The winter in Nagaland ushers in sunny days, clear blue skies and a biting chill. In December of 2014, the air was abuzz with excitement in Kohima, the state capital. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was coming to inaugurate the annual Hornbill Festival. People lined the road from Dimapur airport to Kohima to greet him. The prime minister of India was gracing the Hornbill Festival after a long hiatus.

The Hornbill Festival is a kaleidoscope of Naga culture. Tribes from across the state bring their artwork and handicrafts for display and sale, as well as entertain visitors with their performing arts. Hekani and I reached the venue of opening ceremony on December 1, the inaugural day, well ahead of time. The opening ceremony itself was a celebration of Naga traditions and the Naga way of life. The prime minister spoke with passion and shared his vision for not just Nagaland but for the entire north-east region. I would have loved to spend more time watching the colourful Naga dances, but Hekani said we had to rush to the Naga Chef competition.

On our way to the venue of the Naga Chef contest, Hekani told me that her husband, Alezo Kense, had begun work on this contest the previous year. The chief minister at the time, Neiphiu Rio, and his advisor, Abu Metha, had come up with the idea of Naga Chef to create awareness about Naga cuisine and culture. The contest design took inspiration from Master Chef Australia, which was by then a rage on television.

On the way to the venue, I was thinking about whether it was possible to create the same excitement around Naga Chef that Master Chef Australia had managed. When we reached the venue, I was pleasantly surprised. The set-up looked very professional. The contestants were cooking various tribal dishes, some even innovating new dishes on the spot. I was amused to see vegetarian dishes being cooked too, because traditional Naga food consists largely of meat.

Alezo explained to me that the purpose of Naga Chef was to expose people from far and wide, and with varied dietary preferences, to Naga food. I was a bit curious. What was a young man from a
prominent business family doing with a chef competition? Alezo shared with me that his intention was to give people an experience of Naga culture through Naga food. He explained to me that Naga cuisine is quite unique in taste and in its preparation.

There is very little use of oil, and not very many ingredients are mixed together. Most of the recipes call for the steaming, roasting or boiling of meat and/or vegetables, and the original flavour of the ingredients is thus preserved. Each Naga tribe has its own special dishes. Recalling the first Naga Chef competition of 2013, Alezo told me about the innumerable challenges they had faced. Organising a competition that did justice to the vast repertoire of Naga food would entail sourcing of more than 200 ingredients. Alezo and his small team of young enthusiasts at Synergy Group (Alezo’s company that organises the Naga Chef competition) had to create their own kitchen and pantry. They had to design the contest – think about how the competition would play out on the ground and who would judge it. They watched several cookery contest shows and also took inputs from experts. They reached out to colleges, especially hotel management institutions, to seek candidates for participation.

They wanted to make sure that the best and brightest participated, and to this end they partnered with local newspapers and village-level organisations. They also advertised widely. In the first season, the prize money was a modest Rs 5 lakh. And despite the many difficulties along the way, they managed to get 34 participants. And so began a journey of culinary expression and celebration.

Alezo said his team learnt many lessons in the first year itself. For example, some dishes would take a long time to get done, making it difficult for the organisers to decide on a suitable time limit for the participants. The chefs themselves were not all skilled in the culinary arts, even though they knew their food quite well. Alezo wanted the competition to be open to anyone who had culinary skills – from a homemaker in a village to a young aspiring chef from Kohima. The idea was to create excellence in Naga cuisine and to introduce it to the world. When it was launched, Naga Chef was the first-of-its-kind culinary competition in the north-east of the country.

By 2019, Naga Chef was in its seventh season. When I last spoke with Alezo, he was brimming with satisfaction as he described his journey so far. He told me that before Naga Chef, there were a few restaurants outside Nagaland selling Naga food, but what the competition had done is that it had made Naga cuisine fashionable. It had also created an impetus for the local chefs to refine their skills. Many had found new livelihood opportunities and had started catering businesses and restaurants. Some had even published cookbooks. Alezo proudly informed me that the winner of the first season now works for the Taj Bengal, a five-star hotel in Kolkata.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Alezo now wants to take the success of Naga Chef further and aspires to make Naga food part of the global culinary map. He believes that Naga food is not only unique but is also representative of the Naga people and their culture. He wants the world to know Nagaland through its cuisine. In order to do this, Alezo wants to institutionalise the Naga Chef competition, invest in research and offer culinary courses for people to upgrade their skills and innovate new dishes based on traditional Naga ingredients and methods. He wishes to introduce refinement and
further diversity to Naga food by engaging experts, such as celebrity chefs and nutritionists, to create more awareness about Naga cuisine.

When I asked him about his big audacious goal for Naga Chef, Alezo gushed, “I want our food to be part of people’s everyday food choices around the world, just like pasta, pizza or burger. That is the only way for people everywhere to know Naga culture.”

Excerpted with permission from Highway to Swades: Rediscovering India’s Superpowers,’ Bhairavi Jani, Harper Collins.