In this, the fourth part of our north-east foodie trail series, we bring to you food from the Awesome state of Assam
The land of the one-horned rhinoceros is known for silky fibres and a stretch of tea plantations. Most Indian homes commence their day with the aroma of Assam tea brewing in the morning air. But the state’s cuisine remains largely unknown. The presence of the Bengali community in Assam has been widespread since the colonial era, naturally impacting the lifestyle. Yet what remains overlooked are the Burmese, Mongolian and Aryan influences. No culture can be genuinely understood without dipping your toes, or rather, digging your forks in its culinary offerings. Assam’s highly distinctive gastronomy can be both exceedingly exciting for an experimental foodie and in ways pleasantly pleasing to a traditional eater. Let’s explore the curious case of this cuisine and the mouth-watering meals it offers:
Hanhor Mangxo Komora
The Ahom dynasty that presided over the state until the British regime and although the hanhor mangxo komora is today eaten across the state, this community is to be credited for it. This delicacy presents a curry comprising of duck meat and white gourd. A tale tells that the Assamese folks prefer a duck that can run even as it gets plump, however, the reason behind this preference is a mystery to be uncovered another day. While geese, migratory and wild ducks are eaten here, the mallard duck or paati hanh is the pick for this recipe. Similarly, though white gourd is the preference for its subtlety which complements the duck meat, the ash gourd can be alternated too. The tender gourd vegetable is often mixed with a variant of lentils, sesame or pumpkins. The addition of ginger-garlic paste, mustard and chillies make for a spicy delight. The inhabitants prepare many dishes with duck such as the poon haah, i.e., roasted duck or duck with potato but hanhor mangxo komora is earmarked for special guests, a choice you’ll resonate with when you delve into its piquant pleasures.
I once asked an Assamese friend his favourite dish and he mentioned his granny’s masoor tenga. Topping the picks for most residents, it’s easily the cherished choice of chefs. On your plate will come a fish slow cooked in tomatoes, fenugreek seeds, turmeric powder, mustard oil, kazi lime juice (a variant of Kaffir lime) and the prized ingredient of Assamese kitchens outenga (elephant apples). Incidentally, I couldn’t find a comment on this by linguists, but the word “tenga” not only sounds similar to, but also means tangy which could possibly hint at a language transference? With each of the ingredients bringing in their own raw acidic richness to relish, the fish is as flavoursome as it gets and it’s the sour hour to savour. Given that a range of Indian menus come doused in heavy curries, this one is lauded for the lightness of the gravy even as it blends into a succulent serving. Thus, this beloved bowlful will actually leave the eater himself feeling pampered after eating a plate.
Xaak Aru Bhaji
“Aakhor ghor” is the commonly used lingo for Assamese kitchens. Traditionally, they have two earthen fireplaces called chowki which sources the preparations to have an earthy taste. Their culinary skills pride themselves for resorting to scarce amounts of oil, imbibing seasonal vegetables and finishing results that are brimming with nourishment. The xaak aru bhaji is the best display of this finesse. Xaak refers to leafy vegetables commonly consumed in the North Eastern lands. Dhekia xaak is the edible fiddlehead fern plant, prominently put to use to make this veggie wonder. Its presence marks the arrival of spring coming knocking on every household’s kitchen door. Dhekia befriends other vegetables such as dried tomatoes, pumpkin, dried mangosteen, shrimp or pork. The dish has stir-fried vegetables seasoned with herbs and spices such as cinnamon, ginger, garlic and onions browned upon the stove. Xaak aru bhaji is eaten complementary to the main course but is significant in the staple diet, with chutneys such as the ou khatta, elephant apple sauce and pumpkin oambal enhancing the eating experience. Simply cooked, simply delicious.
If by this point, you are wondering just how experimental can the cuisine actually be, meet the real star, paro manxho., i.e., pigeon meat, as it is still unorthodox to consume in our country. What’s noteworthy is that pigeon alone isn’t the rare component in this delicacy, it is also the banana flower (koldil). The regional folks heavily rely on bananas, from the fruit, the leaves and even the raw stem, to whip up staple needs. Here the flower is bestowed the responsibility of lending its texture to this amalgamation. This coming together of onions, cardamoms, peppercorns, cloves and chillies is for the spice enthusiasts to indulge themselves with the zing soaked into the gamey meat. It is reserved during festive events, making its presence known amidst the folk dances and music galore at the state’s eminent festival, Bihu. If your offbeat itch isn’t yet curbed, then silkworm and snails are the next one’s for you to try! As for those who desire a taste of the state’s signature cooking but with traditional meats, the baanhgajor lagot kukura is a chicken masala dish for your soft spot.
Poita bhat and aloo pitika
Every now and then even an experimental eater can find himself/herself craving simple food. Meals, the bites of which leave you feeling content or reminiscing suppers at home, yes, comfort food. If after tasting the likes of the above your foodie soul wants something nutritious yet yummy at the same time, the poita bhat and aloo pitika are what will satiate the need. Poita bhat simply stated is fermented rice. Have some leftover rice from last night’s dinner? Convert it into poita! Meanwhile, pitika is mashed potatoes with coriander, onions and chillies tossed around in the tang of mustard. The potatoes will melt into your mouth leaving a peppered aftertaste. Together they make a light delight leaving you feeling both, fresh and adequately full in the summer heat. This is a popular breakfast option in the present-day lands of the former Kamarupa kingdom. Vitamin rich and beneficial for digestion, this one is to appetize you even as you softly soothe your appetite.
A little something for those who want their taste-buds to caress the innovative, a little something for those who enjoy their meals to be hearty and wholesome, a little bit of Assam for everyone’s palate.