A taste of the North East

Apr 26, 2015, 06:16 IST | Kareena Gianani

Three Shillong residents have founded The North East Store, an online portal which ships common and rare delicacies from the cuisines of the North-Eastern states across the country, writes Kareena Gianani

A few years ago, Catherine Dohling, former online marketing professional, was returning to Hyderabad from her hometown, Shillong. In her many suitcases, apart from the usual luggage, she carried the tastes and memories of home -- ghost chillis, beef and pork pickles, homemade chutneys — things that she hoped would alleviate homesickness.

(L-R) The founders of the North East Store, Dhawal Singh, Catherine Dohling and Trideep Rabha

At the airport, Dohling, 29, shelled out R3,000 for ‘extra luggage’. “I was boarding a flight from Guwahati, and most other fliers with me faced the same predicament – they were North-Easterners returning to the cities they worked in with suitcases full of local North-Eastern foodstuff. Everyone paid thousands of rupees — not one person gave up their pickles and chutneys,” Dohling tells us over the telephone from Shillong, where she now lives.

While other travellers from the region muttered about the inconvenience, Dohling simply decided to do something about it. “If you hail from the North-East, the yearning of home-cooked food and local cuisine can never be satiated in most Indian metros. So, I thought, what if a start-up could deliver North-Eastern delicacies to the community’s doorstep anywhere in India?”

Closer to home
In December 2014, Dohling and her friends, Trideep Rabha, 29, and Dhawal Singh, 31, founded The North East Store, www.thenortheaststore.com, which ships foodstuff, handicrafts and handlooms from the eight northeastern states across India. Rabha, who was, like Dohling, was born in Shillong, had left his first job at Google and begun working at start-ups early on in his career. The stints, he says, gave him deep insight on launching The North East Store. “We’ve heard friends complain that in Delhi, which has a sizable North-Eastern population, has shops selling three Ghost chillies for R50! There was a demand just waiting to be met,” says Rabha.

Eri silk stole

The store works with farmers, self-help groups and NGOs across the eight North-Eastern states to ensure their products are made with local produce and raw materials. As of now, it sells ghost chillies and its sauce, Axone (dried, fermented soyabean), bamboo shoot, beef and pork pickles, smoked beef, Naga King Chilli, Ginger and Gooseberry Candy, Muga and Eri silk stoles, bamboo beer mugs, among other products.

Launching a start-up in the North-East, admits Rabha, is quite unlike setting it up elsewhere in the country. “People from the eight states shop online, of course, but the idea of launching a start-up is relatively new in the region. The government departments are largely ignorant of the how online shopping portals work, so the licences take a long time to come through. When we approached officials, they did not understand what we were trying to do, and we’d often tell them this is like Flipkart but from the North-East, and that we want to sell our food, handlooms and handicrafts to the rest of the country,” he chuckles.

A journey of discovery
The venture, of course, continues to pleasantly surprise the founders. The trio has begun experimenting with delicacies, travels to remote parts of the North-East to find indigenous fruits and plants, and learns how locals incorporate them in their cuisine. For instance, they recently stumbled upon the fruit sohphie, which grows only in Meghalaya (“I don’t even know what it is called in English or Hindi!” says Rabha). Luscious and tangy, it makes for mouthwatering pickle, which is now available on the website. “Then, while we researched teas outside Assam, we found that Nagaland and Meghalaya produce 11 varieties of excellent teas which are exported. We now plan to sell them on our store,” says Rabha. They are just as wooed by how locals in Assam and Manipur now make handicrafts from the water hyacinth, a weed. “It is more pliable than bamboo, and artists in Thailand already use it to craft beautiful handicrafts,” adds Dohling. The majority of the store’s clientele comprises people from the North-East working away from home. “However, we now see a rise in the number of clients who have trekked and travelled across the region, sampled the cuisines and want to continue experimenting with it. A client recently told us how he had lived in Nagaland for a year 25 years ago, and missed the region’s food sorely!” exclaims Rabha.

Dohling admits they launched the store rather cautiously, hoping to keep it small and cater to a limited number of people. “People, however, are more receptive than we thought and want to try out new products all the time. And the North-East never disappoints,” smiles Rabha.

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