Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Edible Ammunition

At the time Brian and I boarded the plane for India, my number one concern was the food. I read that there was no curry in Nagaland~~no Palak Paneer, no Tandoori Chicken, no delicious Lamb Korma or mango lasse. I had, in fact, read horror stories about the "99% non-vegetarian" Nagas eating spiders and grubs and cats and insects unknown to the Western world. While we were fully committed to going in with an open mind, we packed our bags with granola bars, just in case.

As it turns out, the food--at least the food that they offered and/or advised us to try--was more interesting than intimidating. Dishes included white rice, yams or bamboo shoots, and pork or chicken smoked in local spices, creating flavors that cannot be found outside of Nagaland. Any fear of identifying what were eating quickly gave way to the fear of the heat.

Nagaland, as documented by the Guinness Book of World Records, is home to the hottest chili in the world. The Naga chili, also known as the Naga jolokia or the Raja Mirch, scores over one million units on the Scoville scale for heat. For comparison, this is over 100 times spicier than the hottest jalapeno pepper and 401.5 times hotter than Tobasco sauce. The only thing hotter than the Naga chili is the government-controlled pepper spray that is used as a self-defense weapon. In 2009, scientists at India's Defense Research and Development Organization actually announced plans to use Naga chilis in hand grenades as a non-lethal way to force terrorists out of hideouts and to control riots.

"But what about that woman who rubs them in her eyes?" we asked. Theja knew the exact woman we were talking about--the one who has earned all of the Internet hits on "Indian Woman Rubs 24 Chillies On Eyes and Breaks World Record". As it turns out, this woman was born without the ability to sense this form of pain. As she rubs the chilis into her eyes, she actually cannot feel anything at all. The rest of it is just acting.
If you have not yet seen this short video clip where Gordon (the cook) goes to Nagaland, it is DEFINITELY worth checking out. You'll see some of the people we met, the landscape we traversed and, yes, the woman who rubs chilis in her eyes:


I have also read that, historically, the Naga diet has also been influenced by religious beliefs and customs preceding the arrival of the Baptist missionaries. No part of the animal, for example, was to be thrown away. Certain animals were restricted for reason that their undesirable qualities would transfer to the eater. Women, for example were (are?) not allowed to eat monkeys so as not to become extravagent. Pregnant women were (are?) not allowed to eat bear as the bear is considered a stupid animal. The tiger and the leopard were (are?) also restricted due to the belief that man, tiger, and spirit were all brothers at the beginning of creation. I cannot confirm that any of these eating restrictions are still true today. I can only confirm that I did not eat monkey, bear, or tiger meat during our visit and am therefore cleared from any of these ailments or inflictions.

Brian's favorite dishes included smoked pork with Anishi and Axone. I thoroughly enjoyed the rice beer, especially when it came in a big bamboo mug with a hollow bamboo straw. If a fly on the wall ever caught me sneaking granola bars when no one was looking, it was only* because I had misinterpreted the word "mild" when I filled up my plate.

*This is not 100% true. In the second photograph, you will see that Brian is eating squirrel. I just couldn't do it. I had to pass. Thank god for those granola bars. :)

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