On a grey afternoon in Genk, Belgium, the skies are damp and the street empty – but strong smells of steaming bamboo shoot and Naga bhot jolokia emanate from Lulu’s house. In her native language, Lulu or Landimliu Pheiga Gangmei’s name means one who spreads wealth. She is known through the neighbourhood for her ready smile, her quiet but determined demeanour and as the chef of Lulu’s Tribal Kitchen, Belgium’s first Naga food truck.
Lulu, a member from the Naga tribe of Kabui, grew up in Imphal in a large family, where she was the fifth of six siblings. Her earliest memories of home are connected to the kitchen. Five years ago, she met her husband Bob in Goa, and moved to Limburg, Belgium, with him.
Lulu’s Tribal Kitchen serves traditional Naga food, travels across Belgium and the Netherlands to cater to music festivals and other culinary events, where Lulu and Bob serve fresh, hot food to a clientele with no prior knowledge of Naga cuisine.
“Mexican, Turkish, these are popular cuisines,” said Bob. “But we want people to experience a side of India they may not know about.”
According to the couple, European customers are wary at first, but usually walk away intrigued and satisfied with the food. Bob, who is passionate about promoting North East Indian culture in Europe, stands outside the food truck and explains the roots of each dish that is being served. While Bob talks, Lulu stirs fresh, hot stews in the van’s kitchen.
“Usually in Belgium, food trucks come with ready-to-eat food,” Bob explained. “Lulu cooks all her dishes on the spot. Her cooking, the smells, the colours of the truck usually draw people to it.”
The most popular dishes are a vegetarian meal called Veggie Delight – a mix of green beans and Naga spices, and Tribal gun – smoked pork in pumpkin sauce.
“I have to use catchy names to be able to get people’s attention,” said Lulu. “Otherwise if they read tribal kitchen, they think that it must be spicy, it must be ‘wild’. We want to slowly get rid of these stereotypes and educate people about the cultures of North East India, one at a time.”
When they serve food, Lulu must ensure that she doesn’t overwhelm her customers with spice and flavours they are unaccustomed to, but at the same time, maintain the authenticity of her food. “Naga food can be overwhelming sometimes, so at large events I tone it down a bit.” said Lulu, as she readied jars of pickles for the evening meal. “I usually give the Raja Mircha on the side, so people don’t find it too spicy, and try to serve meat off the bone.”
As Lulu moves swiftly between three steaming pots of pork, she explains her lifelong tryst with cooking. Raised in a family that loved to eat, Lulu always watched and helped her mother in the kitchen. But it was when she first moved to New Delhi for university, that she understood how much she missed Naga food.
“You only realise the importance of your traditional food when you move away from home.” She said. “When you are far away, there is no other way to feel close to home but to cook what you used to eat there.”
Lulu travels back with Bob to Nagaland and Manipur to buy ingredients for their food truck. The truck is functional during summer in Europe, during which time it serves more than 1,000 plates of food a day, allowing the couple time and money to travel to India in the winter season.
“I find some things in the Thai Shop here in Genk,” Lulu said. “But the important things we bring from back home. In Imphal, we live in a valley surrounded by mountains. The best part about cooking is searching for the ingredients. It takes time, but climbing trees, looking for the perfect herbs, and really selecting even the smallest things, like a tej patta, this makes the food worth it.”
When Lulu first arrived in Belgium five years ago, the weather, bureaucracy and individualism wore her down. She had to undertake a diploma in restaurant management in order to run a food-truck, for which the teaching language was Flemish. However, with some minor bumps, Lulu sailed through her course and began the foundation for her future life in Belgium. “It was hard for me, I almost gave up, but Bob talked to my supervisor, helped me through it and I kept going,” she said of the early years.
After her diploma, Lulu worked at a local French restaurant, where for the first time, she learned about European cuisine.
“Working with French cuisine taught me a lot,” she said. “But I would never mix it up with my own cooking. Naga food is too strong on its own.”
Through the food truck, Lulu has introduced not just a new cuisine to Genk, but brought some of the spirit of community life back with her. “When she cooks for a large party, she involves all the neighbours,” said Hilda, Lulu’s mother-in-law. “Everyone comes together to cut vegetables, drink coffee and chat.”
As she reminisced about her home in Imphal, Lulu brewed the evening’s meal: three pork dishes, a large pot of rice and a fragrant Naga dal. The strongest candidate at the table was a pungent beef pickle made from dried shredded beef and bhot jolokia – small in size of portion but not for the faint-hearted.
Lulu watched as plates were filled and emptied, always ready with more. As she finally sat down, she seemed refreshed rather than exhausted.
“Pork is the best thing to eat,” she said. “With lots of rice. I can’t eat this bread and cheese diet, but I can keep eating rice for hours.”
At a time in which the tribal cultures and food habits of the North Eastern states are being wiped out, Lulu holds onto her own through her cooking. In Genk, where meals rarely venture beyond the standard meat, potatoes and bread, Lulu has introduced a cuisine which is both overwhelming and delicate.