Lost & Found: Shared Plates Savoured Slowly On A Foraging Expedition To Nagaland


As I enter the traditional kitchen at Anok’s–a coffee farmer who invited us for lunch–I see a woman sitting by the fireplace, preparing rice in an earthen pot. I learn later that it’s a staple in Naga cuisine. As the smoke travels up, I see pieces of pork hung on the racks close to the ceiling. The embers help preserve the meat for weeks. In another earthen vessel, pork is being prepared with smoked Naga chilli, salt and a sour herb, Soreihan, or Aukat, in Konyak, one of the tribes of Nagaland. The hot rice and pork are then served on a banana leaf on a bamboo plate and shared with all of us present there. What I witnessed was Nagaland’s community-style living, a concept of shared responsibility, which is big in its culture.

Winnower used by royal clans

Living in the fast-paced city of Mumbai, I often forget the importance of conscious, healthy eating and barely make it home in time to enjoy a family dinner. My visit to Nagaland– along with the team of OMO – Soul Food Community–brought me close to the culture, its people and their food. It reminded me what it truly means to eat seasonally and sustainably with loved ones. Led by three women–chef Vanshika Bhatia, Grace Muivah and Deepika Sethi,OMO’s foundation lies on its ingredient-first notion. The Gurugram-based cafe embarks on foraging expeditions to bring you stories about how each ingredient plays a role in getting communities together. This is reflected in its dishes, justifying ingredient-to-table in its purest form. Nagaland was one such trip where the locals generously opened their homes to us, cooked food, and shared it with us. Two Naga natives, Grace and OMO’s Culture Chief Athan Zimik, guided us along the way.

Nanihan or Alpinia

Sustainable sourcing

We had just visited the House of the Angh (village chief) in Longwa village. He enjoys a rare dual citizenship as half his home lies in India and the other half in Myanmar. (Pretty cool, right?) But what I experienced on our way back to Mon town was even more fascinating. The OMO team stepped out of the car and began to forage in the middle of the road! I learnt that plucking out some plantains growing in the wild and using the required amount in everyday meals is a way of life in Nagaland. “The indigenous Naga food culture is rooted in the knowledge of our traditional land, forest and wildlife. We rely heavily on agriculture and foraging, which play an essential role in safeguarding the rich ecosystem that provides for the community,” Zimik explains.

More than meat

While it is common to get the whiff of pork being prepared in Naga homes, you probably won’t know that 80 per cent of their diet includes fresh herbs and greens. “There are 66 Naga tribes, 17 of which reside in the present state of Nagaland. Most tribes have their own cooking style, but the common denominator is using varied new ingredients local to their specific regions,” Zimik shares. We were happy to be acquainted with the food prepared by the Konyak tribe.

Anok (coffee farmer)

With every local home I visit, the use of rich seasonal produce becomes evident to me. Just like Anok’s home, Grace’s maasi also showcased the use of herbs as flavouring agents in her meat preparation and how the use of every ingredient was significant. For instance, banana stem is an immunity-boosting ingredient used in dishes when there’s a seasonal weather change. Needless to say, pork cooked with beans and wild banana stems was a standout dish for me.








Other diverse ingredients used for our lunch included foraged fish mint leaves (named so because it smells and tastes like a combination of fish and mint), wild fermented olives and stinky bean salad, besides, of course, steamed rice. Nagaland’s food blogger, Lidang’s home, introduced me to the commonly used perilla seeds (accompanied by fiddlehead ferns) and Bah nut tossed into a salad.

Fiddle fig ferns with perilla powder

Chenngm’s home in Chen village highlighted the importance of other vegetarian staples in the Naga diet–yam curry cooked in ginger and green chilli, dried yam leaves with Axone or Akhuni (fermented soybean commonly cooked with pork, as often used in native Naga chutney made with the charcoal-roasted Naga tree tomato, roasted king chilli, and allium); but most importantly, millet rice. Millets are also grown in abundance in Nagaland–we learned about six varieties, namely, Chirã, Shéphul, Chela, Ofomm, Waofri and Naam. Paying tribute to this discovery and keeping in mind it’s the International Year of Millets, chef Bhatia is introducing a small menu with these millets at OMO.


Jungle to cup

Just like the greens, coffee too grows in the wild in some regions in Nagaland. We hiked a short trail to Ngarum’s (meaning, coming together) coffee plantation, where single- origin, nano-lot-produced coffee beans are sustainably sourced. Grown on an elevation of 1480m, Anok (Remember the coffee farmer I mentioned earlier?), along with other farmers, takes care of the plants growing in the untamed, organic forest shades. The advantage? “The bean type is Arabica, and hence it grows best in the wild. The slope and the natural shade of the forest only make the coffee better. It is environmentally sustainable, enabling biodiversity conservation, enhancing pest-control services from birds, and contributing to climate change adaptation,” explains Grace, the brain behind Ngarum, which serves fresh brews at OMO.


Forage to table

Ending our trip on a high note, chefs Bhatia, Aadarsh (also from team OMO), and Zimik cooked up a storm in the kitchen of a local’s guesthouse, using local Naga ingredients foraged from communities and the wild.

Spread out on a banana leaf were wood ear mushrooms with stinky beans tossed with perilla seeds, caramelised local banana with charred chilli and Timur pepper, wild garlic eggplants with peanuts, Shéphuk (Sticky millet) wrapped in steamed cabbage with axone and tomato chutney, yam shoot and okra broth flavoured with machinga (to be had with sticky rice), and local sweet pumpkin for dessert, served with bayberries. Forage to the Table looks like the new Farm to Table. However, more than the way the meal was presented, the most wholesome feeling was sharing the meal and enjoying it in the company of other Naga locals, invited for the gathering–true to their culture of community-style living.

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- Lifestyle Editor


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