The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 11, 2003
Lead Article

Where eating is more than filling the stomach
Parbina Rashid

Spinach khar
Spinach khar

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.


But there is not much reason to worry about the calorie count because one typical complete Assamese dish contains just about 350- 400 calories. This is generally due to less use of spice or oil. So wedded to health are the people of Assam that after trying out the much-publicised refined cooking oils for while, they have chosen to revert to good old mustard oil because of its curative properties.

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.

Spinach khar

Serves 4


Spinach 150gm.

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.

Roasted fish

Fish is a staple part of the Assamese cuisine
Fish is a staple part of the Assamese cuisine

Serves 4


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

Serves 4


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.