As traces of smoking alder wood scent the cool morning air, I look at the terraced fields that have sustained the village of Khonoma for the past five centuries. Like the smooth curves of a harp, the terraces hug the slopes, creating a three-dimensional contour map of the terrain. Khonoma in Nagaland is famous for having fended off various historical invaders; most notably, it fiercely resisted the British for many years in the 1800s. Standing on a gravelly path around the village, which is perched on a rise, I can see the hills towering above me to the southwest, and the circuitous route due east to Kohima. Khonoma’s cleverly tucked-away location has shaped its history, and that of the members of the Angami tribe who live here. The terraced fields to the west of the village are a reminder that geography has also played a big part in the diet and food culture of the people here—indeed throughout the valleys of Nagaland.
The unfamiliar regional cuisines—to say nothing of crumbling roads, complicated dialects, and rudimentary accommodations—can make the Northeast a challenging destination for most travellers. Luckily, my friend Piran Elavia, a city boy with years of experience in these parts, is the perfect guide. Through his company Kipepeo, Piran bridges the cultural gaps on his socially conscious tours, ensuring that tourists don’t become invaders either. Over the next two days, I’ll visit two tribes, the Angami in Khonoma, and the Chakhesang in the village of Chizami, to learn about their history and, inevitably, their food.
It is February, and the fields lie in repose, a mostly dry mosaic of brown, with the occasional dab of green. Their custodians meanwhile are engaged in all kinds of off-season activities, from drying and preserving grains, to preparing new slopes for shifting cultivation.
Khonoma village is a series of horizontal streets on a slope, separated by steep staircases. We head back to our rickety homestay, a recently repurposed two-storey house with low ceilings, uneven steps, and a sweeping view of the rugged village, whose architecture also fits the contours of the land.
Our friendly helper Rovizono has almost finished preparing breakfast. Fresh out of college, her youthfulness is apparent as she cheerily hums her favourite tunes. She certainly enjoys cooking, but is looking for a teaching job here in her hometown.
Over breakfast, our conversation soon turns to the subject of creepy-crawly foods. Rovizono informs me that she has consumed every variety of edible insect in Nagaland. However, when it comes to wild food, her favourite meat is porcupine. I stare at her, bewildered by the thought of catching a porcupine, let alone the difficulty of dealing with all those quills, just to enjoy some meat.
I look down at my relatively docile breakfast of locally grown foxtail millet with foraged greens. Thin slices of some kind of small orange add a pop of colour to the bowl. Biting into them, I wince, puckering my mouth. These elfin fruits are piercingly tart, more so than limes, but with a distinctive orangey aftertaste.
Later in the day, we head out with our local guide, Metha Chàsé. As we walk to Khonoma’s highest point, we get an unobstructed view of the terrace fields. Chàsé tells us that between eight and 20 varietals of rice are grown every year, with the hardiest varietals on the highest terraces. The villagers also practise jhum, or shifting cultivation in sections of the hills. During the dry season, carefully chosen forested slopes are burned and a variety of foods are grown. Once harvested after the rains, the forest is allowed to regenerate for about seven years before returning to it and burning it again. Jhum fields provide some 57 organic crops, including essential vegetables, legumes, maize, and millet.
On our way back through the village, I continue to notice how almost every aspect of life here is entwined with the production or collection of food. Most of the houses have pig troughs, elevated on stilts, outside them. There is the odd kitchen garden, with the chubby, tapering raja mircha (king chilli), known as bhut jolokia in Assam. I spot the occasional barn, decorated with a motley array of animal skulls, a reminder of the hunting traditions of the people. However, village elders have banned hunting in Khonoma for a couple of decades in order to protect the ecosystem, a move prompted by the hunting of 300 Blyth’s tragopans, a vulnerable pheasant species, in a single season in the mid 1990s.
I also notice grains laid out to dry, baskets of ferns freshly picked from the forest, and giant pomelos hanging precariously from the branches of a tree. As we reach the house, I feel the tiredness in my legs from the climb, and realise I’m very hungry. On cue, Rovizono pulls out a packet of flabby pieces of pork belly. My mouth waters; before coming to Nagaland, smoked pork was the dish I had most eagerly anticipated eating. This meat has been smoked and dried for two weeks by Rovizono’s uncle. Rovizono now cooks the pork belly in water, with crushed, dried king chilli, and fermented bamboo shoots. As the meat cooks, the fat slowly melts into the liquid. Once the pork is almost cooked, the water is allowed to boil off, leaving behind a red-hot emulsion of fat. The pork is paired with local red rice, a rustic minimalism that seems appropriate to my surroundings. As we eat, smoke from the recently extinguished pit slowly cures pieces of meat that have been hanging on cane twine a few feet above it, perhaps for months, drying away.
For dessert, we cut into some citron-like fruits that locals simply call nimbu. These ovate fruits are incredibly fragrant, almost artificially so, reminding me of lemon-flavoured Fruittella. As Rovizono discards the rind, I think what a great garnish it would make for a freshly poured gin martini. The fruit’s thick pith is mildly sweet, with a bitter edge, but the pulp is dry, nearly tasteless, with the hint of mosambi.
The next day, we set off towards the jhum fields, before heading to Chizami. Our Maruti 800 rattles through a thick forest, past a wild apple orchard, before arriving at a clearing obscured by plumes of smoke. Standing on a smoking jhum field, I look at the charcoal scenery, interrupted by alder stumps all around. Alder is used for firewood, and the trees are not completely cut down (logging is actually banned here), but reduced to tall stumps from which new saplings eventually grow. According to researchers, this ensures a steady source of firewood while the deep, old roots have the additional benefit of fixing atmospheric nitrogen into the dirt, and controlling soil drainage.
The journey from Khonoma to Chizami is four hours of lows and highs, smooth stretches that give way to loose gravel. The temperature drops as we climb to Pfutsero, the highest town in Nagaland at 2,133 metres. While descending, the road meanders through dense forests, with steep, terraced slopes soaring above the valley. Every hamlet has its own church, which usually stands on an accessible plateau.
We finally arrive in Chizami, at the campus of the Northeast Network (NEN), a non-profit organisation that will accommodate us in its guesthouse. The NEN primarily focuses on women’s rights. Some of its primary goals are to increase women’s participation in the management of local resources and uphold indigenous practices, which often overlap with seed security, agro-biodiversity, and sustainable farming. Visitors like us help offset their costs.
The NEN’s local programme coordinator, Seno Tsuhah, tells us that this village of 500 families grows over 30 varieties of rice and many varieties of millet, including eight kinds of foxtail millet. Rice and other irrigated crops depend heavily on rainfall, and part of NEN’s work involves promoting the use of local, drought-resistant millets to compensate for losses during dry years.
Chizami is remote, and living completely off the land is essential here. The structures of habitation are familiar, but the spirit of this town seems hardier. The men and women work long hours, carrying heavy wood up and down craggy slopes, preparing fields for the next sowing, or foraging seasonal ferns and other greens from the forest. Every effort is towards aligning life to the routine dictated by the sun. In December, after the paddy is harvested, women actually wade through the wet fields at night, collecting grasshoppers in their cane baskets. This unintentionally cultivated, extra source of nourishment is definitely not something found in places where monoculture and fertilizer-driven farming are the norm.
In preparation for supper we go out to pick some wild cabbage. Our helpers, Vitsino and Neitshope, introduce us to this strange looking plant that looks like a short papaya tree from a distance. Up-close, I notice the thick, kale-like leaves on the crown. Why have I never seen such a weird cabbage “tree” before? People keep casually tossing around common names like nimbu and cabbage for produce that bears no resemblance to the versions I’ve seen at vegetable shops. From one meal to the next, I’ve begun to see how the variety and abundance of food growing here influences taste. The ethos of the cooking is simple. Complexity comes in through the flavours and textures, which vary according to season.
Tonight, we’re cooking Naga dal, a local legume that looks a bit like black-eyed peas, soured with a local fruit called mezütshe, to go with our wild cabbage. Mezütshe is a wild stone fruit from the mango family, and the dal is reminiscent of raw mango sambhar. We also make galho, which is any thick stew of greens and meat, cooked in rice, with the necessary inclusion of bamboo shoots, chilli, and a funky, fermented soybean known as axoné. The funk and spice permeate through the textures of the food with ease, warming my belly with joy.
The next morning, we set out into the forest on a foraging expedition, walking east of Chizami in the general direction of the Myanmar border, which is about 50 kilometres away as the crow flies. While people pride themselves on hunting, foraging is a necessary complement to this skill. Men spend days out on hunts with only the forest to feed them.
At first, I’m overwhelmed by large ferns draping the mossy walls of the hills or the odd rivulet coming out of an unseen crevice. As we spend more time in the forest, my eyes adjust to its complexity. I begin noticing the many varieties of ferns in this dense cover. Out of the hundreds of ferns growing here, Vitsino deftly identifies and collects the edible ones. Almost every five steps, she stops to point out a plant, and explain its medicinal benefits. We encounter coagulants, blood thinners, and herbs that control blood pressure.
My heroic eating efforts have led to a slightly upset stomach, and Vitsino points to a herb along the road, telling me to make a tea with it. On close inspection, I am thrilled to identify it as wormwood! Perhaps most famously used as an ingredient in absinthe, wormwood is not something I have seen in India before. For the rest of the walk, all I can see is wormwood everywhere.
On our return, we spot an oak tree crawling with tiny borer insects. Known to some as lyha, the insect has been called the saffron of Nagaland for the unique aroma it imparts to food. Vitsino tells me that only the adults are consumed, in order to allow their life cycle to continue. I shudder as I hold some of these moving insects in my palm. Back at the guest house, Vitsino boils the insects with dry ginger for a long time. After they are cooked, she boils off the water, allowing them to crisp up. In the meantime, I dutifully treat my stomach with wormwood tea.
When cooked, the borer insects have a pleasantly aromatic, woody flavour and we enjoy them with a dal enriched with freshly foraged ferns. As I consume this feast, I have a mounting appreciation for Naga cuisine. Meat may be significant, and something people in this region live to eat, but it is the bounty of wild greens, the variously textured grains, the versatile legumes, and the penetrating, umami flavour of fermented ingredients, that people eat to live. And when I witness the human energy required to cut and carry wood, and cook large pots of farmed food to feed and care for pigs, I understand why meat is meant to be an expensive commodity.
In the evening, when we gather around an elder from the community, I learn that the folk songs and tales of this village are also inextricable to the land, and what people make of it. Seno Tsuhah translates the stories, and some of them involve warriors and tigers, but others describe ancestors breaking down slopes and constructing terrace fields using the bones of cows as tools, or lovers leaving notes on forest paths while collecting food. In one story, two lovers are separated by mountains, but listen for each other’s echoing songs as they work the fields.
Perhaps my favourite folk tale is one about the origins of axoné. According to a story from the Sumi tribe, Khujunakaliu was a young orphan who was adopted by her uncle. She worked hard in the fields, but her aunt was unkind to her and gave her boiled soybeans, packed in dirty banana leaves, for lunch. Unable to stomach this dish, Khujunakaliu left her wrapped lunch packets in a hut near the field. After a few weeks, she smelled a funky aroma suffusing the hut. Khujunakaliu enjoyed the taste, shared it with friends, and axoné was invented. It seems appropriate that in Nagaland’s version of the Cinderella story, the discovery of a new ingredient is the happy ending.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “From Forest to Table”.
Orientation Khonoma village is located in southern Nagaland, 20 km west of the state capital Kohima. It is well known as the state’s first green village. It is popular with visitors because of its emphasis on conservation, a ban on hunting and cutting of trees. Chizami lies 100 km east of Khonoma.
Getting there Dimapur is the entry point to the state and its only civilian airport. Daily direct flights connect Dimapur with Kolkata and Dibrugarh. Dimapur railway station is connected to other northeastern states; the Jan Shatabdi from Guwahati affords lovely views along the journey. Kohima is 68 km/2 hr southeast of Dimapur (₹220 for a seat in a shared taxi from Dimapur airport or railway station to Kohima). Khonoma is an hour’s drive from Kohima and Chizami is a four-hour drive from Khonoma, via Kohima. Indians need an Inner Line Permit to visit Nagaland.
Hornbill Festival A convenient way to experience some of the foods and culture mentioned in this story is during the Hornbill Festival, a ten-day event which takes place in December each year. Details are available at www.hornbillfestival.com.
Food Tour The writer travelled on a recce for a food tour that he is now leading for Kipepeo, a socially conscious travel enterprise, which conducts tours throughout the Northeast. The 8-day Nagaland Food Trail takes guests to the villages of Khonoma and Chizami, and acquaints them with the local cuisine—farming methods, cooking traditions, and foraging techniques. It also includes a visit to a seed bank, a fruit wine tasting, and cooking sessions with locals (www.kipepeo.in; 8 days; ₹39,000 per person which includes accommodation, transport, all meals and cooking sessions; flights not included).