TNT FEATURE | Keeping alive the stories behind Naga Cuisine with Chef Joel Basumatari


SHWETA RAJ KANWAR | November 18, 2017

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Good food is often said to be directly proportional to a person's mood and thereby to his over all existence. After all, it is food that determines our health right! And this coupled with a bunch of good people, and life seems all so fulfilling! Food, today is not just about something that we take in to ensure our survival- it is more than just what we eat! Its about the visual appearance, the presentation, a manifestation of who prepared the cuisine and what it determines. In fact, the food on our platter determines our lifestyle and more so, the culture of the people! Talking about culture, Northeast India is a land of varied cultures and each of the 8 states in the region present an unending plethora of culture through their food, one can easily immerse oneself in its infinite possibilities and still not get enough of it and the Naga cuisine is one such unexplored dimension and let us tell you, its not only about their cuisine but about the ingredients- where each and every ingredient that is part of of the Naga recipe has a rationale behind it. And keeping alive this Naga Cuisine while infusing and exploring the various possibilities is Chef Joel Basumatari from Dimapur, Nagaland.

Chef Joel Basumatari

Chef Joel Basumatari currently manages Smokey Joe's Restaurant & Grill in Dimapur, Nagaland. TNT- The Northeast Today caught up with this internationally acclaimed Dimapur Chef to get a better insight into his profession, how he developed an interest in cooking and the future prospects of this profession in Northeast India.

Crispy smoked chilli chicken Naga version with sorrel leaves and mustard flower

"It was when I came back to Nagaland from London in 2012 after gaining an expertise in European cuisine that I realized there was very less promotion of local cuisines, not only in Nagaland but anywhere else!Each place in Northeast India is characterized by a wide range of cuisines- be it Shillong in Meghalaya, Dimapur in Nagaland or any other place. As a chef, I strongly believe that every tribe and community have their own story to tell in terms of food but there is hardly any interpretation about it hence the need arises to put more emphasis on local cuisine which is still being neglected", says Chef Joel.

He asserts that there is a huge opportunity in the market for local cuisines, especially that of Northeast India and this is one very effective manner in which the stories of the region can be presented to the people for them to know more about the region. It was after this realization that Chef Joel materialized the idea of Smokey Joe's Restaurant & Grill in Dimapur in 2012. However, he did not confine himself to being only a restaurateur and gradually, he also got involved in NESFAS (North East Slow Food Agro-biodiversity Society) wherein he represented the organization in several international food fests. He has also attended Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2014 and 2016, a major biennial conference which are held in Torino, Italy. His association with NESFAS further enhanced his interests in exploring local cuisine, sustainable farming and organic food consumption.

Awoshi kipiki ngo axone (smoked pork with fermented soya bean) topped with fried mejenga (zanthoxylum leaves) with accompaniment of black rice (chak-hao)

He goes on to say, " As time passed, my association with NESFAS made me realize that if somebody does not take the initiative, who else will do it? And hence, I took the initiative to promote our local cuisine in whatever ways I could. I do not only confine myself to the Naga cuisine but also prepare recipes from other parts of Northeast India. I personally love local eating as well as preparing local cuisine and hence I decided to make a profession out of my passion".

Local ingredients from Nagaland being displayed at the unbox festival in Delhi

Chef Joel happily recalls his experience in the hospitality industry with great satisfaction and says that our local food is special in so many ways. "Unlike other cuisines, local food can taste better even with just 3 or 4 ingredients but its all about the right kind of ingredients and correct proportions and we are good to go!"

Raw chayote (squash) salad with roasted smoked pork and bamboo shoot vinaigrette dressing and roasted perilla seed

However, keeping alive the local cuisine comes with its own share of challenges as Chef Joel rues, "If we wish to take the local dishes to mainland cities like Delhi or Mumbai, the ingredients are very hard to find. There are certain ingredients that we do not find in these cities and are exclusive to Northeast Indian states which are important part of the local recipe. For example the Tungtap (dried fish) or Akhuni or axone (fermented soybean product popular in Nagaland) and Jaiur (peppercorn) in Khasi are just some examples of indigenous ingredients. Also. many people hesitate to try out recipes from this part of the world because of their strong and acquired taste but I believe that everyone should try out a new dish, at least one before accepting or not accepting them".

Local aromatic black pudding with real intestine, blood, fat, meat and spices stuffed inside and no artificial casing also know as spotted dick

Chef Joel also emphasizes on the role of pop-up cuisines and their ability to take local food far and wide without much effort. In fact, he will soon be conducting a pop up restaurant in Shillong in the month of November itself. Delving deeper into this, he says, "The pop up culture is quite a new concept and by doing this, chefs get an opportunity to go to different places and popularize the dishes and it also satisfies the curiosity of people as it happens for a very short period of time but creates a greater impact. It also helps to create a market for upcoming chefs by giving them a platform to showcase their skills and thereby create a market base for themselves hence it is important to create such opportunities."

Assorted Condiments of fermented fish (ngari) chutney, shredded pork pickle and tender bamboo shoot chutney

Chef Joel is a Hospitality Management Graduate from Thames Valley University, London and also holds a Diploma from International Institute of Hotel Management, Kolkata. He was a chef de partie at Crowne Plaza London – Heathrow, commis chef at London Marriott Hotel Regents Park, commis chef at The Washington Mayfair Hotel London and he has also done his industrial training at Oberoi Trident Towers, Mumbai.

Chef Joel's version of local Naga fried rice with crispy fried mejenga (zanthoxylum leaves)

He has also been a Head judge and mentor in NAGA CHEF cooking competition for four years (2013-2016) and has also judged in the 'Morung Fest' cooking competition in 2013 and 2015 in Nagaland , cooking competition at Thuwuni Festival, Pughoboto, Nagaland 2014 & 2016.

The Indigenous Terra Madre Kitchen dinner pop up at le papille – cucina e northeast Chef Joel Basumatari from the northeastern part of India. First course was Amerso ( a chicken soup with rice powder broth). Second course doh-sniang neiiong ( pork cooked in black sesame paste ) with beautiful purple rice and a spicy condiment. Dessert featured a sticky rice cake with rosella ice cream and rosella compote

He has also done Northeast food promotion in Kolkata, called Jewels of Northeast at ITC Sonar Eden Pavillion, Kolkata in the year 2015, The North East food festival at The Square, Novotel, Kolkata 2016. He has also been featured in Living Foodz channel alongside Chef Kunal Kapur in Pickle Nation and Bira 91 Hot Stuff Rocky & Mayur.

Celebrity Chef Kunal Kapur with Chef Joel Basumatari

The concept of 'Chef' as a profession in Northeast India has recently conceptualized, thanks to cookery shows and the glitzy and glamorous highlights in various TV channels, more and more youth are coming forward to follow their passion in cooking without hesitation. However, as we say, the grass is greener on the other side, it is not at all a bed of roses. The hard work, passion and determination to keep the passion rolling is something that these TV shows never teach anybody and this is where chefs like Joel come into the forefront- setting an example for youth with his determination to keep his passion for cooking going and never giving up! With numerous achievements up his sleeves, Chef Joel chose to return to his hometown and use his culinary expertise to popularize the regional cuisine. He surely stands out as an inspiration to youth from the region who wish to pursue a career in hospitality and management whereby Chef Joel proves that it is not only about the expertise or the talents you possess but also about what you have to give back to your home land!

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