Archive for the Food History Category

Omelette on my Pallete…

Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by ashthefoodie

“So, what will you have for breakfast today?” This is one question I keep asking myself and my house guests. Will it be bacon, baked beans and eggs, paranthas, poori subzi etc. etc. When such confusion arises, I tell myself “Ash, stop beating around the bush! Beat the eggs instead and churn out a nice fluffy omelette!”

Yours Truly preparing a typical Indian masala omelette

Omelettes have been my all time favourite, as a breakfast meal or a snack. The first thing that I learnt how to cook at the age of twelve was actually an omelette. And now that I have gotten into food as a full time passion / profession and as a self proclaimed culinary historian,food anthropologist (without an anthropology degree of course-just an interest whch I inherited from my late father who was an anthropologist by profession and my guiding light to culture and tradition), I keep wondering what could be the origin of the omelette-who made the first omelette, when and how.

Today, while I was stuffing my omelette with smoked chicken and cheese, I thought why not do a little more research on its etymology and anthropology? Here I am scribbling yet another story of a dish that tells us one golden rule of cooking-INNOVATE.

I quickly glance through my Larousse to find out what does it have to say about it in definitive words? To my delight, Larousse Gastronomique has spared almost three pages describing this dish. To begin with it says, a sweet or savoury dish made from beaten whole eggs, cooked in a frying pan (skiller), and served plain or with various additions. The word comes from the French lamelle (small blade) because of its flat shape; in former times it was known as alumelle, then alumette, and amelette. (Some authorities claim that the word has a Latin origin, oca lellita, a classic Roman dish consisting of beaten eggs cooked on a flat tray dish with honey.)

The Romans are giving me ideas. The next omelette I cook shall be savoured with a tinge of honey in it, of course! But trying to do as Romans do even before reaching Rome? May be I’d start with what we find on Indian streets. A boy, you’re not sure has crossed fourteen years of age, tries to beat two eggs in a steel glass with a spoon. He adds chopped onions and green chillies into it. A pinch of salt and he beats it further. Now, he adds a lump…a huge lump of butter into the steamy frying pan. He keeps beating the eggs while the volatile butter evaporates and melts simultaneously. Then he splashes the beaten eggs into the frying pan. Within minutes we have what we call the desi omelette. Such is a common scene everywhere on the streets in India, be it a big city, a small town or even a village for that matter. In the remote Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir and so much so in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh I remember one evening food I did not get, but omelettes I surely got-such is the vastness and expanse of the omellete.

Ramkishan Gawlani

I remember the legendary, the world famous… Omelette Man of Jodhpur. He may not be a household name in the west or the east, but he sure has found his way to be featured in every travel guide book right from the US to France, Japan to Germany. Piere-a frend of mine from France fell in love with Omelette Man’s omlettes.  His testimony speaks a lot because he is an ardent omelette lover.

Omelette Man, Jodhpur (internet image)

Ramkishan Gawlani, the Omelette Man is one tough old cookie. He has set up a huge signboard boasting his authenticity to the world, “The Omelette Shop – recommended by Lonely Planet,” I for sure loved his omlettes especially his masala and cheese omellete. It had pleasantly surprised me when he actually dirverted from desi flavour of the omellete to western tastes. His shop consumes over a thousand eggs a day. It is a pity that he has more global fame than national fame.

There are hundreds of stories woven around the omelettes in India. I remember in Munnar in Kerala many moons back, I came across Jose Mathews a post graduate in history who had opened a chai, coffee and omellete shop. Boy, he had a tale to tell as to how he was an ex-naxalite-came back to the main stream-he had no job despite his qualifications -decided to set up something to sustain himself and did what he loved best-he loved omelettes and was good at making them so he opened a chai shop serving omelettes which were a hit with many tea planters(Munnar being tea country), tourists and the locals. I learn today from a planter friend of mine from Munnar that he is running a successful Malabar resturant in Cochin. Inspirational-is it not?

I could go on and on with personal ancedotes revolving around omellete but I feel we should now concentrate on the basics both historical and gastronomical.

The Chicken and Egg Question: Human beings have been consuming eggs since the neolithic ages. Not only were they easy to procure, they were excellent protein sources. Okay, for the prehistoric man it relieved him of hunger and energised him fast enough. Ostrich and chicken eggs were most common. After the introduction of cooking, egg became easy to cook and moulded into several dishes. It was diverse and offered a different taste each time it was cooked even with a slight difference in recipe. With induction of religion in sociological map of the world, some religions found it symbolic vis-a-vis life and hence encouraged eating and decorating eggs. However, some others considered it un pious.

According to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, editor, Solomon H. Katz domestication of jungle fowl had started in India by 3200 B.C.E. Records from China and Egypt show that fowl were domesticated and laying eggs for human consumption around 1400 B.C.E. The Romans found egg laying hens in England, Gaul, and among Germans. The first domesticated fowl reached North America with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493

However, what about the term egg? The Old English term was oeg, which survived in Middle English as ey (plural eyren)….But in the fourteenth century the related egg was borrowed from Old Norse. For a time the two forms competed with each other (William Caxton, in the prologue to his Book of Eneydos (1490), asked ‘What should a man in these day now write, eggs or eyren, certainly it is hard to please every man’), and the Norse form did not finally emerge as the winner until the late sixteenth century.” —An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto

Okay, I realise that this paragraph still doesn’t answer what came first : chicken or egg. It only says what was eaten first! Phew!

The recipe of omelette is as basic as it can get. Beat the eggs. Condments follow. The French however, are not so simplistic. They deal with their food wth technique. Though it may be long to read,  have to mention at this point in time an excerpt from an article ‘Physiology of Taste’ or Physiologie du Gout, written by French lawyer, thinker and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.  I think it is simply brilliant.

…The conversation passed from subject to subject, but I, as a philosopher, thought the secret of the preparation of such a dish must be valuable. I ordered my cook to obtain the recipe in its most minute details. I publish it the more willingly now, because I never saw it in any book.

OMELETTE AU THON.

French omelette (internet image)


Take for six persons the roe of four cash * and steep them for a few minutes in salt water just below boiling point.[* the translator has followed this recipe with shad, pike, pickerel, etc., and can recommend it with a quiet conscience. Any fish is a substitute for tunny

Put in also a fresh tunny about as large as an egg, to which you must add a charlotte minced. Mix the tunny and the roes together, and put the whole in a kettle with a portion of good butter, and keep it on the fire until the butter has melted. This is the peculiarity of the omelette.

Take then another piece of butter and mix it with parsely and sage. Put it in the dish intended to receive the omelette, cover it with lemon juice and put it on hot coals. Then beat twelve eggs, (fresh as possible), pour in the fish and roe so that all may be perfectly mixed. Then cook the omelette as usual, making it thin and firm. Serve it up hot.

This dish should be reserved for breakfasts, where all the guests are connoisseurs. It is caviare to the vulgar.

OBSERVATIONS.
1. The roes and fish should be warmed, not boiled. They will thus mingle more easily with the eggs.
2. The plate should be deep.
3. It should be warm, for a cold porcelain plate would extract the caloric of the omelette and make it insipid.

Another early reference of Omelette can be found from 1685, The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, “To make omelettes divers ways. The first way. Break six, eight, or ten eggs more of less, beat them together in a dish, and put salt to them; then put some butter a melting in a frying pan, fry it more or less, according to your discretion, only on one side of bottom. You may sometimes make it green with juyce of spinage and sorrel beat with the eggs, or serve it with green sauce, a little vinegar and sugar boil’d together, and served up on a dish with the Omlet.” “The sixth way. Beat the eggs, and put to them a little cream, a little grated bread, a little preserved lemon-peel minced or grated very small…”  

One layer of omelette being stuffed into the next: the Japanese Tamagoyaki (internet image)

In the eastern part of the world, i.e. Japan, omelettes are called Tamagoyaki. They make several leafy omelettes, roll each of them inside the other and create a big omelette. Well, that was just for information!

Spinach Tamagoyaki

Anyways, whatever people did centuries ago is only in the pages of history. My reality is that, omelette is the daily affair. It is very unlikely that there comes a day when I do not prepare one. For me, the most satiating part is to observe the contentment and sheer delight on the faces of people who relish the food I prepare. More so, when they demand something to be prepared. When someone can shun their inhibition to ask for their favourite dish to be prepared, one can judge the intimacy of a relationship. It is like asking your mother to give something to eat. And likewise.

For me an omelette is like a canvas. The base is plain and it is upon the artiste to add colour. Some artists rely on their technique, rest on their instinct. Some of course on their ‘secret ingredient’. I am thankfully liberal in certain matters, especially matters like these. Some of my friends love the omelette I stuff with seekh kebabs. Others prefer the chicken, mushroom and cheese recipe. Like the father says in Kung Fu Panda…there IS no ‘secret ingredient’.

All I am driven by is love and love alone.

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An Ode to Sir “Brown Sahib”…

Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by ashthefoodie

The Last Holiday; Chef Didier and Georgia Byrd

Sometime back I watched a movie called ‘The Last Holiday’ at a fellow foodie,younger brother and buddy Sid Khullar’s welcome abode.There is a dialogue in the film where the protagonist Georgia (Queen Latifah) and renowned Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) take a walk through the local food market and Chef whispers to her, “You and I know the secret of life…Butter!” Ahem, I say both Sid and I look at each other and we smile Since then, every time I have thought about the movie, I know I have smiled.  

I have watched films around or about food earlier, but this one was subtle and had its essence speak for itself. And was I not smitten! Don’t I go haywire while talking food? Well, let me get back to track. As far as this piece is concerned, it is about a cuisine I love (though it is difficult to imagine any cuisine that I may not be fond of)-Anglo Indian food. Although the name itself is self explanatory, yet there are fables behind it. I say fables because they are fable-ish.

In Delhi, sometimes I miss that old world charm. That relaxed pace of Tollygunj club in Kolkata or an old tea garden bungalow of Assam; a life that would revolve around sweet sunrays of winters and gently flowing rivulets of summers. And to discover somebody who could talk about all of that, and enjoy food the way I do in Delhi, is a sheer pleasure. I stumble upon “Brown Sahib”. My first impression-what a name! I am compelled to compare our Brown sahib with another sahib I knew-Massey Sahib. For people who are not too (shau)keen about cinema, it is a film released in mid 1980’s where Raghuvir Yadav plays the part of this ambitious young man-Francis Massey whose wit and intelligence do not support his ambition. He is enamoured by anything British and dresses up and acts like an English bureaucrat.

If only Massey Sahib knew how to cook and eat like the British, probably he’d have been a part of that conglomeration of people who developed since the Raj what we today call Anglo Indian food. The cuisine is a result of inter mingling and inter marriages between various European races and Indians; the community which was later termed as Anglo-Indian. Primarily of Indian and British ancestry, the taste buds of this community clearly have been influenced by both the European and Indian genes. The result was the development of an unopposed cuisine which would grow to be a highly relished one in centuries to come.

Brown Sahib Interiors

As I enter Brown Sahib in Saket, Delhi, I saw happy, non egotistic yet confident faces. I liked the essence of warmth; and most importantly the essence of space. The interior was spacious, subtle and had an old world charm. One of the attendants leads me to a table of my choice. I was soon to be joined by Rajyashree, the lady behind the restaurant which serves Anglo-Indian and Bengali cuisine. There was an instant connect .Needless to say, we started chatting about Kolkata and its food culture. I wasn’t a bit surprised to know that her passion for various cuisines had started right in her childhood with her family being extremely outgoing about trying different cuisines.

Before we start discussing and dissecting food, let me tell all of you that, this post primarily has an Anglo Indian flavour. Some of the dishes that I tried had French a influence, since parts of Bengal also had French presence. Pure Bengali cuisine will feature sometime later when I trail through Bengali culture and food which I love separately; I will not be able to do justice to the earthy cuisine of Bengal in this post.

Ah! There comes the first wing of our lunch; the Mulligatawny Soup. That’s what gets invented when an English man wants to have some decent soup and all he gets in South India is Rassam! The term in itself is of Tamil origin and can be traced back to millagu or pepper and thanni meaning water. Those who have never tasted the soup, it is a thick soup with small chunks of meat, rice and vegetables. Clearly it looks like a soupy version of the Indian curry. By the way, we need to find a way to serve this soup piping hot.

Stuffed Crab

The soup is followed by stuffed crumbed crabs. Scrumptious is all I can say. The flavour of the crab meat was infused in the stuffing, yet it wasn’t overwhelming the dish. The smooth graininess (the length to which we go to describe indescribable tastes!) was homogenous, as it should be, and I was delighted with the dish. Period.

In his Natural History, Aristotle has mentioned geese and chicken rearing, but not ducks. In Europe, the first mention of duck rearing in any written document came in 37 BC, Roman Empire. According to author Waverly Root (Food),“Had ducks been domesticated in England by Elizabethan times? They were cheap enough to make that seem likely-six pence for a large bird.”

Keeping history aside, Europe still came up with fantastic duck recipes, though later then the Asians (China, 2500 BC). One of those is Duck à l’orange. Rajyashree serves me the same teasing my taste buds systematically. French origin; and as the cuisine is known for its emphasis on technique, I am too looking for the technique in this dish. Needless to say, taste is the priority. It is a roast duck served with orange sauce; it is important that the duck is young and tender. Brown Sahib’s Duck à l’orange was nice, subtle and was comforting. I am reminded to mention that the dish was in the menu because Chandannagar, a small city 30 kms from Kolkata was formerly a French colony. With a lot of other influences including literature and culture, food was one aspect which was heartily welcomed even then.

Church inspired by French architecture in Chandan nagar

Rajyashree’s roots of belonging to an old aristocratic Bengali family speak volumes of her love for food. As we journeyed through the lanes of the Bada Sahib bungalows of Bengal and Assam and Tolly’s (pet name for Tollygunj Club for most Kolkatans) steak kebabs, we drool, smirk, laugh and smile. Here comes our shepherd’s pie. A dig into it, and I knew I’d cross my limits of indulgence today; very well done up pie with potatoes and minced meat.

Shepherd's Pie

It is interesting to know that the first pies in England developed in the fourteenth century. Some culinary historians believe that it has origins in the word magpie. The way a magpie collects tit bits, the original pie was supposed to have bits and pieces of a lot of things-minced meat (primarily beef), potatoes, flour and eggs amongst others. The shepherd’s pie started off as  the cottage pie. The term cottage at that time was used for people who’d have a humble dwelling. Potato (used in the pie) was one crop which was affordable for the general masses. It was not until the eighteenth century that the term shepherd’s pie came into usage. It was mostly used for the pie rendition with mutton mince. As of today, both are used synonymously; though the Americans, Irish and English are still confused over who should hold the crown for inventing it. I am sure, even stepping foot on moon does not qualify to be the hottest debate on earth as this one: Who invented the pie?????

Banoffee Pie at Brown Sahib

While I would like to acknowledge the British for the bakes like banoffee and shepherd’s pie, roasts and bacons, the Portuguese and the French did it with dishes like Vindaloo, Beveca and Dodol. Goans are especially particular about calling the dodol theirs, though there are regions all over south Asia where it is very popular. For the uninitiated, dodol is a sweet toffee like dish prepared from rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. Prolonged cooking is required to give it a thick jelly like consistency; however it is much thicker and non sticky. It is believed that it originates from the Indian term doda a sweet dish prepared from jaggery and wheat flour.

Anglo Indian food developed in various parts of the country. Kolkata being the capital of British India at one point in time gained volumes out of it. Certain dishes developed in Assam, West Bengal, now Uttaranchal and parts of South India with European officials and their families having to rely on Indian cooks; needless to say some experiments did take place in the kitchens eventually popularizing caramel custard, crepe suzette and other desserts.

I am hungry now–talking food about always awakens me and I feel the urge and the need to cook hence the chef in me provokes me to write only this much. But I know there are volumes that can be written on the history of cuisine. As of now, I can thank Rajyashree for the sumptuous meal that I had at her restaurant-the only one that I know of in this city that serves authentic Anglo-Indian food. I will for sure go to savour a meal at Brown Sahib many times over not only for the food but the flavour of warmth and love that Rajyashree emits.

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

Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by ashthefoodie
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.