Axone: A Fermented Naga Chutney That Also Has A Film Named After It

Pronounced ‘akhuni’, axone is a fermented soybean paste eaten in Nagaland. It’s pungent and has a strong smell. In Sümi, a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Nagaland, ‘axo’ means aroma and ‘ne’ means deep. The chutney has been known for stirring up racist controversies, and the film Axone: A recipe for disaster, directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, was based on this premise. 

Humanyunpur, Delhi’s residential neighbourhood that sees migrants from Northeast India, is the setting for the film that intertwines comedy with drama. Humayunpur has seen a surge in restaurants serving Naga, Manipuri and Mizo food over the last few years, and has been identifiable with these cuisines and people from these areas. The film deals with the issue of racial bias with food running as the connective tissue. 

Issues and discrimination faced by people from the region are highlighted in Axone. One scene shows a Punjabi landlady reprimanding her tenants for cooking “stinky food”, referring to the pork and axone that they were making. The stereotype that Northeast Indian food is smelly is addressed here. It becomes evident how offensive it is to comment on the smell of indigenous cuisine, equivalent to a trope used by white people to refer to Asians as “smelling of curry” for centuries. 

The one Nepali person in the group is othered by her friends because she isn’t considered Northeastern enough and can’t stand the smell of axone. However, she assimilates into the group with food, even if it may not be her native cuisine.  The way she looks is considered similar to Northeast Indian appearances so ultimately, she remains a part of the group and has common struggles.

The film has won critical acclaim for bringing issues of racism faced by Northeast Indians to mainstream media. The characters are shown to be treated like second class citizens in a city like Delhi and how they have become almost immune to discrimination. Food is political and the film uses this to its advantage. The politics of food are portrayed in a sensitive manner, even when the occasion is a big one like a wedding, for which the characters are shown to be cooking. Friendship is a central theme, too. 

Over the years, it has become evident that food from Northeast India is diverse and rich in flavour, and not just something that natives eat. The eight states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim—each have their own distinct cuisine. The burgeoning Northeast Indian food scene in Delhi is a testament to this, with dishes like smoked pork and bamboo shoot and aloo pitika on menus. Besides Humayunpur, the state Bhavans, stalls at Dilli Haat and even independent restaurants specialise in Northeast Indian fare. Dilliwalas have developed a taste for everything from Sikkimese and Assamese thalis to spicy smoked pork from Manipur and Nagaland. For a Delhi person to then club this richness together and label it ‘stinky’ is serious blasphemy.