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Steamed pumpkins, fermented yam leaves and cured pork, the food festival at St Regis picks the best of Naga cuisine for Mumbaikars
It's no secret that North Eastern food is grossly underrepresented in Mumbai. The options are just a handful-Café Thotrin, a tiny eatery in Kalina that serves Naga and Manipuri food, and the occasional restaurant pop-up. While steaming momos and soulful thukpa might be accessible, real Naga food is hard to come by. Which is why when we heard that chef Karen Yepthomi, owner of Delhi's Dzukou Tribal Kitchen, is offering traditional fare from the region for the next ten days at Seven Kitchen, St Regis Mumbai, we were stoked.
The inaugural night of the food festival saw Padma Shri awardee photographer Pablo Bartholomew conduct an illustrated talk on Nagas and the tribal lifestyle from a two-decade-old photo project. Present in the crowd was singer Papon, who hails from Assam. But the star of the evening was the effervescent chef Yepthom, who unleashed an extensive spread comprising her signature preparations that included anishi (fermented yam leaves), axone (fermented soya bean), fresh bamboo shoots, dried fish, akighi (raw beans) and Naga sticky rice. But, before we plunge into details of our gastronomical journey, it's important to remember that the key to Naga food is fermentation. The community usually smokes, dries and ferments their meat for longevity, which gives the food a distinct flavour. It might not be up everybody's street, but it has the potential to enslave you like it did when this writer visited the Northeast earlier this year. Also, the preparations are usually are oil-free, and therefore healthy.
Although pork is the hero ingredient in North East cuisine, the menu is a good balance of red meat, chicken, and vegetables given Mumbai's diverse palette. We were particularly pleased to see baby pumpkin paired with baby spinach. There was also yam curry with rosella flowers (more power to underrated ingredients). Rosella flowers grow on the hibiscus plant and are known to be dense with nutrients. The taste is mild and comforting. Yet, it's an acquired taste. The raja mircha chutney that comes from the famous king chilly, raja mircha, in the North East, however, lacks the signature spiciness.
There 's also an assortment of salads to tuck into but we enjoyed the with chayote (squash), and the shredded lamb with Naga herbs. Between the red rice and white rice, we chose the former and paired it with pork with anishi. One of the most popular dishes from the state, anishi is made out of yam leaves and complements smoked meats like pork, smoked eel, fish.
Dessert came in the form of a steamed cake wrapped in a leaf. Although termed as dessert, it doesn't come with the customary sweetness. In fact, we find it savoury. It's the sweet potato with rosella sauce that floors us.
Overall, the food, although served at a five-star, doesn't play to the gallery. It retains its originality, giving Mumbai a true taste of Naga cuisine.
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