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| Last Updated:: 30/05/2014

~Naga Food~


Axone: wicked aroma, enchanting taste!

The taste for Naga food has to be acquired and cultivated, and there’s no argument about it. Period. Some first timers love it at first encounter; others totally abhor it, while still others eventually grow to understand and accept its taste and then begin to love it. You simply cannot sit on the fence about your like or dislike for Naga food, especially axone. No one can be indifferent to Naga food. It’s “either” “or” – meaning, you ‘either’ love it ‘or’ you hate it. Period. Or sometimes, most times, you begin to love it when you are more and more exposed to its wonderful peculiarity.

My friend from student days, who now lectures in the same university, rang me up very unexpectedly. I asked her what “gift” she’d like from Nagaland. She promptly replied, “Just parcel me some axone.” I was always amused at the way she used to munch on dry axone like she was popping pop corns into her mouth. I would repeatedly remind her to go slow on the axone when it was prepared in spicy chutney form. She would simply gobble it down like it was a main dish, say like sarso mach or aloo sabji.

During a North East Food Fest, a lady brought a container of axone. She warned the gathered foodies, “It smells of s_ _t, ooops, sorry, No. 2, you know what’s No. 2, right?” I knew that No. 1 meant to take a leak, so I guessed that No. 2 meant the other thing. A male participant who never saw or tasted axone in his life volunteered eagerly to open the can and sniff the famous aroma. He of course, didn’t believe that anything could possibly smell of something that the lady just mentioned. So he dug his nose and took a very deep breath into the can of hydrogen sulphide explosives!

My greatest regret that day was not having a camera to capture his facial expression. It read of indescribable and utter...horror, or something close to that! We thought he’d passed out, or perhaps peed in his pants! He looked stoned. Then as the centre of everyone’s attention, he decided to do something real fishy. He seemed to be the showy kind, but in an entertaining sort of way. He was an artist after all, in other words, a sport; he was game anything unpredictable!

He decided he wanted to taste the thing that he just smelled and died momentarily! So he dug his finger and licked it pompously and guess what, he appeared to like it! He later confessed, “The taste is heavenly; just ignore the septic tank bit and all will be fine.” One thing about artists, they make the world go round!

Sometime back in a Performing Arts Workshop, some Artists from the capital had come to Dimapur. Adventurous as they were, they decided to sample ethnic and authentic Naga delicacies. What could be more Naga than pork cooked in axone? They kept eating it regularly and made it a point to visit restaurants specializing entirely on Naga cuisine only. I was impressed, in fact utterly knocked off by their adaptability. Here’s what one of the senior Artist commented, “At first I couldn’t stand the smell, then I told myself that I should be able to eat anything anywhere in the world. So I trained myself to think and be Naga; I started to enjoy the food, even this ghastly thing, what do you call it? Yes, axone!” Another Artist called me up one day, “Help, I can’t adjust back to north Indian food, what should I do?”

A friend of mine who’s now settled in the US, very tearfully told me, “Sue, you must come visit me sometimes and cook for me axone.” Goodness gracious me, all the way to the US...just to cook axone? No way!

I really wonder what this craze, in fact, this obsession for axone is all about. I can eat it, but I’m certainly not “obsessed” with it. In fact when the neighborhood is reeking with the smell, I mean aroma, I need to take a walk in the open fields and get some fresh air into my lungs. Talking of obsession, I’ve been told a real corny story by a lady who runs a Naga restaurant, whose clientele is mostly non-Naga. This is the corny story: “Mr. A and Mrs. B are weekend visitors to our restaurant. Mrs. B told me that Mr. A holds up her hands to his nose and blissfully goes off to sleep after a satisfying axone meal.” Can’t get cornier than this I tell you.

I can understand Nagas being obsessed with axone, but for those who have to cultivate the taste for something so alien to their birth’s quite another story. The Sumi Nagas are terribly fond of axone. It’s their specialty. I am amazed to learn that they use this item as a taste maker. It’s used not only in chutneys and dried pork curry, but also in chicken and fish items, in vegetable stew and even in daal, yes daal!

The flavor of axone differs from community to community in Nagaland. For instance, you have the Sumi flavor, the Ao flavor, the Angami flavor and so on. My occasional favorite is Angami flavor. It’s totally pungent, can even sting the eyes and take you straight to the moon; but the taste, the cultivated and acquired taste is quite another thing. I used to buy great tasting axone and it looked ‘grey’ in color but I never questioned it. Surely it had nothing to do with the dubious story where a certain person used to mix something ‘fishy’ in order to enhance the flavor! But what the heck, if we can swallow horse urine and cow dung in some ayurvedic concoctions, what’s the big deal? And how do we even attempt to differentiate ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ these days?
I’m a foodie no doubt; but I have no partiality or soft corner for any particular type of food as such. I can eat anything, anywhere, but mind you not in bulk, just a pinch here and a pinch there, much like how a bird pecks on grains and relishes it. I may be a foodie but I certainly won’t eat raw fish eyes and drink seal blood like the way Anthony Bourdain does, or eat monkey brain straight out of its skull, viva-la Indiana Jones style.

However, among Naga food items, I don’t mind an occasional frog dish cooked in bamboo shoot, hornet larvae in tomato slices or river snails in axone! Yummmmy! As a guest, if my Naga host asked me politely what I eat, I usually say, “Anything. Kintu kukur, billie,saap aru kisem kisem puka khan nakhai. Baki to sob khai.” Anyone for food adventure? Welcome to Nagaland.

(Written by Susan Waten, the edited version came out in NEZCC’s recently released book,
“Food Trail-discovering food culture of northeast India”, compiled and edited by Aiyushman Dutta, 2012)