Founder-CEO Rewaj Chettri talks about challenges common to producers from the Northeast, and taking the plurality of cultures of the region to the rest of India through food.
“I was just about to write a LinkedIn post about hog plums.”
This is how Rewaj Chettri, founder and CEO of NE Origins, back recently from the G20 Summit where he had a stall, opens one of our calls.
The focus of this call is supposed to be his organisation, which endeavours to take the Northeast to the rest of India through food, and foster a better understanding of the plurality of the food and ingredients the region is home to. Yet Rewaj—characteristically—is bubbling with information on ingredients from the Northeast. He doesn’t let NE Origins’ products limit our discussions, but is interested in the larger picture: food cultures across tribes and communities that inhabit the eight states. The hog plum is the latest addition to the list, right below roselle and millets.
By partnering with multiple producers from the Northeast, NE Origins offers a variety of honeys, spices, pickles and other relishes, and teas from the eight states.
“While we do want to make our range truly inclusive, the fact that we are catering to a market that is made up of consumers who are not necessarily well acquainted with the Northeast means that we want to have products that aren’t all niche, like Anishi.” Anishi, specific to a few communities in Nagaland, is fermented and smoked or sundried taro (yam) leaves.
“So the idea is to go with what people are already familiar with. Kiwi Jam is our latest addition. Everyone knows what kiwi is, and everyone knows what jam is,” Rewaj spinning out his thread of thought for that. “So if we say kiwi jam from the Northeast, it’s something everyone can relate to.” In the same vein, he also wants to explore the commercial tea market. “We want to launch a mass market product, perhaps an organic version of the Assam CTC, once we get the certifications.”
At the moment, one of NE Origins’ most popular products is its Dalle Chilli and Bambooshoot Pickle. “People are already familiar with bhut jolokia, or ghost peppers. Now we want to push dalle chilli, we want it to become the pink salt of chillies.”
Dalle chillies are native to Sikkim, less spicy and more fruity than the better-known ghost peppers from Nagaland and Manipur. The latter, too, is sold in the form of condiments by NE Origins.
“Bhut jolokia is originally from Nagaland, but we also source some from Manipur, to be able to partner with other producers. We are a social enterprise, and it’s important to us to ensure that we support producers from the Northeast, where marketing and access are among the biggest roadblocks,” Rewaj elaborates.
It is these commonalities that bring the community that NE Origins collaborates with together (“in addition to the quality and authenticity of the product, of course”). While each ‘local hero’, or organisation part of the network that NE Origins sources from, can’t but agree that the Northeast is hardly a single homogenous region, they are just as keen to be able to promote their specific cultures through food, all of which collectively form products on the portal.
As conversation turns to the personal, Rewaj talks of how college shaped him: “I graduated in forestry from North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology, but more than my degree, I learnt from the experience of being a student there: the college has reservations for every tribe in the eight states. I got to taste the food of every tribe, every community from the Northeast.”
An interesting food memory from back then? He pauses to think, and then reminisces: “In Itanagar, near college, there was a restaurant called the Woodlands, where as part of the same meal, I got the best of the food of two states, smoked pork from Nagaland, and eromba, a fermented fish relish, from Manipur.”
As a student, he got to steep in a multiplicity of cultures, and forge connections, too. This paved his growth: he believes in building relationships, rather than taking the transactional route with his business.
“There has to be give and take; it can’t be about furthering your aims alone,” he says. “This approach to work has made it easy to build a rapport with government initiatives and corporations, but our conversations aren’t restricted to the product they supply to us. Recently, two bodies that we source tea from have asked me for feedback on their plans to launch new products. Such engagements make our collaborations more meaningful.”
When it comes to guidelines for building communities and the infrastructure to support them, a goal that we at The Locavore share with Rewaj, we could hardly have put it better; it’s absolutely spot on.
To read more about NE Origins and their practices and efforts, check out our producer page here. This is a paid partnership with NE Origins. We strive to keep the practices of a producer transparent and honest across all forms of partnerships.