Hunger quenching foods of Nagaland


Food is the elixir of existence and hunger determinant. Food becomes relevant when there is hunger and there are moments when the choicest of cuisines disgusts us when we are not hungry.

My food trail in Nagaland took me through 5 districts and interaction with diverse individuals and groups from different tribes within Nagaland. In Nagaland, concept of famine food is prevalent since the late 1950s and early 1960s due to both natural epidemics and context of wars.  Foods which curbs hunger are indeed a context, which determine the survival mechanism of the communities in moments of desperation.

  As Prof. Anungla Aier, Principal of Kohima Science College would pose it – “Whenever we have nothing to eat we look at the wild varieties in our forests which sustain us through the moments of deep hunger and despair. In today’s era most of such foods are abandoned foods which are no longer available in markets, farms or in kitchens.”  But there are communities in the rural areas whose indigenous knowledge about such abandoned foods are in the oral realm. So food is very relative and contextual within the living environment.

The element of hunger is so deep rooted that communities in subsistence economies have evolved the practices of living with bare minimum. During my interaction with Mr. Shiwong, cultural enthusiast and oral historian from the Konyak tribe in Mon district of Nagaland he shared that foods which curbed hunger includes yam, yuya or yuliya (thorny fruit creeper) a nut inside. He said, “Even during the headhunting times, people used to carry rice beer in bamboo containers and they would just smell it but not eat it to sustain themselves in the hideouts. The yuya or yuliya seed is also a hunger buster and mostly one seed is enough to provide necessary energy and nutrition along with a glass of water.”  Mr. Shiwong stressed on the fact that there are various forbidden and poisonous foods in today’s times but in the past, the Konyak tribe has survived hunger by consuming such foods.

There are varieties of ferns, wild potato, wild beans, wild banana roots, sago palm tree inside stem which are also used to make flour and them steam it to make cakes out of it to beat the hunger pangs. Regarding the use of Sago palm tree, Prof. Aier also found out in her anthropological research in Zuneboto district of Nagaland. That, communities are forbidden to cut the sago palm tree during the seasons they have enough food to eat. The reason being, in the Jhum fields, farmers used to dig the stem alone and they used to die under the heap of earth even while digging. So people were forbidden from cutting that tree and also from going to the Jhum fields alone. Thus Sago palm tree stands tall in the farm-forest lands of some districts of Nagaland. The oral traditions about this tree blended very well after I could meet the community groups from Mon district and Zuneboto district.

Millets, maize, red rice, local rice, tapioca, banana and sticky rice are all part of foods which can curb hunger across Nagaland. Such foods are used in different ways by the diverse communities. These foods help during long travels, field work for the whole day and also during famine and war. It is a great revelation to understand the contexts of such food choices when the externalities are hostile and resources are limited. Communities work in harsh climate conditions and hunger pangs cannot be reduced with only the limited stocks of food available in public domain.

Foods which enhance hunger are also equally important to note in this context. In fact, sometimes they become the forbidden foods so that hunger quotient can be regulated. In the urban context we have the concept of appetizers which will enhance hunger, but in rural Nagaland, most of the sour tastes are the food which enhances hunger. Gooseberries, wild apple, bamboo shoot, lemon, tamarind, passion fruit and even the rice from ration shops are foods which enhance hunger. In fact when famine occurred after bamboo flowering in late 1950s, relief rice was distributed in Nagaland according to Prof. Aier and that was the time when she was a child and faintly remembers how that variety of rice would always enhance hunger. Prof. Aier fondly remembers her grandmother who always used to value the traditional farm foods and would always remind her of the taste of the season when it came to food. So many foods which were grown as fruits, roots, tubers and ferns maintained the perfect balance in the olden times.

According to Chef Joel Basumatari, presentation of the food is the key to enhance hunger. The very look of the food fills the stomach. His restaurant at Dimapur in Nagaland, ‘Smokey Joe’s’ is a blend of local ingredients, authentic flavours and contemporary presentation. Chef Joel was also a gourmet chef whose culinary skills represented the flavours of Nagaland during the taste workshops at the indigenous terra madre in Shillong this November. His flavourful presentation of insects left the food connoisseurs enthralled. According to Chef Joel, ‘By 2050, food famine will compel people to go for high protein insect diet which comprises of bamboo worm, carpenter worm, bee, silkworm and spider’. In an era when food fusion, fast food and processed foods are dominating the food industry, a professional chef is promoting foods which have indigenous flavours and local ingredients. That is indeed a pleasant contrast which can go a very long way in promoting healthy foods which enhances hunger and also curbs hunger. Chef Joel is also innovating desserts during feasts, social occasions and community festivals. Some of the signature desserts of Chef Joel are Red Sticky Rice dipped in chocolate cubes and organic coconut, Mango millet cheesecake, Dessert with Squash. For him, the visual appeal, customer palatability and choice of customers in tweaking the menu are the key ingredients of promoting foods which enhances hunger.

In my zeal to explore foods which influences the hunger quotient, I understood that Nagaland has many hidden treasures of Good Food which can sustain the taste, aroma, hunger, nutrition and palate in the most effective ways. An inherited food culture has been layered passionately with modern needs of the culinary tastes with the stronghold of ingredients from local food growers, traditional seed keepers and herbalists whose knowledge and choice of foods have strengthened generations of Naga people.

(This article is written under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship on Good Food).

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Dr. Samhita Barooah
 is Educator and QueerUp Founder