Monday, April 12, 2010

Postcard from Theyie - About food of the Ao tribe in Nagaland

Dear Rushina,
I’ve gone on and on about axone and the magical way in which it can transform a good pot of pork. But I would be doing a great injustice to Naga cuisine if I just stopped at what I love about Sumi (from the Sema Naga Tribe) food. The Ao tribe in Nagaland is known for a number of fabulous ingredients and dishes. Arina would be happy to know that this tribe cooks up some of the most delectable vegetable preparations (straight from the meat eater’s mouth). My favourite, being conjured up mentally as I write this, is Rüsep (don’t know if I’ve spelt it right). An potpourri of assorted native leaves and vegetables, Rüsep unravels in the mouth in layers of deliciously contradictory flavours and textures. And I have had the good fortune to be related to and know some really wonderful Ao women in my life! Each makes her Rüsep differently, like a signature, preferring some vegetable over the other or putting more of one. One version that I enjoy in particular is the one my good friend Naro makes.
In 2007, after having taught in college for a year, I decided to take a big step and move out of home (where I lived with my parents) and into a staff quarter on the college campus. The college I taught in is situated in a truly idyllic village called Jotsoma, about half and hour’s drive from Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. It’s also much colder than Kohima, which is quite cold to begin with. As I settled into my new apartment, I would more often than not invite myself to Naro’s apartment, to chat, eat and laugh. And as winter approached, the dish of choice was Rüsep. Naro’s version has a hearty amount of Mezinga, a thorny local jungle vegetable, which is bitter, has a hot peppery taste and stings the tongue, just perfect for the Jotsoma winter. A prolific and accomplished cook, Naro would expertly whip up a rich broth of local snails (from the terrace fields) and pumpkin and serve it with Rüsup and hot local rice. Needless to say, these were cherished times.
I have since made it a point to learn how to make Rüsep from the Ao women in my life. And I have learnt that I have a long way to go. Making Rüsep is an art that requires patience (you slow cook the vegetables), knowledge of how each of the vegetables taste and therefore what each can contribute to the overall flavor (something I am still wary of doing given my aversion to vegetables). And then of course, there’s the fact that I’m in Mumbai and very far away from the wealth of local plants and vegetables at home. So I have to make do with the wealth of vegetables here which are very alien to me. Nevertheless, the occasional craving for Rüsep finds me frantically sniffing and tasting (raw) vegetables in the market. The other day, I made some, here’s what I put in it.

Brinjals – the small purple ones, the weird (really) green, grey patterned ones, the green ones; bitter gourd (just one), dried yam stem (from Nagaland), dried bamboo shoot (again from home), and some bamboo shoot water. My very average photography skills apart, I have discovered that Rüsep doesn’t photograph very well (Can foods/dishes be ‘photogenic’?). Something I know you will be able to help me correct. Till then, you’ll just have to taste and see.

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