Tastes Like Home: In Indian metros, the birth of the ‘northeast shop’

Shops packed with little known ingredients from the seven sister states are feeding not just its people, but the curiosity of Bangaloreans

He calls it the Frankenstein sauce — a fiery red chutney that “packs a goddamn wallop”, with a touch of Korean Gochujang and an abundance of fermented Naga chillies.

When last December, chef Gautam Krishnankutty, introduced his experimental new sauce on Instagram, the entire batch — 25 bottles — sold out in one hour. Earlier his very unorthodox Chinese Doubanjiang paste, with an unusual dollop of axone, or fermented soybean from Nagaland, was “gone in three hours,” he says.

A few years ago, it would have been hard for the Bengaluru-based chef to even imagine making — let alone, selling — these unusual dishes, contingent on ingredients sourced all the way from Northeast India. “But now the ingredients are just a phone call away,” he says.

Or, if one were to brave the Bengaluru traffic, a drive.

In the heart of the city, in a locality called Ejipura, is the ‘7 Sisters Northeast Shop’, Krishnankutty’s go-to place for “anything Northeast.”

In the tightly-packed space, adjacent to a butcher, bunches of yangchok/petai‘stinky’ beans lie alongside recycled plastic rum bottles filled with fermented bamboo shoot. Churbi cheese cubes from Kalimpong jostle for space with packets of Sirarakhong chilli powder from Manipur. Korean instant noodles hang with an array of beauty products, and behind the counter lined with packets of smoked-pork is the smiling face of Chinaoshim Hongvah, the 31-year-old owner of the shop, also from Manipur.

On a Friday afternoon, Hongvah and his cousin are busy parcelling a package of smoked meat, meant to be shipped to Goa. “Ever since I got on to Instagram, it’s become terribly busy,” he says, his two-year-old toddler strapped to his back.

So busy that in the next few weeks another cousin from Manipur will join him to help around the shop. Or possibly, in the future, open his own.

Across Ejipura — a neighbourhood that is home to several youngsters from the Northeast — is a proliferation of what is described simply as a “Northeast shop”, selling produce from the region, including fresh vegetables, fish, and dry ingredients, sourced from the seven sisters states and beyond — Myanmar, Korea, Bangladesh and Nepal.

“I am so far away in a city that feels nothing like home,” says Hongvah, when he finally catches a break, “But the minute I step into my shop, I get reminded of home.”

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in March 2021. Full article here.