Barnali Pal Sinha
When you think of Assam, it is the exotic food that comes to mind instantly. The state offers an array of indigenous foods with a distinct flavour. It is rich in herbs and for non-vegetarian food lovers, it is especially a paradise. The cooking techniques in Assamese cuisine vary from the hills to the plains, the food being a heady mix of fermented food and fresh produce.
A traditional meal consists of khar (ash extract of banana peel from which is prepared soda or alkali), dishes with dhekia or fiddlehead fern or the simple doi-chira, which is a Bihu speciality.
In Mumbai, food from Assam or the North East was hitherto unknown, but thanks to food evangelist or home chef Gitika Saikia, Mumbaikars are now familiar with the cuisine and are all in love with her food pop-ups.
“Awareness about the cuisine has definitely increased over the last five years. It is evident from the fact that many reputed restaurants, hotels and home chefs have started offering indigenous cuisines now,” said Saikia, who greets us with her infectious smile, wearing the traditional Mekhala Chador.
Saikia has been dishing out Assamese and Northeastern cuisine for the past six years via pop-ups and in collaboration with restaurants in Mumbai. The home chef left her cushy corporate job in 2013 to start her venture, Gitika’s Pakghor, which translates into Gitika’s Kitchen. Her aim is to promote Northeastern tribal cuisine and sources all her ingredients from Assam. She also curates and customises menus for home delivery.
Saikia’s pop-up and home delivery menu is curated keeping in mind that people in cities prefer ‘mainland’ Northeast cuisine. Thus, she mainly cooks khar, fiddlehead fern with guti aloo (baby potatoes) and pork. Various seasons, however, see her dishing out a variety of foods. During monsoons, for instance, her delivery menu includes seasonal food like bhaat karela (teasel gourd), colocasia leaves, pumpkin, kol posola (tender bamboo shoots) and many other veggies.
“I am glad Mumbaikars have opened up to try this new cuisine but yes, we still have a long way to go,” says Saikia, adding, “Tribal cuisine uses less oil, masala and meats that aren’t popular here, so people don’t enjoy it.”
In the recent times, there has been a shift of focus from her regular pop-ups to seasonal delivery menus twice a month. Her sit-down pop-ups are organised once in three months and are elaborate. “The focus here is again seasonal vegetables flown in from Assam. The home delivery menus consist of both small meals and dishes,” she says, adding that seasonal veggies and greens are the core of all her menus.
Saikia sources all her ingredients twice a month from Assam via courier or Speed Post. Remembering the time when she started, Saikia says she used to end up paying for her shipments. Many times delivery got delayed too! However, as she learnt to plan better, the wastage was much lower.
She travels to her home state and other Northeastern states every year to source ingredients. Interestingly, her travel is all about gaining knowledge of various cuisines. “Every time I am home, I make it a point to learn something new from the extended family and neighbours,” said Saikia. In her free time, she loves to dabble with various kinds of pithas, puffed rice dishes, rice payokh, exotic black sticky rice payokh and even narikol larus as dessert.
And when she isn’t readying for her pop-ups or home-delivery menu, she is busy feeding her two-and-half year-old son, passing him
the rich Assamese food tradition. “I have started introducing him to indigenous dishes and he is liking a few. For instance, he gave thumbs up to fish intestine cooked with brinjal recently,” she adds.
Up next on Saikia’s agenda are lesser-known festivals of Northeastern tribes. She says she wants people in Mumbai to discover the culture of ethnic communities. “Everyone knows about Bihu, but there are umpteen others festivals too that are interesting.” As a first, Saikia, who hails from the Sonowal Kachari tribe, celebrated the Ali Aii Ligang festival of the Mishing tribe (originally from Arunachal Pradesh) in Mumbai. The pop-up featured dishes like pithang oying (chicken curry with masur dal and rice flour), mecheka (fig) leaves cooked with pork, namshing (chutney) made with dry and smoked river fish and bhekuri tita aloo pitika (mashed potato and wild brinjals) served with sticky rice.
Ever since she began, Saikia has come a long way, but her culinary journey started on a much smaller scale, by making jolphai and pickles of the famed bhut jolokia. She says she still makes them on order. Thanks to her, the king chilli and the Assamese and Northeastern cuisine has received a warm welcome in Mumbai.
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