My experience of having Assamese cuisine..

I sometimes have had this writing attack, which I cannot cope up, until I scrap my thought somewhere.

I am on my tour to North Eastern states, for my job and finally taking my weekly break at Guwahati. No workload, so decided to enjoy my stay in the city.

Whenever, I came to Guwahati; I used to stay at Hotel Priya Palace near Ulubari. It’s not a star hotel in Guwahati (although the owner took his pride to call it “Palace”) but definitely a decent place to stay on a regular basis (as I’m a regular visitor to this city). In fact for an “aam aadmi” like me, an air-conditioned room with double bed, wooden furniture, a big toilet area with nice bathroom fittings and free breakfast, in a thousand-five hundred bucks is a real deal. Moreover, like the cherry on an ice-cream top, if the hotel offered you a 15% flat discount on your daily room tariff, I’m sure everyone like me would go mad for this hotel (I think now I got their marketing plan).

However, I find two distinct reasons for staying in this hotel:

  1. It’s staffs behaves so friendly with me, that makes me feel like “at home”
  2. Its address is 2, Janpath Lane; which sounds familiar to our Prime minister’s residence in New Delhi.

Anyway, I’m not here to propagate for the hotel I used to stay in Guwahati, but to share my experience of taste today.

I woke up late today, as yesterday I was very tired and went to sleep very late after spending my time on twitter till 1 am. When I opened my eyes, I find the sunlight inside my room through the glass window, in an angle (didn’t dare to measure it using the compass) which forced my mind to love the day. I feel it’s a bright and beautiful day outside. It leads to my urge to compliment myself with some good food and enjoy the day before its dawn.

I called Mr. Singh, the manager of this hotel, who’s from Dimapur, Nagaland and become a good friend of mine, and ask him for advice about a decent place to eat my lunch. I was not bothered about the money I’ll spend; all I need was a good, tasty food. Mr. Singh suggests me to have traditional Assamese food in lunch at “KHORIKA” a decent restaurant for Assamese cuisine in the Ulubari area. He also warned me to reach early in the restaurant; else I have to wait in a long queue for my lunch, as it is Sunday. So, I made up my mind to take my lunch at restaurant KHORIKA.

I had enough time to spend in Sunday morning, so decided to move around the city in search of some bookshop and in this course got late. I took an auto-rickshaw and asked him to land me near Bora Service Station, a petrol pump, where KHORIKA is located.

The auto-wallah, either just to impress me or really in the urge to reach in shortest time, run through narrow gullies of Guwahati, with two minor path-losing, one quarrel with a cycle-rickshaw and one break down. Finally when I reached KHORIKA, it was full with people eating inside and some standing in queue to get entry to eat.

I was also standing at the nth number in the queue, with my cellphone in hand, taking picture of the advertisement on the board, twitting and making call to friends, who never expected me to call him at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to just say hi or to know how were they?

After a long wait (didn’t know exactly how long I waited as I was busy with my Nokia), the restaurant allowed me enter inside, and with God’s grace I got a table near the window facing the main road. I was ready to enjoy my food with a great view of cars rushing on the road outside. The AC inside the restaurant was quite high and it’s really chilled for me. I was about to taste the Assamese traditional food for the first time. How it would be? Shall I postpone my desire to try Assamese food and go back to my routine “menu during tour” Chapatti, Dal fry and Curd? With all those ‘yes’ and no’s in mind, I asked the waiter to serve me the traditional Assamese lunch. He smiled and moved on to arrange the serving. His natural and warm smile made me comfortable and put me at ease.

I was busy to see the road outside, when the sound of small bowls caught my attention. The waiter was serving my lunch. It had the plate of rice in the center surrounded by n-numbers of small bowls containing various delicacies of Assam.

I was not sure how to start and where to start. The waiter became my guide and according to his advises; I proceed on eating and enjoying the food. I also gain little knowledge about the cuisines of North East and especially the Assamese cuisine.

The food habits of North East India are quite similar with that of south East Asia. The People of North East especially the tribal people like to use pure mustard oil than any other vegetable oil or ghee as in northern parts of India.

I was told (which I experienced as true also) among the North Eastern Cuisines, Assamese cuisine is a mixture of different indigenous styles with considerable regional variations and some external influences. One of the main characteristics, and probably unique among all the food variations of Indian food, is the use of considerably less spice in all food preparations.

Rice is the staple food of Assamese cuisine supplemented by lentils, herbs, vegetables and non-vegetarian items. The curries are generally seasoned with onion, ginger, garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fenugreek seeds, bay leaves and sometimes lemon, particularly in the preparation of famous sour curries of Assam.

A traditional meal in Assam begins with a KHAR BHAAT (alkaline rice), a class of dish named after the main ingredient. Traditionally the liquid, to use as KHAR in recipes, is prepared by roasting dried banana pills or any other parts of banana tree. The roasted mass is then poured in boiling water and strained. The liquid thus obtained can be stored for days. It is used not only in preparation of curries but also in some authentic side dishes; nowadays Sodium Bicarbonate is used in preparation of KHAR. KHAR is highly nutritious in that it maintains the acid-alkali balance of the body.

Though majority of the Assamese community is non-vegetarian, lots of tasty vegetarian recipes are also prepared in the traditional way. BOR or BORA (Pakodas), PITIKA (meshes of different vegetables), VAGI (vegetable fries), ANJA or TARKARI (vegetable curries), PATOT or KHORIKA (baked/roasted vegetables) and DAL or DALI (lentils) prepared in unique style are served alongside the main dish.

Although I’m a vegetarian, I couldn’t resist myself from asking the waiter, about the non-vegetarian dishes. He said that majority of the Assamese community is non-vegetarian. Fish is the favorite among Assamese people and different variations of unique fish preparations are served. There are different varieties of fishes are available, in abundance, in the water bodies of the state. Birds like pigeon, duck and chicken are equally popular. Meat and egg recipes are also prepared the traditional way. People of Assam are more inclined to pork meat because of the availability. The people have their own piggery at home. Most of the meat recipes are boiled with chilly, ginger, garlic and green leafy vegetables. Some spices are also made with bamboo hollow using ginger, garlic paste and rich herbs. It is baked on charcoal. Smoked pork using a bamboo square is also a common food.

Assamese sweet dish is incomplete without PITHA (pan cake preparation with rice powder) both salted and sweet and LARU (sweet balls made either of coconut or of sesame seed with sugar). There are different variations of PITHA made of rice powder; some PITHA are deep fried also. Other sweet items like PAYAS, ROSKORA etc. are also common in preparation. In fact, Assam can boast of its unique collection of sweet dishes.

My statement would not be incomplete without the mentioning of the tasty JOLPAN (heavy snacks) prepared by CHIRA (rice flake) or MURI (puffed rice) and many other ingredients.

In fact the JOLPAN can also be served as the main food, whereas the PITHA and LARU (sweet balls made either of coconut or of sesame seed with sugar) can be served as snacks with tea or as side dish along the main meal.

I finished my meal with ATENGA (sour curry).

I have been offered TAMBUL-PAAN (betel nut-betel leaf) in bell metal utensils, before the food bill sent to. I was told,it is offered at the end of the meal which is an honor to the guest as well as a digestive mouth freshener.

My tummy was full of traditional cuisine of Assam and I was enriched about the AKHOL GHOR (Kitchen) and the traditional cuisine. Now I also know Assamese traditional Kitchens normally have two parts. First the dining area with a small cooking space for tea etc. And the next bigger and more functional room is the actual kitchen with at least two AAKHA (earthen fire places). I consider this much is enough for the day. I thank the KHORIKA waiter, sorry… Bezboruada; for two reasons, first enriching me with his knowledge and secondly for serving the tasty food.

I was leaving KHORIKA, chewing the TAMBUL-PAAN. Unlike BANARASHI PAAN, it lacks any paan- mashallas and chutney, so it taste little bitter but not felt bad. Words of Bezboruada was encircling in my mind “Assamese people uses less spices to uncover the real taste of the food.”

I find it is very familiar to their nature. They live a simple life, life of innocence, using fewer spices to prevent the life to become formal and plastic.