Assamese dishes are less spicy than other Indian dishes but carry richness of taste and health. The variety of ingredients and exotic herbs used lend them their unique flavour
Not so long ago, our only culinary association with Assam was that of the wine-coloured Assam tea. After all, it was, and still is, one of the best exports originating from Margherita (Assam’s beautiful hill station where King of Scots, Robert the Bruce discovered the white tea in 1823). But thanks to the creativity of some foodies, this ancient Gateway to South Asia, today, says Ashish Chopra, author of North East cook book, NE Belly, “is known as much for its lip-smacking cuisine as its breathtaking beauty. In fact, two dishes in particular, tenga and khar, the mainstay of every Assamese meal, have gained much popularity.”
The reason for this, says chef-turned-blogger, Kashmiri Barkakati, “isn’t only because every household (whether from Upper Assam or Lower one) has made it a ‘meal essential’ of their daily lives, but also because they represent the spectrum of Assamese food culture, which is often described by chefs as an ‘outstanding mélange of North Eastern flavours’.”
ORIGINS AND INFLUENCES
So while khar, a unique Assamese delicacy originally made of water and the ash of banana peel, that got the state its unique nickname – KharKhowa Jati (meaning the race of khar eaters)– is a tasteful palate cleaner; tenga, which has both vegetarian and meat options, is a tangy, cleverly flavoured dish that complements the different taste of a thali and leaves with a lingering food memory. In fact, adds Chef Barkakati, “just for the taste, locals in Assam prefer the tenga more than a khar and consider any meal incomplete without their Brahmaputra gift, i.e., joha rice (a short-grained rice known for its sweet-scented aroma and excellent taste).” It is said that the curry was developed under the Ahom clan, who, as per the chef, “were descendants of the Thai royalty” and hence the light palate playing flavours. Another theory credits the Eastern influence. For a large part of history, Assam remained not only an important trading portal, but also the roadway to South Asia and was frequented by travellers, monks and even kings from the erstwhile state of Kalinga (Odisha) and Bengal. Effectively, the tribal state, Bodos (the descendants of Mongolia) being the most prominent of them, had a cuisine that had influences not only from Thailand and Burma, but also Odisha, Bengal and Nagaland among others. Chef Chopra adds, “The little that might have gone missing came with the monks and the British, giving Assam a food culture that became the basis of understanding their cuisine.”
EAST VS NORTH EAST
This perhaps explains the commonness of a few dishes of Bengal and Odisha like the pithika, bhapot diya maas (steamed fish in banana leaf) and pura (charred on fire) technique. Pithika, says Chef Barkakati, “is mashed potatoes made by adding salt, chillies and mustard oil. The difference, however, is that in Assam, pithika is made of any local vegetable when it is fresh in the season.”
The other similarity between the East and the North East state is the use of vegetables to make fish or meat. Their masor muri ghonto (fish head curry) is a close cousin of Oriya mundo ghonto (fish head with vegetable). Or the tekeli pitha, made of rice powder, resembles the idli but is bigger in size and served with coconut and sugar, much like the pithas in Odisha, as a celebratory snack. But other than these few similarities, Assamese cuisine predominantly is a stunning amalgamation of tribal (Lower Assam) and royal Hindu (Upper Assam) food culture that developed over a period of 3,000 years and is highly local.
MELANGE OF FLAVOURS
So while you may find semblance of Bengali cuisine in Lower Assam, as you move around, the cuisine goes into an interesting the subtle flavours popularised by Ahom Kings, which is delicate curry with subtle taste layers. Like the Narzi—A litmus test for most new brides, this thin, delicious fish gravy is made of dried jute leaves. And the trick to get it right is to know the quantity of leaves to add, which can leave the curry tantalising and not bitter.
Similar is the case of Napham. A chutney-style side dish from the Bodo tribe, which is made of dry pond fish and is a lunch must-have. Some other exotic dishes of the tribe are koroi pok and xukoti. While Koroi pok are rare-to-find water bugs found close to paddy fields, xukoti is a preserve made of dried fish and stored in bamboo tubes and is mostly had with Apong, the traditional rice drink of the Mishing community. Apong comes in two kinds – the first is a whitish-yellow Nogin and the other is a pale green or transparent Poro made of ash of rice husk and hay with rice and Sai-mod, which is an assortment of local growing herbs.
Yet another distinguishing feature of Assamese cuisine is the use of local fowl, which the locals are extremely fond of despite the modern thalis showcasing chicken and other meat. Chef Barkakati explains, “Fowls became a part of the food culture due to religious beliefs and also because they were found in plenty.”
The best fowl dish even today is the one, which has been cooked with fresh ash gourd or pumpkin, or the one made with banana plantain, much like petu made with onion and naraxinha leaves. And the favourite paro manxo is either made with koldil (banana flower) and is dry, or a jool (curry) version with lots of black pepper. The presence of either delicacy in the meal means you are really special to your guests.
Curiously, for a State that grows bhut jolokia, the use of chillies (or for that matter spices) in its dishes is kept to the minimum. There is nothing called garam masala in their culinary ledger. Even their puras get their pungency from the mustard oil or pepper, while the interesting flavours come from fish fat, the use of green leafy vegetables (laai, lofa, paleng, dhoniya, podina, matikanduri, maanimuni, dhekia, durum, to name a few) and local herbs.
GIFT FROM THE MUGHALS
Muslims first came to Assam in 1206 when Ikhtiyar Uddin Khilji led a military expedition to Tibet through the region. In 1615, the Mughals invaded Assam. This led to the birth of the Assamese-Mughlai cuisine and as a result, Assam fascinatingly has a small but distinctive Muslim food culture as well. Navin Singh, former Executive Chef, Radisson Blu, Guwahati, who has served the Assamese thali as part of their buffet that includes a good portion of the Assamese Muslim food, says, “Aside from having the usual pithika made with meat and fish, there is also the Mughal inspired korma pilaf, kebab and kaleji among others. The Assamese community uses onions, garlic and ginger in its cooking, but the taste of their korma is nothing like the one you would find in mainland India.” “The highlight of the korma pilaf here”, adds Singh, “is the meat which is cut into small pieces that helps it melt well, while the fat lends flavour to the rice.” The folklore for the little pieces is related to the judiciousness of the cooks back then, who wanted everyone to get ample mutton pieces, no matter which side of the pan you are served from.
Next time you are looking for a food adventure with an extra garnish of history, Assam is the place to be.
Written By : Madhulika Dash