The crafts and cuisines of Northeast India come alive in Bangalore

If you’ve traversed 100 Feet Road in Indiranagar, as you get close to the flyover, you’ve probably seen a signboard saying the ants cafe. Perhaps you’ve breezed by with a smile, quirkily imagining a column of ants industriously marching about. If so, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. There is a small army of human ants in there, working diligently. Their aim: to bring out positive stories from the Northeast.

Kelhe. This Naga pork is cooked with dried bamboo shoots and king chillies. Pic: The ants cafe.

Ah the Northeast…isn’t that where they eat a lot of pork? Where the mainstay of the cuisine is rice? Where you can find the hottest chilli in the world – the Naga or Bhut Jolokia?

But if you’re expecting the exotic cuisine from the seven sister states of India’s northeast at this cafe, you will be in for a disappointment. What stares at you from the menu is an assortment of beverages and a variety of Continental food. Granted, the sandwiches are really well made and the coffee excellent, but whatever happened to the food of the northeast?

It’s a long story, but one worth listening to. In 2003 a young couple – Pradeep K and Smitha Murthy – with backgrounds in textile designing, travelled to northeast India to work on an independent design project. Whilst there, they came in contact with The Action Northeast Trust (The Ant), set up in 2000 by a group of professionals committed to rural development. Primarily working in the health and education sectors at the time, the trust was looking for designers whose expertise would help it in marketing the unique weaves of the region. Keen to contribute, the couple decided to work for The Ant and set up Ishaan Design Support Centre. Besides providing skills in the design sector, they also did market surveys, procured raw material and found markets for the end products. Over a period of time, under The Ant umbrella, Pradeep and Smitha began consulting for other NGOs too.

Smitha and Pradeep at the ants cafe. Pic: The ants cafe.

This led to the formation of a weavers’ association called Aagor, providing steady income for many skilled weavers. "Our challenge lay in making a product viable for the artisan as well as selling it commercially," says Pradeep. In the initial stages, marketing was mainly through exhibitions. The field widened when The Ant began exporting, with labels that declared the tribe or region the product comes from. Wholesale marketing to major retailers was also established. This sometimes came at a cost though, having to relinquish control over pricing or providing only the material which meant the brand name lost out. "But we had to keep in mind our priority, which is to provide income to the weavers and craftsmen," says Pradeep with a wry smile that underlines the difficulty of reconciling idealism with commercialism. However, such hurdles also meant the germination of an idea, to have an independent retail space; which is how the ants store was set up in Bangalore in December 2007.

The concept was to have three distinct areas: a store for textiles and crafts, a documentation centre so that visitors could access information on the region, and an eatery with the cuisine of the Northeast.

Since the company that loaned money for the store was not keen on the food part of the project, Pradeep and Smitha raised the capital themselves pooling in their money along with loans from friends and relatives. Enthusiastic about the venture, they had little idea about the roadblock they were about to face.

"It was in April 2008 that we took the decision on the eatery. We thought all we had to do was get the license and start," says Pradeep, with a look that says ‘see how naive we were’. "It took us two months to just get the application form for the license. Then another four months of continuous visits to the BBMP office because we were not willing to pay a bribe. Every day, I would visit the office and enquire about the file, which had not moved or was with someone who was on leave…….. They tried every trick to get me to pay, yes asked me outright too, and I just kept replying that we couldn’t."

Meanwhile, since some equipment had already been bought, the team decided to provide their store customers coffee and tea. But it had to be free since there was no license to sell. Soon basic snacks joined the free beverages. Though the organisation was worried over the continuing lack of a license, it was also a learning period on how to run a food business, admits Pradeep. They learnt how to do costing, from where to source supplies, and trained the staff in service.

Finally Pradeep’s persistence wore down the babus and they got the long awaited license. But the dimensions of their existing kitchen were less than that specified for a restaurant kitchen. So the license given was only for a cafe, where food could not be cooked but had to be prepared elsewhere. It could only be heated up here.

Which brings us to where we started. The sandwiches, etc.

If you’re thinking: we can get that kind of stuff anywhere…Hold on. The ants cafe has finally got to the concept it started out with. "One of our ideas right in the beginning was to have events that would promote the Northeast. So we’ve been having talks and screening films. This year, with the aid of the unions that communities from the Northeast have in Bangalore, we launched our food festivals," explains Pradeep.

April saw the first of these with Delicacies of Naga. The next one was Flavours of Mizoram, held in June. There was yet another ‘Flavours’ in September, from Manipur. Served buffet style, the food is prepared by people of each community. Specific ingredients are brought in from the region so that the cuisine remains authentic. Not surprisingly, the festivals have been a huge success.  And this month, due to popular demand, the Naga food fest is back.

The Naga food festival is on Saturday, October 23, from 7pm to 10 pm. Priced at Rs 350. Seats are limited so call beforehand.

The ants cafe, 2023/B, 1st Cross, 14th A Main, Hal 2nd Stage, Indiranagar.

Tel: 41715639/ 9845469420
www.theantsstore.com

Naga cuisine has a variety of pork recipes and, though known for its exotic meats, the food is usually very simple with flavourful ingredients. Meat and fish are often smoked, dried or fermented. You will get to taste many herbs as well as the leaves of exotic plants. Some of the highlights of the upcoming fest include Shayung which is smoked dry pork – a much loved dish, Korbula that translates into snail, fermented soyabean, and juices derived from gooseberry and plum.

So yes, you can get a taste of the Northeast at the ants cafe. You just have to know when to go. Advertising is mainly through social media so check here.

The next time you’re in the vicinity, take a look at the ants. Drop in; buy a beautiful stole or some interesting jewellery. Then walk upstairs to the cafe and unwind over a cappuccino or Assam tea. And ruminate how an open mind and a positive attitude can change the lives of people.

About Theresa Varghese 20 Articles
Theresa Varghese is a independent writer and ardent baker who loves all things to do with food.

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