Dish of The Month: Naga Pork Curry
By: Madhulika Dash
A synonym of Naga food today, the iconic Naga Pork Curry isn't just a masterpiece of aromas and taste, but one of the best Slow Food dishes that truly represent Naga's acute will to remain unmastered!
ABOUT THE DISH: 1942: Japan wages a war against Burma. Nagaland, an unwilling party to war, is dragged in as a kingdom owned by the former country. Thousands of head hunting tribal men are gathered and taken to the warzone, while those left behind are constantly shifted for safety.
Amidst all this, Ursula Graham Bower, amateur anthropologist, quietly leads a small battalion of hill women, who walk down every day to carry 60 quintals of water to the refugee canteen to cook food for the passengers. On the menu today is Naga Pork Curry, steam rice and spiced wild ferns, all packed with two pickled Naga chillies in a box, should the rail head decide to scoot out in a hurry.
- Little did Bower, who learnt to make the pork curry at her initiation into the tribe back in 1936, fathom that this little skill will be instrumental for her, and her men's survival, when she led her Naga army against the Japanese a few weeks later. It was her battle hardened instinct and the ability to wrestle the comfort food with ease that would soon earn her the title of Naga Queen...
But Bower was among the few non-Nagas who took this iconic dish to the world, the story of Naga comfort food origin is still mystery. Evolved through influences from the neighbouring states like Sikkim and Manipur, legend has it that the Naga Pork Curry came out of the Feast of Merit. Long before tribal villages become kingdoms, the Naga Tribes observed a community kitchen cooking called the Feast Of Merit, where each household at the end of the day had to give one ingredient to the central kitchen to cook a lavish meal for the entire head hunting community that ate together in the common ground in the centre of the village. Helmed by innovative chefs, the pork curry could have been an innovation of one such kitchen.
Interestingly, the fact that each tribe has its unique style of making the pork curry with the real difference in any two dishes being the use of two core ingredients -- one, is the chilli, which can be the naga chilli, raja mirch or bhut jalokia; and two, the key flavourant that either is with fermented akhuni/axone or soyabean paste or fermented bamboo shoots – only seconds the theology. Learn how to make the iconic Naga Pork Curry (Awoshi Kipiki Ngo Axone)
One of the first dishes taught to both girls and boys at every Naga home, the beauty of this curry aside the fact that it uses smoked pork is the recipe – since ages there has been minimal change to the tribe-perfected recipe.
Literally oil free, what makes a good Naga Pork Curry is the crispness of the pork. In spite of the curry, a good Pork curry will have the bite in pork with that smokey aftertaste, much like that of akhuni or bamboo shoots.
No wonder, the simple 6-ingredient wonder has appealed to taste across the world. ABOUT THE CHEF:
A few years ago, when Joel Basumatrai decided to leave a plush job in the hotel and head home to Nagaland, Dimaur, many called his decision to shift, a haste. Only Joel knew the 'benefits' of being an early bird to do so. Today a known specialist of Naga cuisine and an integral part of the Slow Food Chef's Association, Joel's work 'edible insects' have been recognised worldwide.
The trick to making a good pork curry, says Chef Basumatari, Smokey Joe's Restaurant & Grill, "is to cook it right. Traditionally, cooking the pork is done without any water in an earthen pot until the fat in the pork comes out naturally and floats in the water as oil. This is a sign that the pork has crisped enough to give that bite and succulent enough to take the natural flavours of other ingredients."
In fact, Dimapur-based Basumatari's signature Naga Pork Curry follows this old style of cooking as the dish as it helps him play with more flavours. Slow cooking, adds the seasoned Chef, is the only way you can balance the fermented taste as the axone slowly loses its sharp taste. The other advantage of course is that it also ensures that the ingredients also impart intense natural flavours, so there is little need to add any spices, except for the spice quotient that can be made to taste."