FLAVOURS OF THE LAND OF THE RED RIVER AND THE BLUE HILLS-ASSAM

The Land of tea

The Land of tea

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.

Kaanh or brass utensils are intrinsic to Assamese households

Kaanh or brass utensils are intrinsic to 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.

Maasor tenga (sour fish curry) is the most popular Assamese fish preparation. Various souring agents like ou tenga, thekera, tenga mora, local tomatoes, lemon etc. are used during the preparation of the jool (thin curry). Minimal spices characterize Assamese cuisine. Use of chillies like khud (pinch)/mem jolokia (referring to the spicey flavour despite its grain size), bhut jolokia (also known as Raja Mircha-world’s hottest chilli). Pepper or jaluk is common be it in fish preparations or duck and geese.
Maasor tenga (sour fish curry): I can in fact see a pice of ou tenga floating

Maasor tenga (sour fish curry): I can in fact see a pice of ou tenga floating

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

Khorikat diya maas: fish grilled on bamboo sticks

Khorikat diya maas: fish grilled on bamboo sticks

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.

Gahori: pork

Gahori: pork

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.

Some use bamboo shoot or khorisa and make a curry out of it. The Ahoms have an old saying that if you did not have gahori on Bihu, then you will be born as one in your next birth. Probably it came as a mischievous story told to children in the families by the older ones and the legend spun itself hence forth. Paaro manxo or pigeon meat is also a delicacy. Two preparations are most popular-a dry one with koldil or the banana flower or a jool (curry) with lots of black pepper. Gosh! I am getting hungry by the minute, and I am waiting eagerly for my next golden chance to run to North East as always.
Xewali-the flower and leaf are bitter, but a delicacy nevertheless

Xewali-the flower and leaf are bitter, but a delicacy nevertheless

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

Paan Tamul

Paan Tamul

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.

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43 Responses to “FLAVOURS OF THE LAND OF THE RED RIVER AND THE BLUE HILLS-ASSAM”

  1. Avantika Bhuyan Says:

    Fantastic!!! Really comprehensive and informative. Some recipes would be reaally nice

  2. what a read… I am short of words…
    commendable piece of food art

  3. Hey my grand parents are from silhett ! No wonder I recognised a lot of the recipe names here.

    I remember when we were hunting for oil in Duliyajan – our resident cook used to catch fresh fish from a pond nearby and we used to have steamed fished (rolled in banana leaves with spices ). Our only grouse with the otherwise excellent food – was the quantity of “fire” he put in (as one Gujarati engineer remarked) !

  4. Excellent site, keep up the good work

  5. Ash,great piece of writing.You have summed up Assamese Cuisine so beautifully.

  6. Rahul Gandhi Says:

    Hey Ash,
    I just chanced upon your blog.What a blog.Always knew about your passion for for food and your writing skills and not to forget your communicating skills.Your blog takes the cake-it is world class-keep it up buddy.I still remember the fantastic fish curry you made for us in your lovely stately home in Guwahati.By the way how is Symphony

  7. George Lee Says:

    Hello Dr.Chopra,
    You had given a link to your blog but I saw it only today.
    Beautiful blog is all I can say.Your write ups are well researched and very well documented.The Assam story,the Amma writeup infact all your articles.I am glad we have a person of your expertise on board with us to guide us for our forthcoming food show.With your passion,knowledge and goodwill we can only achieve the best.
    Keep blogging Sir.

  8. ashish chopra Says:

    @Rahul-thank you it was a pleasure to have you over as my guest and feed you-Symphony is absolutely fine and rocking
    @George-Thank you for your kind words of encouragement.It is good wishes from good friends like yourself that keeps the spirit of existence alive and maintain my passion for food

  9. Yum… I miss Chunga Chaol.. Have some really good memories..
    And gahori of course..

    Nice post

  10. Very informative and your love for my home state shows !! Love the bit about rice cooked in bamboo. I run Delhi’s first dedicated Bamboo Store – everything from bamboo shoot to bamboo charcoal – any mention of bamboo anywhere is delightful
    many thnaks

  11. Chef Sandra McArthur Says:

    Dear Ashish,
    Wonderful blog.How well you trace the history and culture of cuisine.It would be a pleasure to invite you sometime at our Institute in Inverness in Scotland to speak to and motivate our interns.Keep writing.I follow your blog pretty regularly.Increase the frequency of your articles though if you can.All the best.

  12. Thank you @Sandra.My concerted effort is to showcase food and its culture as closely as possible.Would definately try and add more articles to my blog.The only thing is these articles take time in research and need to be perfectly documented.Thank you so much for your encouragement .
    @Thank you for your words of encouragement Minhazz.Yes I do love Assam very much.

  13. lostonthestreet Says:

    Awesome…I have been wanting to do a similar post for long,but this is way better….tell me one thing, is Jolphai the equivalent of Olives? doesn’t taste the same though…I have been having this doubt for long…The assamese jolphai is bigger and dark green…is it the same family or something?

  14. @lostonthestreet–thank you and yes Jolphai is from the family of olives though larger than the normal olives and yes they do taste the same if kept in brine -in assam of course we usually make pickle out of it.Recently the oil extracted from our indian version of olives by Assam agriculture university proved to have better medicinal qualities than the greek ,mediteranean or Italian olive oil

  15. Dear Dr.Chopra,
    I heard about you Mr A.Borduin,He was all praise for you and your knowledge about food.I happen to go through your blog and I must admit I am indeed impressed.I am a freelance producer of documentaries on topics related to culture ,travel and food.I am at the moment doing a celebrity food show with Pierce Bronson the Hollywood star.We are doing an Indian food special.Can we consult you on Indian food.I am sure your knowledge will help us a lot.
    I will send you a mail to this effect soon with details.
    Keep writing.I like your blog.
    James

  16. kempozone Says:

    Im sure many of you are like me and one of the first things you do in the morning is head here and check out the new post. Along with seeing the new posts, I’m also always checking out the blog roll rss feed and watching them grow, or shrink sometimes. In one of my past …but all in all excellent site. Keep it up!

  17. Donnieboy Says:

    Just wanted to drop you a line to say, I enjoy reading your site. I thought about starting a blog myself but don’t have the time.
    Oh well maybe one day…. 🙂

  18. Hi Ash,

    Nice to see your blog. You have been on my friends’ list for long but it is the first time I have found that how good, as a writer, you are!

    Finally, you have got one more reader, for your blogs!

  19. @Qasir-Thank you for taking time out to read my blog and your kind words-It is indeed motivating to continue to share whatever knowledge I may have gained with others

  20. lisa bhuyan Says:

    Ashis ji,what a lovely article.you know our state so well.I have been your fan since long.first time when you lecture at johrat assam agriculture university on north east culture.you such good speaker and your knowledge of my state is very good and i wish you good luck and thank you for promoting the culture of my land.

  21. Really enjoyed reading your article. This is your forte, continue the good work!

  22. Raghabendra Says:

    Very well written and comprehensive. One correction: Doi is not curd and jaggery, its just curd. Jaggery or gur is only used as a sweetener in place of sugar.

  23. @Raghabendra-Thank you for taking time out and going through my blog and posting a comment-I am aware of what you have mentioned-it is just a punctuation error and has been corrected( see Article ).It is friends like you who help me improve my blog and help me make it qualitative rather than quantitative
    Peace and Grace

  24. manash gogoi Says:

    dat was realy grt,…….miss those assamese dish nowadays…….keep up d gud wrk

  25. Shefali Bardoloi Says:

    Ashish, am FLOORED! You are a genius and a SINNER too….and now, don’t ask me why!

    You rock!

  26. madhusmita Says:

    nothing to say…………only good better best……..

  27. Rajkamal Phukan Says:

    Hi Gahori ( Pork) is becoming state food of Assam now a days , u will not find any party without Mod( Wine/Beer) and Gahori(Pork). For those who are from outside Assam I would like to inform that Pork is called Assam Tractor in Assam. Those who have not taste it yet plz try once. I hope will enjoy it

    Byeeeeeee

    Enjoy gahoriiiiiiiiiiii

  28. Waoo ultimate 1…rare to find dis kind of masterpiece…Best wishes 🙂

  29. First of all, a very big thank you to Ashish. Pardon our lack of internet awareness, but somehow, we were missing your blog for so long until we landed here accidently while googling about something Assamese.

    Really a very very informative and almost correct post about Assamese cuisine and Kudos to you for bringing out the taste of Assam to the world so beautifully. In fact you have just summarized in a single post what we have been trying to do in our blog:

    http://aakholghor.blogspot.com/

    We are sure, we are going to keep visiting your blog from now on. Please do visit our small blog and provide your feedback.

    Ciao

  30. I will keep it short. Your thoughts are very well researched. In fact, some of the things you have mentioned is also new to me.

    Really enjoyed your work, but definitely I would have enjoyed the real food much more

  31. What a lovely post. We are planning to go to India ( specifically Assam) next month, and this post has already taken me there. It’s been years since I tasted these delicasies. I do try to cook up Assamese dishes quite often, but its not quite the same as that cooked by ma 🙂

  32. Very nice. Very helpful in taking the Assamese cuisine to the people of other states. Well researched.

  33. Thanking you for the article. Well researched with nice pictures…

  34. Asish da, cant just get over the food. No never I want too. Then this piece gave me another reason to cling on there amidst food. The reason I am alive is to eat. Great read. Thanks. And yes, I will be coming to your place soon.

  35. you have given me the inspiration i let go off to start cooking again. thanks.

  36. Homesick now!!!! Thanks for the lovely lovely article…

  37. Jin Neog Says:

    Thank you realy much Mr.Chopra to showcase our traditional assamese food in a nice and innovative way…yes the foods of assam as well as other northeastern states are realy very healthy and simple to cook..uses less oil…hey do you know why we eat khar??I would like to mention here bout it…In ancient time there,s no salt available in our northeast..only in few places it was available..but it was very precious back then..So out of scarcity people cultivate the habbit of using khar to enhence the taste as an alternative to salt…and soon they were used to it and became khar khuwa…There,s a saying which goes like
    Xodiya loi nejaba
    xot phul nekhaba
    kesa patot nebandhiba lun
    Upojiye burha hoi kun?

  38. Parag baruah Says:

    I love your article .reminds me so much of home and is making me homesick now.I miss you Mom and your lovely home cooked food.Thank you.

  39. Devaahotii Says:

    Good and informative

  40. Too good! i was looking for some good stuff to read..i think i got just what i wanted! Naice!

  41. awesome writ . Can somebody say me the difference between assam’s and Italian olives

  42. That was mouthwatering. This brought back memories of days spent under the sun eating Robaab tenga with bhut jolokia, with tears running down yet going on eating. I stayed in Tinsukia, so had my share of finding Amroli Porua’s Tup…had fun eating and preparing almost all of the above said items. Keep up..beautifully written..need to find a Robaab tenga ASAP!

  43. Upasana Dutta Says:

    Just wondering during your research did u find any books on the history of assamese food?

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