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24.10.2018

A head pops up in a small hatch above the refrigerator. It is followed by hands passing out dish after colourful dish. This literal hole in the wall is in Zawlbuk, a Mizo restaurant in Munirka that consists of a cheerful lime green room with four tables, shielded from the crowded lane outside by a sliding door and curtain. A young man sitting behind a tiny counter has telephoned our order back to the kitchen. Unfamiliar with the culinary traditions of Mizoram, and having ordered from a menu that gestures rather loosely towards the dishes that it indexes, we prepare for some surprises.

Vawl ke bawl, a braise of pigs’ trotters with fermented pig fat, is the most unctuous thing I’ve ever eaten. The trotters, cooked for hours, fall off the bone, and the funky bass note of the fermented pork clings to the insides of my ribs in a most comforting way. These parts of the pig are full of collagen, which renders into a braising liquid that congeals solid by the end of the meal. Vawkwun bawl, pig skin with fermented pig fat, is similar, though thinner in consistency. Here, pig skin has been deep fried into papads and submerged in fermented pig-fat liquid. The result is cloud-like and deeply porcine.

With the salads, the basic formula remains constant: vegetables in an oil-based dressing, with raw onions, slivers of cabbage, tomato and coriander. The beauty is in the sensitive variations on the theme: the crunch of peanut and fried lentils in the Burmese salad (Laphet tauh); a sprinkling of sesame seeds on the brinjal salad; raw garlic in the karela salad, acting as a foil to the bitterness of the main vegetable. Like this, you taste familiar things in new ways: I’ve never appreciated the fleshiness of karela so much — or its greenness.

There are vegetables I haven’t tried before, from parts of plants I didn’t know you could eat. Baibing chhum is a stew made of the spadices of the alocasia fornicata plant. This we discover through Google. When we eat it, we focus on the taste and texture: the wormlike stalks, floating alongside raja mircha chilies, dissolve in the mouth, at once herbaceous and searingly spicy. In saisu bai, another stew, the main ingredient is the succulent leaf sheath of a wild banana. Shipped in dried form to Delhi from Aizawl, the rehydrated leaf sheath, more mushroom than banana, consists of honeycomb-like cells that burst with an intense meat-based broth.

A side order of roasted buff materialises: four mysterious blocks of blackened meat sitting architecturally on the plate. Stringy and tough but intensely flavourful, it is oddly satisfying to chew on between bites of the fiery main dishes. Another side order is not so soothing: zawngtah bawl, a chutney of charred green chillis and the chewy pod of a tree bean, has me gasping for more steamed rice.

There’s more, all excellent: dal laced with turmeric and ginger; a dish of tripe and intestines in a spiced gravy; yellow pork curry with cinnamon. Again and again, wiping the sweat from our faces, we marvel at the fact that every dish is distinct yet complementary — in flavour, texture, even colour. In each dish a main ingredient, often brought all the way from Mizoram, is highlighted with great sensitivity. Perfectly composed in isolation, when eaten together as the components of a meal the effect is transcendental.

One could nitpick — most dishes are cooked from scratch and can take a while to arrive; are some things just unreasonably spicy — but the food is so delicious, and the tiny space so welcoming, that this would be beside the point. With its regular customers, a cabinet of Korean cosmetics for sale behind the counter, ten-rupee packets of pickles and sour candies from Aizawl, Zawlbuk is an enclave; eating here is like being in a home. We’re grateful that such a place exists, where we can drop in when we want, outsiders in an unfriendly city, partake of the delicious food, and be transported elsewhere.

Getting there: 212, Munirka, Near Baba Bakery, New Delhi 110067, call +91997106443. A meal for four without alcohol costs approximately Rs 700.

Accessibility: Not accessible to wheelchair users. Has a bathroom.

This review was contributed by Mila Samdub, a Delhi-based writer.

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