How to Eat Heat Like a Naga

In keeping with the Naga theme, I thought it might be helpful to offer a couple of recipes. You can read about the Nagas to get a sense of who they are. Then eat their food, and you will understand far better. Of course, villagers rely almost entirely on locally grown ingredients, so some substitutions must be made. But here are two common Naga recipes relatively amenable to the non-Naga kitchen:

Raja relish

This raging-hot side dish is a popular accompaniment to meat and other vegetable dishes. The recipe comes from Tuophema Tourist Village, with amendments for foreign kitchens

1 fresh Naga raja chile, chopped (substitute the hottest habanero you can find; two if you dare)
1 tree tomato (tamarillo; substitute a tart-ish, perhaps slightly unripe tomato)
10 pieces of Naga onion, chopped (local garlic; substitute sharp green onions)
Small piece of ginger, chopped
Pinch of salt

Pound everything, using a wooden mortar and pestle. Locals throughout east and northeast India believe pounding by hand is key to flavor. Using a blender or other blade does not produce the same flavor.

Naga gravy

This recipe also comes from Tuophema, where villagers demonstrated their cooking for me. But I ate this “gravy” in many places. It’s more like a dip, with the consistency a bit like hummus.

1-2 fresh Naga raja chiles (substitute hot habanero)
1 tsp fermented soybean paste*
½ tsp fermented pork fat**
1-2 cloves garlic
1 Naga tree tomato (substitute tart green tomato or small Asian eggplant)
1 potato
1 small slice ginger, smashed
1 handful Naga herb, nienhyu (fuzzy white flower that smells and tastes of lemongrass; substitute the soft white part of a lemongrass stalk, finely chopped or grated)
1 handful saw-leaf herb (Mexican coriander or culantro)

Boil chile, potato, tomato, fermented soybean paste and fermented pork fat until soft, a few minutes. Add smashed ginger. Let boil a long time, about 15 minutes. Remove everything from the pot and smash the ingredients using a wooden mortar and pestle. Return to pot, boil one more minute, adding the crushed herbs.

*Fermented soybean paste recipe from The Essential North-East Cookbook by Hoihnu Hauzel:

Wash 1 kg soybeans and cook under pressure with 1 liter of water for about two hours until very soft. Strain and discard liquid. Wash strained beans in cold water and drain well. Wrap 2 tbsp of beans in banana leaves to make small parcels. Place parcels in an airtight container for 3-4 days in warm weather or 5 days in cold weather.

**Nagas believe fermented pork fat MUST accompany fermented soybean paste, otherwise the dish is ruined. Perhaps lard could be substituted. (I should say I personally have never made fermented pork fat, but it has a most remarkable scent and flavor, which adds dimension to Naga cuisine.) To make fermented pork fat: cook the fat and set it aside for two or three days. Then cook it again and keep it in a covered container. I’m told to be careful with the amount when adding this to recipes. Too much, and the dish tastes bitter. Too little and the dish is incomplete.

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