Nagaland is well-known for its unique cuisine that uses indigenous ingredients. Nagamese food is not just about what you eat, but also about the love and lives of the hill people, passed down from generations.
If you visit Dimapur, I would highly recommend that you eat at ‘Ethnic Table’, run by Aketoli Zhimomi who wears many hats. She is the Winner of Naga Chef Season 1 and also the owner of the ‘Eat More’ pickle brand. Ethnic Table is a family-run restaurant, where meals are mostly cooked by her and her mother, along with two other women family members – it is an out and out an all-women team!
Our meal started with chilled tall glasses of Ice Tea made from Konyak tea and local citrus fruits.
The food arrived on wooden platters – local Red Rice, steamed French Mustard Greens and Bitter Gourd boiled with some local herbs. What attracted us most was ‘Aikibiye’, a dish with subtle flavours and cooked with Yam sour greens, just the right accompaniment to balance out the meat dishes.
There were baby brinjals, which were done just right with Pork and Akhuni. Made from fermented soya beans, Akhuni is an integral ingredients of Naga cooking, imparting ubiquitous aroma and is definitely an acquired taste.
The pork ribs that were served were nothing like you have tasted before! They had crisp skin, and were served with a sauce made from local black peppers called Khamieti. These peppers are different in taste from regular black peppers and has milder heat with a minty flavour.
Naga Dal is cooked with beans such as Kholar Beans, local kidney beans and Mejanga leaves (Zanthoxylum leaves), along with some fresh ginger and garlic, and of course Raja Mircha or King Chilli. The use of oil is practically absent, and food is slow cooked in its own juice.
Accompanying our meals were some delicious dips and chutneys. A dry fish and fresh Pennywort with chilli and tomatoes. My favourite chutney was smoked chilli and tomatoes with Napa flowers.
Aketoli laments that most people have a preconceived notion about the Naga cuisine, as the cuisine is so much more than Pork and Bamboo shoot! They served various millet and local corns – all nutritious and healthy. They forage the forest and eat things that nature provides, without tampering the ecological balance. Sitting and listening about Naga cuisine from her and Chef Joel Basumatari was quite a learning experience for us. Lemon tea kept us hydrated through our meal and conversations.
Aketoli also has her own brand of Pickles ‘Eat More’, which she makes using local chillies, peppers and seasonal vegetables. Her passion shines through all her work. Otherwise, how else would you explain so much love in pounding, cooking hundreds of kilos of fiery chillies that leave her hands burning and eyes stinging?
Her other signature dish for large gatherings such as weddings, and celebrations of dignitaries and state guests, is her slow roasted whole suckling pig. It takes her over 2 days to cook in a large pan over wood fire. She shares that it was this dish that won her the title of the first Naga Chef and brought home a tidy cash award of Five Lakh Rupees. her smile is infectious and she considers herself lucky lady with a year-old baby girl in her arms.
The interior of the restaurant is done tastefully and with simple local accents. She is a gracious hostess, patiently explaining and answering every question that I asked her.
Ethnic Table creates traditional dishes, preserving the Naga cuisine and showcasing Aketoli’s versatility of treating local products. There are no menu cards, a board that announces the day’s cooking, fresh and seasonal ingredients. The place is reasonably priced; a hearty meal for two can be enjoyed in just Rs 1000. Meal here is a testament of her dedication and her love for food.