A tiny drop of devilish bhoot jholokia-infused oil that can send steam out of your ears, fritters and stews of sweet and sour vegetables picked fresh from forests and open fields, incredibly fragrant rice from sprawling paddy farms, offal used in ingeniously toothsome concoctions, slow-cooked and smoked meat that just melts in your mouth, and so much more – the secrets and surprises of cuisines from the innumerable communities and tribes of the seven states of India’s North East are a treasure that is not yet as widespread as it deserves to be.
While the country’s capital (in its numerous dedicated state ‘bhavans’) and other burgeoning metropolises house a more diverse set of options when it comes to indulging in heretofore undiscovered North Eastern fare, Pune has a more diminutive selection, which, nonetheless, is infinitely fascinating.
Khorisa, for one, is the city’s only major East Indian food-specialising establishment, serving a plethora of (mainly) Assamese and Bengali delicacies – and the occasional unique addition from other North Eastern regions – as the owner duo hails from these two states. The ingredients that make up most of the menu here are sourced fresh from hundreds of kilometres away, making for incomparable flavour. Here, you can expect the pungent sourness of smoked bamboo shoot adding bunches of character to every other dish, and the starchy, mildly bitter banana flower featured with peppery chicken or in a simple fritter. Melting chunks of ridge gourd, ash gourd and pointed gourd mingle with elephant yam, while khar and tenga (acidic and alkaline elements, a mainstay of Assamese food) abound in sabres, dals and curries to be devoured with aromatic, short-grained, sticky bora bhaat, or typical pithikas (mashes) of aloo. From the vast open stretches of Meghalaya comes the Garo tribal dish of pork with roasted tomatoes, while a simple ginger and herb steamed chicken soup provides incomparable succour. There is duck or kumura fry with a variety of unusual greens – for instance, lai xaak or mustard greens – and even a piquant fish curry with the more familiar paleng xaak (spinach). If the à la carte options are simply too overwhelming for you, there is a very competent choice of thalis to give you a little taste of myriad specialties. And, to finish, the superbly simple mihidana (sweet gram flour pearls), which is both a favoured Assamese and Bengali sweetmeat, is doused in lashings of fresh cream for a wholesome, rustic end to the meal.
Over across town at The Flying Duck, the menu centres around a very Asian Fusion sort of ethos. However, given the origins of the enterprising owners, a special niche has been carved out around bringing North Eastern flavours to the city, too. For one, there is a subtle, eye-wateringly good hint of bhoot jholokia chilli in almost every alternate item. Just for a little background, the ghost chilli was once classified as the hottest pepper in the world; “400 times hotter than tabasco sauce… rated at more than 1 million Scoville heat units,” cites Wikipedia. So, expect to break out in a more-than-mild sweat while digging in to their ghost chilli chicken or bhetki, but be assured that the experience for your tastebuds is like no other. They also serve a sumptuous Assam-style laksa with mackerel fish, as well as nourishing little pockets of steaming hot pork dumplings. A hint of pungent fish sauce in their butter garlic prawns, or the addition of distinctive bamboo shoot in their carabeef stir-fry make all the difference, while what sets their smoked duck or kumura special apart – the establishment’s name is a hat-tip to the latter – is all in the cooking, rendering these usually gamey meats to a point where they simply dissolve on your tongue. The ridiculously soft fresh pork here is showcased in a variety of avatars – drowned in nutty black sesame gravy, tossed with taro (colocasia) leaves, or immersed in their secret ‘special sauce’ – all pairing well with piles of herbed, buttered or plain rice. Another cannot-miss here is the quail – a whole bird fried crisp and served with flavoured rice and fiery gravy, both of which perfectly complement the juiciness of the meat, which may be difficult to extract, but is rewarding in equal measure. Of special note to North East-fare aficionados is the weekend menu here, serving up an authentic selection of dishes such as Naga pork curry, tenga fish thekera (delicate dried mangosteen), kharoli (fermented mustard mash) and lots more.
Yet another option for demolishing this elusive set of cuisines is a much rarer occasion, but one that has made its presence felt in the city several times over the last few years. Mumbai-based chef Gitika Saikia, who originally hails from Assam, has conducted a couple of pop-ups across homes and restaurants here, serving not just a menu of comfort food close to her heart, but also once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Sample for size her polu leta (silk worm) stir fry, which is fat, crispy pupae of the insect served in a zesty stir fry, yielding soft flesh that is not entirely unlike some crustacean fruit de mer; celebrating the harvest festival of Bihu with a meal for a select audience here, the enterprising cook has also whipped up the likes of a salad-sabzi of amlori aru koni (red ant eggs with hen eggs), which is a slightly tangy, inimitably crunchy dish that has an amusing old wives’ anecdote attached to its origin back in her home state. In fact, such little nuggets of information come served with almost every other item, such as the fatty goose with ash gourd (“a winter specialty with the bird ideally fed only white rice”), or the peppery stew of boney pigeon chunks with bland potato. I especially savoured the most unexpected maas’or moor aru petu bhoja, an appealingly oily dish of fish head and intestines swirled with vegetables such as eggplant. Saikia also retails distinctive little jars of pickle from her online portal, Gitika’s Pakghor, comprising gems such as Indian olive, pork, bamboo shoot and, of course, bhoot jholokia. To finish, there is always the light purple, nut-studded dessert of kola bora payokh, a liquid pudding or kheer of sweet black sticky rice.
If only we could have even more!
Follow Shweta @ShwetaKapur
Shweta has been writing about food for a few years now and has dabbled in TV, print and online journalism for over almost a decade. She has written on and edited for topics ranging from the environment, culture and lifestyle to politics, business and, of course, food. She has written for publications under the Times Group, Fox Life India and NDTV. When she's not devouring a good book or spending vast swathes of time on the Interweb, she loves to set off on all manner of culinary explorations.