When I first compiled this article, I wasn’t fully satisfied as every time I taste food I discover something new. Assam (one of the states in North East India) has always been close to my heart and I wrote a small article on what I knew of Assamese cuisine and I thought I knew a lot-no sir no-that was not enough. So I probed further-cooked, experimented, read and seeked. Today, I sit to pen down all that I know and my experiences with Assamese cuisine and I feel that this still is just a drop in the vast Brahmaputra ( the world’s third largest river and at some places in Assam it has a vast expanse of almost 15 kms.)
Well, to begin with, I needed a bit of help. Asked a very dear friend to identify a few green leaves which were not laai, lofa, paleng, dhoniya, podina, matikanduri, maanimuni, dhekia, durun, khutora, narasingha, xoroyoh, jilmil and kosu( these are Assamese names of the various popular green leafy vegetables). And guess what. She wanted to give me ‘authentic’ information. Hence called up her mom who sat with her grandmother on speaker phone to go really really deep. To the days when Assamese people actually used to have a hundred and one green leaves on the eve of Bohag Bihu( festival of spring or new life). Cutting things short (phew!), let me name some of the greens viz., modhusaleng, rohbaghini, bonjaluk, xukoloti, pipoli, titabahok, borkosu, xetbhedali, bhumloti, xewali, keturihalodhi, mermerilota, tongloti, ghilalota, tengamora, long pasoli, brahmi, kolmou, xuka puroi, monua, masandari, ponounua amongst several others. This is Assamese food…rustic, healthy, bland yet hot occasionally. Ummm…the mouthwatering kosu xaak aka colacacia leaves with lots of black pepper leaves your nose drained, yet enriches you with a marvelous experience! If I consider the banana plantain to be one of the greens, then its stem known as posola is the next delicacy I have to mention.
Though we cannot categorize the Assamese people as carnivorous, but they have their share of flesh for every special occasion be it a duck roast, goose curry, pigeon meat, pork with spinach leaves and bamboo shoot or other ‘lesser’ meats like chicken! Duck and goose are best cooked with kumura or the ash gourd. Also used is posola-the body of the banana plantain, as I mentioned earlier. For the inquisitive readers, it will be rather interesting to know that not a single part of the banana plant goes waste in an Assamese kitchen. While the fruit, flower (koldil), and stem are edible, meals are served on banana leaves. But hold on, there’s more. The sheath of the plant known as kolpotuwa is used for making bowls like doog, dona or khool for serving jolpan (a breakfast preparation), particularly during auspicious occasions and religious ceremonies. Kaanh or brass utensils are commonly used in Assamese households.
A jolpan usually consists of various forms of rice like chira (flattened rice)/kumol saaul (a softened rice form prepared by grains soaked and then mildly cooked) /bhoja saaul (rice prepared from roasting the grains) /bora saaul (sticky rice) /pithaguri (rice powder prepared from unroasted grains)/xandoh guri (rice powder prepared from roasted grains roughly ground)/korai guri (rice powder prepared from roasted grains finely ground)/ doi i.e. curd, and jaggeri. Till a decade back, grains were pounded on a dheki (a traditional pounding contraption operated manually with feet). However, with passing time or timelessness mills have started replacing this system in case of mass production.
*Saaul : Rice *Guri: Powder
Coming back to bananas (See, it is very easy to get lost while writing about food), the banana peel is dried and burnt; the ash mixed in water and the extract results in kol khar -the indigenous tenderizing agent. The modhuna or root of the plantain is also used to prepare khar. I think am already going bananas! In fact Khaar is so much an integral part of Assamese cuisine that many people use khaar khuwa (khaar eaters) as a slang to describe people from Assam. I think it is a beautiful terminology and hardly derogatory.Rice prepared in banana leaves in Singphu dhaba near MargheritaNow, there is another term that the Assamese use for themselves i.e. bhotuwa, a term that can be traced to the word bhaat which means cooked rice. It does not need rocket science to understand that rice is the staple food of Assam, and is best relished as plain steamed. However the flavour of the rice depends on the kind of utensil and fire used, . There is a form of preparation of rice called sunga saaul (sunga meaning an elongated hollow particularly bamboo in this case). Rice is put in a hollow bamboo with water and sealed with banana leaves and then put into charcoal fire. People normally use sticky rice for such preparations.Can you imagine the aroma that prevails? There is another interesting form of consuming rice and is called pointa bhaat. Leftover rice is soaked in cold water and is kept for one or two nights. The rice starts fermenting and depending on the number of days, can give you the perfect punch (wink. hic hic hic).
Talking of Assamese food and not mentioning fish is like commiting hara-kiri or suicide. The blessed land that Assam is, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and various other fresh water resources like the pond(Pukhuri) at your backyard, the paddy fields, the streams and springs are endowed with various kinds of delicious fish. Small, medium, big…all sizes and shapes are available. Small fish like donikona, puthi, bheseli, randhoni, kholihona, misa etc., medium sized fish like goroi, magur, kawoi, muwa, pabho, bato, tura, botiya, neriya and bigger ones like rou, borali, xitol, khoriya, sengeli etc. just tickle your taste buds with their umpteen flavours. Maas, as the natives call it are caught on jaakoi (straining contraption made of bamboo used in ponds and paddy fields), thuha, khuka, sepa, (bamboo traps placed in paddy fields), boroxi (fish hook) or zaal (fishing net). Fish is stored in a bamboo container called khaloi and can be hung around your waist while fishing.
Another form of preparing fish is by wrapping it in banana leaves. Freshly prepared yellow mustard paste with salt is used for marinating the fish. The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Naraxinha or curry leaves and podina (mint) paste is also used to marinating and fillings. The preparation is more popularly known as bhapot diya maas (steamed fish)
Fish intestines also known as petu is a delicacy. It is fried with onion, naraxinha leaves and either mixed with a little steamed rice or powdered rice (pithaguri). It is either served after tossing and frying or again wrapped in banana leaf and roasted.
*tenga: Tangy/Any Lemon *jolokia: Chilli
Apart from curries, fish is relished deep fried and roasted on charcoal fire. Small fish like puthi is roasted and mashed with mustard oil, salt, chopped onions and coriander leaves. The rustic cooking and impeccable raw flavour is simply out of the world! In Assam anything that is mashed is called pitika, the most popular ones being bengena (brinjal) and aloo (potato). All Assamese will swear by it. Potato is popular especially it is customary during Magh Bihu (harvest festival) to have sweet potatoes (mitha aloo, muwa aloo, kath aloo etc.) while the morning meji (a huge customary fire during Magh Bihu) is lit. While I have reached to the point of Bihu, and not mentioning pitha will be criminal. Pithas are traditional rice cakes prepared during the festive season. Both sweet and salty, pithas are dry and either steamed or roasted while others are fried. Jaggery is the most popular sweetener. Til pitha, gheela pitha, xutuli pitha, sunga pitha, tekelir mukhot diya pitha, paat pitha, muthiya pitha, pheni pitha are few that I think of. Til pitha is unique considering the fact that it is dry, has a black sesame and jaggery filling and looks like, ah well, an oversized cigarette. The best way to consume, following the traditional way is by dipping it in ronga saah (literally red tea but is actually black tea).
*Saah : Tea *Bhaapot Diya : Steamed *Bihu: An agro based festival, celebrated three times a year-April, January and October in Assam signifying various stages of agriculture
While I am still talking about harvest and Magh Bihu-a Bihu that signifies a good harvest and of course is signified by having huge feasts. And the spread, you got me, is what we call a foodies’ delight. You will find all what I have discussed so far, all under one roof on a single day and of course much more. Yes, I am coming towards the ‘meaty’ part of my article.
I have been mentioning duck and geese quite often in my article, and that’s because hanh (duck) and raaz hanh (geese) are regarded delicacies during special ceremonies. You can say, they are the ‘turkeys of Thanksgiving’. While local chicken is more popular for day to day use. Gahori manxo or pork is the ‘forbidden’ meat and is nevertheless consumed by various communities and has different styles of preparation. There are some who store the pork in a pit while others cook it dry with crunchy spinach leaves.
Assamese are not devoid of other delicacies like crabs, river shrimps, linkori (aquatic black beetle), various flowers like tita phul, xewali, endi and paat leta (silk worm chrysalis). Ahoms and a few other communities have a tradition of consuming eggs of red ants (amlori tup) on Bohag Bihu-the festival of spring. In fact, the eggs from the big nests on mango trees are the best ones and believe me; the boys in villages have to undergo quite an ordeal with the red ant formic acid bites! But what’s good food without a little adventure? But I hardly see many youngsters enthusiastic enough to go through the same ordeal of celebration these days. Or probably even there are not many forests left to provide such scope. Or for that matter, community feasts have almost become a redundant concept. Some people say that the sense of neighbourhood is gradually extinguishing in Assamese society. It pains deep down within, but then I say that it is probably in for a new evolution.
*Manxo : Meat *Leta: Chrysalis
Have I missed anything? Yes, a lot! I am not yet done with the pickles, tamul (actually tamul-pan; a combination of beetle nut and the leaf) and the legendary xaaz or laupani or the local rice beer. Like all other north eastern states, Assam also has its traditional rice beer. Various communities call it by various names and with slight change in the distillation process; it gives a little variation in the zing. Pithaguti (a cake of several herbs) and rice are the prime components all over.
Assam is abundant with fruits. guavas, litchies,jolphai(olives), kola and boga jaamu(jamoa), robab tenga(grapefruit), anaaros(pineapple), kothaal(jackfruit) etc. are few on the tip of my tongue. A summery afternoon post lunch, just pick a robab tenga, a little salt, fresh green chillies on a banana leaf or kolpaat as they say and have the most orgasmic cytrus pulp on earth. Kothal or jackfruit is eaten raw and ripe both. The seeds of the ripe jackfruit is another delicacy. Dry the surface, peel it, wash it and chuck a few into your daal. Orelse, dry the surface, chuck some into the fire, take them out roll them over the floor (better if it is a clay surface) to remove the peel and consume with a little salt. What I like most about Assamese cuisine is that nothing goes waste really. I mean look at rongalau or the pumpkin. The peel is turned into a great dry subzi, better still if black pulses are added to it. The seeds are roasted. Leaves are consumed separately.
No, I cannot go on and on and on. I have to bring it to a halt, or else the gigabytes of space on my blog will not suffice to document everything. It is difficult to cover any cuisine in one article. Especially with a culture which has a varied demography. Assam is partly tribal (hills/plains), partly non tribal, partly Hindu, partly Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. People in Upper Assam and those in lower Assam do not even understand each other’s Assamese dialect forget about the Karbi, Kuki, Mising, Dimasa, Hajong, Bodo, Rabha, Singphu, Deuri and Lalung population. While some parts have a Silhetti influence of cooking, the rest have evolved through variations in terrains and availability of particular items. However despite all differences, the indelible truths that bind them all are the River and the Rice.
THIS IS THE ASSAM THAT I LOVE FOR ALL OF YOU-BUT ALAS THE WINDS OF CHANGE ARE BLOWING-HOPE THE TRADITION OF FINE SIMPLE AND YET WONDERFUL FOOD REMAINS IN TIMES TO COME.