Where eating is more than filling the stomach
WHEN you open the outer layering of a cooked banana leave, a strong aroma assails your nostrils and your mouth waters even before you have glanced at the contents: tiny fishes liberally coated with mustard and onion paste decorated with chillies.
And why not, considering that this dish evokes flavours and smells typical of the exotic land of Assam where eating means much more than just indulging your stomach. Food is sacred and eating is almost a ritual but the cooking process is fuss-free and in sync with nature, a trait that reflects the simple lifestyle of the inhabitants.
Being a state of essentially rice-eating people, the day starts with snacks made of rice, the famous pitha, made of rice flour, that reminds one of idli. The pitha comes in more varieties than one cares to remember: pitha filled with coconut powder or having a simple coating of gur or the special one baked within a bamboo piece in an open fire.
A typical Assamese meal
starts with a bowl of khar, a dish of boiled vegetables cooked in
the ashes of a banana tree, a variety of cooking soda, followed by a
dish of titaful, a bitter flower which is available in everyone's
kitchen garden. Then comes a tangy curry, made of bamboo shoots,
tomatoes or herbs available locally. After consuming the starters with
spoonfuls of rice, it is time for dal, seasonal vegetables and
fish curry to be followed by a dish of meat or poultry products. The
dessert is normally rice kheer though the calorie-conscious
people prefer instead to have a piece of beetle nut and paan.
It is not just the dishes that are exotic but even the way food is consumed that is of interest. The traditional way to have food is to sit on a floor with hand-woven bamboo mats. Eating with hands is not thought to be bad table manners. Getting your hands dirty is not a deterrent because there is always someone ready with a jug of water and huge bowl to make you wash your hands before and after a meal.
Even the manner in which the plates are laid on the table gives an insight into the family hierarchy. Heavier plates made of bell metal spell respect and clout and are reserved for the elders while others get to eat in the normal steel plates. Bone china crockery is reserved for guests. Though outside influences have made an impact on eating customs, marking a shift from eating on bamboo mats to dining tables, the assamese have still clung to old food habits as well as eating on locally produced bell metal plates.
Cooked rice 50 gm
Soda bicarbonate 1/4 tsp
Salt to taste
Mustard oil 2 tbsp
Ginger 10 gm
Fenugreek seeds 1/4tbsp
Water 500 ml.
Method: Chop the spinach after thoroughly washing it. Chop the ginger. Pour the oil in pan, put the methi and once it is cooked add the chopped spinach, soda, rice and fry a little. Pour the water and add the chopped ginger as a finishing touch.
Fish 250 gm
Mustard seeds 2 tbsp
Onion 25 gm
Green chillis 2
Mustard oil 4 tbsp
Salt to taste
Method: Wash the pieces of the fish. Chop onion, chillis and grind the mustard seeds to a fine paste. Add all the ingredients along with salt and oil. Now coat the fish pieces with the paste, wrap it in banana leaf and put it on an open fire. Garnish with coriander leaves.
Rohu fish in curd
Rohu fish 250 gm
Curd 1 cup
Jeera 2 tbsp
Salt to taste
Turmeric powder 1 tsp
Mustard oil 100 ml
Dry red chillis 4
Capsicum 75 gm
Onion 100 gm
Sugar 1 tsp
Water 2 cups
Elaichi, dalchini 1 tsp
Method: Wash the fish pieces and coat with turmeric and salt. Make a paste of jeera and dry chillis. Put oil in a pan and fry the fish. Put the spices, turmeric, chopped capsicum, salt and sugar into the remaining hot oil. Stir the ingredients for a while and then pour the curd into it. Let it cook for a while and then pour water. When it comes to a boil add the fried fish. Top with elaichi and dalchini paste.