King Chili (Ghost Chili) hot sauce of The North East Store.
A recent spurt in e-commerce websites offering tough-to-procure ingredients and food items from India’s eight north-eastern States is good news for homesick north-easterners and foodies craving a taste of the exotic
Do you know what axone, ngari and anishi are? Or u-morok, perhaps? If you, like most of us, are lost in a quagmire of semantic ambiguity and haven’t got the foggiest idea, don’t worry. The chances of you having ever encountered the aforementioned words are woefully low.
But for Paiwang Yanthungo, axone (fermented soya beans), ngari (fermented fish), anishi (dried taro leaves) and u-morok (king chilli) are more than just the mere sum of their alphabet parts. Their very mention throws up fond memories and results in a salivating mouth for the 24-year-old Bengaluru-based MBA student, who calls Nagaland home. And, until a few months ago, Yanthungo had to rely on either friends or relatives visiting him from Nagaland or on his annual trips back home to Kohima to replenish his constantly diminishing stockpile of the same. Not anymore.
Thanks to a sudden spurt in e-commerce ventures offering tough-to-procure ingredients and food items right from Arunachal Pradesh to Tripura and in between, homesick northeasterners scattered all over India are able to jazz up boring office canteen dals and instant noodles with their favourite pickles and condiments that reflect the culinary diversity of the country’s eight northeastern States.
One such online set up is Mumbai-based Gitika’s PakGhor on www.yummade.com started by former marketing whiz Gitika Saikia, originally from Assam. “I decided to be a part of this e-commerce venture because initially my customers had to come home to collect the items. Everything is online now and purchasing is much more convenient, so why not food? Plus, it has helped me increase my customer base,” she says. Stocking a limited range of artisanal pickles, including the fiery hot bhoot jholokia (Assamese king chilli) and the rather exotic-sounding bamboo shoots and tenga jalphai (Indian olive) pickles, Gitika prefers to concentrate only on taste and quality and not quantity.
Offering a mindboggling 1,600 food and handicraft products in its portfolio, sourced from more than 100 suppliers and artisans, Bengaluru-based Giskaa.com claims to be India’s largest online store for northeast products, delivering orders all across India and also overseas to places such as Malaysia, Tanzania, Abu Dhabi and even Costa Rica. Its rather strange name is an acronym formed by taking the first letter of the names of the capitals for each of the eight northeastern States: G – Guwahati/Gangtok, I – Imphal/Itanagar, S – Shillong, K – Kohima, A – Agartala and A – Aizawl.
“I have lived outside of Manipur, my home State, for the last 23 years. While living in Bengaluru, traditional Manipuri food was something that I missed every day. The northeast population living in the major Indian cities is huge, estimated to consist of close to a million people. Most of them will share the same sentiment,” says Meghanath Singh, Giskaa’s CEO, explaining why he began the venture. “I was constantly yearning to contribute something to my home State and the northeast region combined. I also had a strong passion to start a company of my own, so I took the plunge and quit a comfortable and relatively well-paying IT job in July 2014 to start Giskaa,” he says.
Mr. Singh along with his partners Surchand Wahengbam and Ratheesh Elayat also hopes to make Giskaa a platform for artisans from the northeast to professionally showcase their products. He wants to promote them to a large mainstream Indian audience. “The people and culture of northeast India are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Most of it is due to lack of awareness and knowledge of the region. A platform like ours would definitely go a long way in bridging this gap and bring the northeast closer to the mainstream,” he says.
Based out of Shillong, Meghalaya and once again founded by three friends, Catherine Dohling, Trideep Rabha and Dhawal Singh, The www.northeaststore.com may operate on a much smaller scale than Giskaa, but its game plan and focus is just as intense. “We source our products straight from the makers and producers as well as from NGOs, government groups and self-help groups who directly support local farmers and artisans. We follow an inventory-based model as opposed to a marketplace, where we hold stocks of products that we source,” says Dohling, who is quick to add that running a business like theirs is not free of setbacks. “Product discovery is quite a challenge as there are many unique items being made in small, remote villages, which very few people are even aware of. Also, there is lack of e-commerce specific infrastructure within the region. For example, quality packaging material needs to be sourced all the way from Delhi.”
But hurdles aside, a quick glance at Gitika’s PakGhor, Giskaa and The NorthEast Store’s Facebook pages reveals a bunch of very satisfied customers. Take Mumbai-based Kingshuk Bhattacharya, for instance. He writes: “It was really awesome to get to know about this initiative [Giskaa]. I am from Tripura and [living] out of the State for 30 years now. It was a welcome sight to see that I can now get my share of ngari, fermented soya and yongchak (a type of Manipuri bean) sitting in Mumbai!”
And it’s not just homesick northeasterners who are patronising these online stores; even nostalgic expats are joining the bandwagon. “One story that comes to mind is that of Andrew Hoffland from New Delhi. He used to work in Nagaland as a teacher 20 years ago. Since he left, he did not have access to products from there and when he discovered us, he was very glad to be able to buy food and products from Nagaland. It felt good to hear that he was delighted to taste these items again,” says a contented Dohling.
But perhaps the best way to summarise this interesting new trend is to take a leaf out of Giskaa’s tagline that says it all in four simple words —Bring Home The Northeast.