potato momo, a Yeti innovation, is the most popular variant according to him, with not too many takers for the buff dishes. Some of the classic favourites from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim include choila, gyuma, Nepali thali, thukpa, mushroom in black bean sauce, gundruk curry and steamed bread with cheese sauce.
Nagaland’s Kitchen, probably the first northeastern eatery in Delhi set up seven years back, started as a restaurant that catered to northeasterners living in the capital.
“Now we also attract expats, including Japanese and Koreans. Our pork dishes prepared with raja mircha are a big hit,” says Sumit Kumar, operations manager at Nagaland’s Kitchen. While most spices and speciality items including chilli, bamboo shoot, yam leaves and fermented soybean are sourced regularly from Dimpaur, Kumar who has been with the restaurant and is a vegetarian, has introduced a smoked dish with mixed vegetables and Naga spices.
The restaurant offers catering services and delivery of northeastern delicacies across NCR. Boxing champion Mary Kom is a regular visitor to Nagaland’s Kitchen and recently had a party catered by them at her home. Binita Chamling, an organic food consultant and entrepreneur, turned restaurateur last year with Sikkimese restaurant Nimtho in south Delhi’s GK 1 partly because she found synergies between her Organic Sikkim business through which she sells organic products and a café format restaurant.
“While beef is not on the menu of any restaurants outside the Northeast and restaurant owners abide by the law of the land, people in Delhi are hesitant to accept certain ethnic items on our menu because they are very different from the food in this part of India,” she says. These include sisnu, a Sikkimese nettle soup made from forest products, and wacheepa, a rice-based dish garnished with burnt chicken feathers.
“Both these dishes are healthy options and made with organic products following the recipe handed down generations in Sikkim,” explains Chamling. Despite Delhiites being slow in accepting the new kind of cuisine from her home state, Chamling still feels the capital is a melting pot of different cultures. Except for that occasional apprehension of what else could be lurking in that pot.