Looking down at my plate, a heap of rice surrounded by meat curries, chutneys, and vegetables, you could almost think you were about to have a meal of daal-bhaat-tarkari. But it only takes one bite to realize that what you are eating is something quite different, something that you’ve never had before.
The feeling of experiencing something unusual began as I climbed the steps, up past Thamel House of Music, into what used to be the rooftop area, now transformed. Thick-cut wooden tables and benches dominate the space, which was lit by walls of windows on either side. There are also low seating areas strewn with colorful patterned cushions, there’s a lot of use made of bamboo in the décor and also functionally, and bright and unique necklaces hang in the spaces between the windows. We’re at Dzükou Tribal Kitchen, and I’m here to experience this different food everyone’s been talking about. And talk about it they have been! While we have a lot of excellent restaurants in the valley, it’s pretty unusual—at least in my experience—to find one that’s bringing a completely new type of cuisine.
Karen Yepthomi, the force behind Dzükou, has a similar restaurant in New Delhi. Originally from Nagaland, she is a tireless and enthusiastic ambassador for her homeland, with its unique culture and qualities. The décor that I’ve so admired is, she tells me, typical of a tribal home. We learn that there are fifteen major tribal groups in Nagaland, and that the Indian government has done a lot to preserve their culture; for example, with the annual Hornbill festival that tourists flock to each year in early December. And, what inspired Karen to open a restaurant here in Kathmandu? “We have a lot of live events at our Delhi restaurant, promoting artists from the North-East,” she explains, “and some friends from Darjeeling approached me two years ago after the earthquake in Nepal to ask if I could host a fundraiser.” Her restaurant hosted two successful events to benefit those affected by the earthquake, and then Karen, who had never been here before, became curious and decided to come visit. The rest, as they say, is history, and Dzükou Tribal Kitchen opened in August 2017.
It’s been a fascinating conversation, but eating is what we’re here for, and I am eager to taste these unique dishes. Pork is a popular meat staple in Naga cuisine and features prominently on the menu. We have both the Smoked Pork with Fermented Soya Beans and Fresh Pork with Bamboo Shoots, and for a little variety we also try the Chicken with Perilla Seeds. These dishes are served with boiled vegetables, rice—both regular and sticky varieties—and two delicious, very spicy chutneys, made with Raja mirchi, which were once recognized as the world’s hottest chilies by the Guinness Book of World Records. They come from Karen’s hometown.
We dig in, eager to see what all the fuss is about. And, wow! The flavors, both individually and the way they’re combined, are unlike anything I’ve ever tried before, so much so, that I have difficulty even describing them. The Smoked Pork with Fermented Soya Beans is really something else; with a smoky, deep, rich umami flavor that reminds me of certain Korean dishes I’ve tasted, though that is not a great comparison. I keep spooning more and more of the dark sauce onto my rice, just to try and understand what the taste actually is. Then, I try the Fresh Pork with Bamboo Shoots, and once again I’m blown away. The pork is brighter in taste, as it’s not smoked, and the pickly-sour taste of the bamboo shoots is awesome. I love bamboo shoots in food, so this is a joy for me. I keep eating more of each pork variety, trying to decide which one I prefer; it’s not possible, I just end up eating too much.
The Chicken with Perilla Seeds is tasty, but honestly, for me it couldn’t compete with the two pork dishes; the flavors by comparison seem rather plain and muted. It might be a good choice for those who prefer a milder taste. While you can select regular rice, to extend your authentic Naga experience you should try the sticky rice; a blend of purple, brown, and white varieties. And, don’t forget those fiery chilies! They’re served in adorable little bamboo serving dishes, and boy, are they HOT! Now I know why the vegetables are served so simply—you need something to tamp down all that heat. But don’t be afraid of the Raja mirchi—yes, it’s hot, but it’s the kind of hot that provides a quick explosion, and doesn’t linger agonizingly long.
There are also some tasty-looking snack options on the menu. Though we are too full for them, people a few tables down are raving about the Chicken Basket, which they’re washing down with beer. We’ve certainly had a great time, eaten too much, and are already dreaming of our next visit. I recommend coming with a group so that you can order a selection of dishes and discover what you like. You might make some new favorites. It looks like like Naga cuisine is here to stay!