Serving Tradition

Abhilasha Ojha 02 May 2014
Mary Lalboi, founder of Rosang Cafe and Store Mary Lalboi, founder of Rosang Cafe and Store

A clutch of food enthusiasts are working overtime to ensure that Northeastern cuisine reaches out to people at large

Karen, founder of Dzukou, known for traditional Naga dishesKaren, founder of Dzukou, known for traditional Naga dishesWhen it first opened its doors in the tony neighbourhood of Hauz Khas Village (a haven of sorts for food enthusiasts), Dzukou gave more than just a glimpse of the verdant landscape from its fabulous terrace. Dotted with handicrafts from Nagaland and paintings done by local artists from the state, this was a humble endeavour by Karen, a self-confessed food connoisseur, who decided she wanted to take the challenge of placing Northeastern food right next to Delhi’s traditional tandoori chicken. Giving Dilliwallahs a heady jolt of Raja Mircha, unique dishes complete with bamboo shoots, yam leaves, dried fish and buff chutneys, Dzukou offered traditional Nagaland cuisine to food enthusiasts in the Capital.

It may have changed its address to another location in Delhi but authenticity is what has worked for Dzukou. ‘Anishi’, or the pork curry with yam leaves paste, for instance, has been a winner for fans of Dzukou. A traditional Naga dish served in teak bowls with sticky rice, this is a heady concoction with melt-in-the-mouth pork pieces mixed in tangy hot gravy and a paste of yam leaves.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that people in India are willing to experiment with different cuisines and Northeastern cuisine in particular, offers a unique taste that’s packed with tradition. For a cuisine that is completely different from what Delhiites typically sample – Northeastern food emphasises on fermenting and smoking techniques, less oil, more pork -- it has been a surprise to see how the Northeastern flavours are exploding all over the country. At Dzukou, for instance, nearly 80 per cent of the clients are non-Naga diners.

Platter of Pork ribs at Nagaland KitchenPlatter of Pork ribs at Nagaland Kitchen

Not just in Delhi, in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai, food lovers are experimenting with Northeastern cuisine like never before. Source the net and you’ll find blogs and websites listing traditional recipes from this part of India. Even Gordon Ramsay, post Raja Mircha’s world status as the hottest chilly in the world, travelled to India to learn the trade secrets of Northeastern food.  

Experts in the business say with Indians travelling and experimenting with cuisines from all over the world, it’s only obvious that many feel the need to go back to the roots of their own culture and enjoy regional cuisines. Though it’s still negligible of the total restaurant market size, which is roughly Rs 2.47 lakh crore, National Restaurant Association of India claims that state-specific restaurants will continue to thrive both in terms of numbers and performance.

An assorted traditional Naga dishes from Nagaland kitchenAn assorted traditional Naga dishes from Nagaland kitchen

Mary Lalboi, founder of Rosang Cafe and StoreMary Lalboi, founder of Rosang Cafe and StoreMary Lalboi, the brain behind Rosang Café, another eatery that specialises in Northeastern regional cuisine stresses that she serves not just good food but also nostalgia. In the heart of Green Park, a busy area in South Delhi, Rosang Café specialises in serving dishes of the ‘Seven Sisters’. In fact, some food critics claim that many of the dishes are only served in this restaurant. Lalboi, who started Rosang Café with her husband (it was in Safdarjung Enclave and Hauz Khas Village earlier but shut down later) wanted “home styled” Northeastern food to reach out to people. The couple who lovingly work as a team pretty much did everything together to make it work against all odds. The real charm of Rosang Café lies in the fact that it serves food with so much care, finesse and absolutely authentic taste. The restaurant, indeed, is a throwback to a traditional tribal-like kitchen in Nagaland from where not just flavours but nostalgia is evoked. Not just for non-vegetarian lovers, many vegetarian dishes at Rosang Café are worth trying too. Take Bai for instance, which is a seasonal mixed vegetable stew with herbs and spices from Mizoram. When the dish arrives at the table, it is bursting with a riot of flavours and aromas and the crunchy taste of fresh veggies that could easily transport you to Mizoram.

So, what is making India such a gastronomical melting pot to accommodate the numerous flavours emerging from the Northeast? What’s making dishes like ‘Bai’ and ‘Anishi’ arrive on tables in cities outside of the Northeastern states? There’s no one answer but one thing’s for sure; Northeastern cuisine is a heady concoction that has something for everyone – unique taste, authentic flavours, culinary history, and so much more.

Chutneys and side dishes from Nagaland KitchenChutneys and side dishes from Nagaland Kitchen

In Navi Mumbai for instance, a burst of traditional flavours of the Northeast is witnessing serpentine queues in Meghalaya House that has only recently started offering traditional Meghalaya style cuisines. While the initial idea was to focus on the Northeasterns in Mumbai, a large number of Mumbaikars are turning up to try the authentic dishes created by the chefs here. Even Bhogdoi, the Assamese restaurant located within the premises of Assam Bhavan in Vashi is serving authentic Assamese ‘thali’ complete with fish, rice, vegetable, pork and meat dishes. Bangalore’s Zingron (it means ‘blessings of the morning sun’ in one of the Naga dialects) is fast becoming a favourite with not just Naga residents in the IT city but also others who are experimenting with dishes that have been especially selected from the 16 major tribes of the state. The food here is served in ‘longpi ham’ or the traditional black earthenware of Manipur and though some patrons do find the food a tad too salty (remember, many of the dishes in Northeastern cuisine are fermented with salt, chillies and vinegar), Zingron’s knowledgeable staff will tell you that the taste is not compromised on and served according to the traditional recipes especially procured from the kitchens of Nagaland.

At Dzukou, diners love the traditional Naga foodAt Dzukou, diners love the traditional Naga food

Serving ‘tradition’ could be the biggest reason why Northeastern cuisine is catching up. At Nagaland Kitchen, a popular eatery in Delhi, almost 80 per cent of the ingredients are still sourced from Nagaland; a reason why customers have doubled since 2010. Spurred by the success of the Naga stall that he ran with his sisters, Washimenla and Tuluyinla, Chuba Manen Longkumer decided to invest in a fine dining restaurant that would serve only authentic food from Nagaland and other Northeastern states.

Those in the business claim that this is just the beginning and in the future many PE investments might just help create more opportunities and grow the food business, particularly for Northeast Indian food. Watch this space.

Flavours of the Northeast
Rosang Café, New Delhi: 011-65544411, 8447963810
Dzukou, New Delhi: +91 8447 703 774, +91 9873 306 174
Nagaland Kitchen, New Delhi: 011 4608 8968 
Zingron, Bangalore: 088 61 855609 
The Naga Kitchen, Bangalore: 088 61 855609
King Chilli, Mumbai: 022 6561 1123 
Naga Reju, Chennai: +91 9884579639

Rosang Café has simple yet intimate ambience Rosang Café has simple yet intimate ambience

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