Note: I am travelling at the moment and don’t seem to be able to upload my photos. Until I get back to namma Bengaluru, you’ll just have to make do with your imagination!
In one of the many Naga dialects, “Zingron” means “blessings of the morning sun”. And it seems that the sun has indeed risen on Naga cuisine in Bangalore, blessing food lovers with three restaurants opening around the city in the space of as many months. Two of them are located in Koramangala, my favorite stomping ground: Zingron and The N.E. Diner. The toss of a coin decreed that Zingron be the first one I checked out. Reviews of the other two will follow – in the fullness of time, of course
The 16 major tribes of Nagaland – and yes, there are many sub-tribes too – each have very distinctive cuisines that were dependent on what each tribe used to be able to hunt, gather, and preserve. One common thread is the use of monstrous amounts of chilli – and remember, we’re not just talking any old chilli here, we’re talking of the legendary raja mirch, a.k.a. bhoot jolokia, the world’s hottest chilli (it boasts a Scoville rating of between 855,000 and 1,359,000, while the fiery habanero pales in comparison at between 100,000 and 350,000). The Spouse evinced a proportional degree of trepidation – he is a self-confessed “spice wimp” – but the promise of snails, pork, and offal outweighed the dangers of sampling an unfamiliar cuisine.
Zingron is located on the road opposite the Mamoor Mosque, just off Koramangala’s busy 20th Main. Parking is, pardon my French, a bitch, especially at lunch time. I’m not sure how to specify which floor Zingron is on; a rather confused elevator requires you to push “1”, but if you take the stairs, it’s on the second floor. Go figure!
Stepping inside Zingron for the first time, the first thing that strikes you is the pervasive dull red glow cast by sunlight shining through deep red cotton curtains. It makes the restaurant overly dark – a rethink is probably in order. To the right of the entrance are low-slung woven wicker chairs and correspondingly low tables. Wistfully recalling the days when our knees wouldn’t loudly scream their protest at such a challenge, we seated ourselves at the “regular” chairs and tables. The crockery is longpi ham, traditional Manipuri black pottery, shaped by hand and stunning in its simplicity and elegance.
The Spouse, Vacuum Cleaner and I fell upon our menus with unseemly enthusiasm – and were instantly and completely overwhelmed. Zingron serves specialty dishes from several Naga tribes, including Ao, Tanghkul, and Lotha. A few incongruous crowd-pleasers dot the menu, especially in the appetizer section (chicken lollipop, anyone?) but other than that, it’s Naga food all the way, with a cursory nod to Manipuri cuisine as well. Vegetarians be warned: unless you opt for fried rice or noodles—neither of which find any place at the table of a self-respecting Naga – your only options are yam and potato. Not known for vegetarianism, are they, those headhunting Naga tribes?
Thankfully for us, Zingron’s staff was very helpful and knowledgeable about the food, making sensible recommendations and answering questions patiently. At our first meal, we began with smoked pork spare ribs in red chilli paste. Because the pork is preserved in salt before it is smoked, I found it a bit too salty for my taste – regardless of the fact that that’s how it’s supposed to taste. That apart, the meat was falling off the bone, the marinade robust enough to stand up to the salt. Spicy? Yes, but I didn’t think it was all that bad, so I enquired what chillies had been used. Apparently, they use local chillies so as not to kill off their customers. For the same reason, the ribs are served with a side of broccoli and Chinese cabbage – not even remotely Naga, but you’ll be thankful for it.
Encounter with the bhoot jolokia
The famed bhoot jolokia chutney is only brought to the table on request. So of course, we requested it. I placed only a dot – a very small dot, about the size of a sesame seed – on my tongue. A nice, smoky aroma made its way up my olfactory system… and about two seconds later, my tongue began to burn. Pleasantly. I loved the stuff! The Spouse, unfortunately, didn’t fare as well:
Me: Wow! That’s a kickass flavor! It’s nice and smoky. Yes, it is pungent, but it isn’t all that bad.
The Spouse: What smoky flavor? I can only taste fire.
Vacuum Cleaner: It’s not that bad, Papa.
The Spouse: Aaaargh! Sugar! Sugar! Water! Sugar! Aaargh!
Seriously, though – be very careful. Emboldened by the fact that I had survived an encounter with the famed Naga chilli, I decided that I could certainly handle a pea-sized amount. Within a minute, my eyes and nose were watering, my tongue was on fire, and – again, no exaggeration – my head was buzzing and parts of my face (upper lip and sinus areas) were tingling and numb. The only thing that could quell the inferno was a glass of shaksha theira - a refreshing, traditional drink of fermented gooseberry juice.
The delicacies of Nagaland
A very helpful staff member helped us decide on our entrées: mixed parts curry, anshe pork, and smoked pork in theishui (fermented soybean) curry, with steamed white rice and chicken chutney as accompaniments.
The chicken chutney consisted of a small bowl of shredded chicken tossed with green onions, onions, green chillis, and roasted black sesame seeds. The chicken was succulent, the flavors vivid and well-balanced, and the spice level tolerable. (It’s simple enough to make at home, yet adding it to simple meal of dal (lentils) and ricehas the same effect as dressing your jeans and T-shirt up with a black Valentino jacket). Spice quotient: 3.5 on a scale of 1-5.
“Anishe” refers to little cakes of dried, cooked yam stems and leaves that are used as the base for certain curries. There’s a very slight, almost undetectable bitter undertone to the greens, but it is overridden by the juicy bamboo shoots that somehow seem to enhance the flavor of the pork without even trying. Spice quotient: 2.5 on a scale of 1-5.
The Spouse loved the smoked pork in theishui, and declared it the best dish on the table despite the fact that it was very pungent (spice quotient: 4 on a scale of 1-5). Fermented soybean (better known as yellow miso) has a very characteristic bouquet: rich, earthy, and slightly vinegary. Coupled with the heat of red chillies, it provides the perfect foil for pork.
Vacuum Cleaner and I preferred the “mixed parts” – offal that included pork liver, kidneys, and intestines. The somewhat soupy curry revealed its complex layers of flavor as if each was a secret, carefully withheld until it couldn’t be kept for another second. The fatty offal offset the pungency to some extent; to my mind, this was the least spicy of the dishes we had tried so far. Spice quotient: 3 on a scale of 1-5.
Having binged on pork, I resolved that subsequent meals would feature fish or chicken. At a subsequent meal with a friend whose father hails from Assam, we sampled chicken cooked in bamboo shoot juice, and a fish dish (both of whose names escape me), with steamed rice, bhoot jolokia chutney, and two “salads”. If I had to recommend a non-pork dish to try at Zingron, it’s be the chicken in bamboo shoot juice. The flavors were mild, yet concentrated enough to escape being bland. The fish dish was very average - nothing to write home about. I would probably not order this dish again.
The first of our salads, ironba (shredded cabbage tossed with chillies and a mixture of ground, roasted channa dal (pigeon peas) and powdered black sesame seeds), turned out to be a winner. Although the yam and dried fish salad was tasty, it sounds better than it tasted. I felt that the yam was overcooked – it had become pasty rather than soft. Again, perhaps it is meant to be that way; it’s just not something I liked.
Overall, I thought Zingron was excellent value for money. Two glasses of shiksha theira, two salads, steamed rice, and two entrees, for instance, set me back by Rs.634 – and we had to doggy bag some of the leftovers. You gotta love a place that serves great food at honest prices… welcome to the neighborhood, Zingron!
No.62, 2nd Floor,
1st A Main Road,
7th Block, Koramangala,