Simple, elegant Assamese cuisine : The Tribune India

Simple, elegant Assamese cuisine

The varying tastes and flavours of dishes indicate the diverse influences that the region has embraced

Simple, elegant Assamese cuisine

The varying tastes and flavours of dishes indicate the diverse influences that the region has embraced



Rahul Verma

While watching a Bihu dance on television some days ago, I was struck by a thought. There is seemingly a link between the food of a region, and its dance forms. The vigorous Bhangra of Punjab, for instance, complements the butter-laden food of the state. And the unfussy but elegant steps of Bihu tell us about the food of Assam: the fact that it’s simple yet tasteful. There was a time, not so long ago, when the cuisine of Assam was restricted to the state. But Delhi and its neighbouring areas now boast of a spate of Assamese restaurants. Though there were a few tiny eateries serving the region’s food even earlier, the doors to the cuisine really opened up after Assam Bhavan, the state government guesthouse, started a restaurant on the premises some years ago. I still recall — with mouth-watering detail — a duck meat curry that I had there, and a sublime dessert of puffed rice, molasses and fresh cream.

The varying tastes and flavours of Assamese dishes point to the diverse influences that the region has embraced. The indigenous communities, as well as settlers over the years, have added to the cauldron. You can get the flavours of the food of the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, too. Take, for instance, the use of bamboo shoots, widely found and cooked in many parts of Southeast and East Asia. I remember my first taste of khorisa — a pickle-like bamboo shoot dish with an overwhelming flavour — and still drool over a chicken dish that had been cooked with khorisa in a bamboo cylinder.

Given the influences, the cuisine, not surprisingly, offers a wide variety of tastes. A dish can be tangy, or have the heady taste of mustard and the sharpness of green chillies, flavours that you will find in the popular side dish aloo pitika — mashed potatoes with a dash of mustard oil, mixed with green chillies and onions.

But the element that gives Assamese food its characteristic piquancy is an ingredient called khar, which is prepared — in most places — by burning the dry trunk and stems of a banana tree, or its peels. The ashes are mixed with water, which is then distilled. This alkaline liquid — or khar — is mixed with vegetables, leading to tasty and nutritious dishes.

An Assamese feast, typically, consists of fish and meat dishes, as well as various kinds of vegetables. A riverine state, it offers a vast variety of fish, cooked in different ways. The rohu kalia is often cooked with whole spices, while the hilsa more often than not is coated with a mustard paste. The meat dishes include duck curry, mutton, chicken and even pigeon. Pork has its rightful place, too, and is often cooked with mustard leaves.

It has a wide array of vegetarian dishes: you will find leafy greens, as well as dishes such as banana flower florets and potatoes, or mahor boror aloo bilahi tenga — ground masoor dal balls cooked in a lightly-cooked tangy sauce. And if you are lucky, you will have all this with the region’s delightfully aromatic joha rice.

Of course, the food is not uniform across the state, for the many communities in Assam have their many specialities. The sobai jwng dau of the Bodo community, for instance, is a special chicken dish, cooked with roasted split black gram. Or take the food of the state’’s Muslim community, which constitutes one-third of the population. I had a delicious meal several years ago prepared by Muslim chefs, and still remember the region's special shammi kebabs, which had been tempered with the local bon jaluk, or whole black pepper, and korma pulao.

That Assamese cuisine had spread out well beyond its border became apparent to me when I read in Hoihnu Hauzel’s book ‘The Essential North-East Cookbook’ about the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay cooking what could possibly be called the state’s signature dish — masor tenga. It is a deliciously light fish dish, made tart with the help of tomatoes and often the juice of a regional lime called kaji nemu. The gravy is tempered with fenugreek and mustard seeds, and a bit of turmeric powder.

The best part about being a foodie is that, like tastes, opinions can be sharp and varied. Chef Ramsay had cooked the fish with ginger and garlic, which shocked a large section of food-lovers on a social media site. Garlic and ginger, an irate foodie exclaimed on the site, have no role to play in this dish. The essence of masor tenga lies in its simplicity, another pointed out.

Simple and elegant — that’s masor tenga. Indeed, quite like the Bihu.

Tribune Shorts


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