Inside plastic bags bulging with water, small frogs thrash around in protest against their destiny. With every spring they press their noses against the walls of their prisons which, in the earthy environment of central Kohima, glimmer like unusually clean, futuristic, curious bubbles in the sunshine. Nearby, tiny catfish are circling around in a white tank trying to free the long hairs of their beards from one another – a nervous action. It’s somewhat quieter in the basin holding the eels. The creatures are lying so close to each other that they appear to have just one body, which looks akin to a large intestine that’s digesting its contents in a relaxed manner. The picture would be truly deceptive if it weren’t for the astonishingly large heads of the eels, one or the other of which occasionally pops out of the body-mass to take a look around the bowl. The creatures have a striking face and big eyes that look at you in a reflective fashion: «You here?» they seem to ask, as if it is they who are in the right place, not us.
Such equanimity is clearly missing in the large caterpillars that are busy creeping around each other in the green plastic dishes. All that these chaps seem to want to do is to escape from the mass and attack the watercress lying tantalisingly close by, the wild asparagus, and the Mitsuna herbs. There are caterpillars here of every hue and persuasion, neatly separated from one another: tiny white ones with black dots on the head; brownish-greyish ones with almost transparent heads – and glowing orange-red ones that move about in a tipsy fashion. Perhaps the grubs have had a close encounter with Bhut Jolokia, those round chillies that are the hottest chillies in the world, which are also on offer here in plastic bags. Some of these dangerous fruits smell a bit like smoke and they impart not just spiciness but also a special aroma to the food of the region – as do the tender bamboo shoots that leak juice into the bags they are stored in. The aroma of Naga cuisine includes a definite whiff of fermented and steamed stuff: it’s vaguely like the air inside a pharmacy. Akhuni is also sold here, a fermented paste of soya bean that influences the aroma of braised pork, cooked chicken or chutneys considerably. And, though the smell of bamboo shoot and Akhuni is dominant, there are also other odours that waft around in this market: a mix of the pungent scent of chicken shit and a lighter fish smell with an underlying note of dusty spiciness.
The most beautiful prison is reserved for the little black snails: They are kept together in banana-leaf wraps which form little bundles that wiggle around almost imperceptibly on the shelves of the stall. The noisiest are the hens that celebrate their minor panic attacks at top volume in their wire-mesh cages. The salesgirls, however, know how to calm down their creatures, and that enables their buyers to frisk the breasts and buttocks of their ware in peace. One buys also with the hands here – except, of course, in the case of wild bees, whose larvae are meant to be a great tonic-delicacy in the region. The bees are offered in their honeycombs, out of the holes of which countless little half-grown creatures spew their milky-white rumps into the air. Now and then a new-born flyer staggers out of its cocoon, tests its wings and whirrs into the air: Rare proof of the fact that food products, too, can sometimes flee successfully.
There’s no such risk of escape in the case of dogs: their flesh lies tamely displayed on banana leaves here. They stretch their tails bravely into the air and also sweetly lift their paws. The pretty salesgirl, who shoos flies away from the meat with a plastic fly-whip, nods in friendly fashion at her customers, almost reverentially. That’s no wonder: in Nagaland dog meat is served to, above all, boxers and ring fighters – the meat is meant to be good for increasing stamina and, more so, for the bones. Next to the dog butchery, a teenager sits in the middle of a mountain of vegetables – above his head stretches a huge tarpaulin sheet that diffuses the light in such a way that everything appears to be bathed in a bluish-white tint.
The dried-fish stand behind gleams all the more golden, almost like the background of a medieval sacred painting, an art beyond that of lifeless bodies. From eels to small river fish to frogs, there is everything here that the humidity of Nagaland produces, in properly smoked form, enticingly displayed. The colour of the animals, which shifts between silver, brown, gold and charcoal-grey, is as extraordinary as their aroma, which is like the dry essence of a fish life. The salesgirl’s face is also somewhat dry and splendid – an old female whose head towers over her produce in such a way that the body of the fish seems to cover her like a finely ornamented dress, lending her a regal air. Her face, too, echoes the eel’s question like a writing in the air: «You here?» There’s no doubt that, here, we are right in the wrong place.
First Publication: 17-7-2012