by Akanksha Kakati.
Assamese Thali. Photo credit: humptydumpty.in
The cuisine of Assam is as humble as its people. Lentils (dal), fish, rice and seasonal vegetables cooked in very little or no oil and spices mainly comprise of a typical Assamese meal. Spices are usually only used to prepare meat dishes. Interestingly, one of the hottest chillies in the world Bhut Jalokia (ghost pepper) comes from Assam. But it is rarely used in Assamese cuisine.
The tastes of upper, lower and central Assam somewhat differ from each other. The people of upper Assam including Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur prefer food that is not rich in spices and enjoy duck, chicken and mutton prepared with fenugreek seeds. Relatively, the places in lower Assam including Barpeta, Dhuburi and Goalpara enjoy spicier food often cooked with coconut milk. Guwahati being a cosmopolitan city reflects an extensive taste that is inclusive of the cuisine of the neighbouring states. One can often find deep fried food here, which is unheard of in other parts of Assam. The central parts of Assam relish a variety of foods that are rich in ginger and garlic.
Assam covers one of the few remaining tropical rainforests of India and therefore, is exceedingly rich in biodiversity. Two complementary concepts that exist in Assamese cooking are Tenga (acidic or sour) and Khar (alkaline). The most well-known tenga dish is Maasor Tenga which is cooked with sour ingredients like tomato, lemon and Outenga (elephant apple). On the other hand traditional Assamese meals begin with the harmonizing Khar. Khar is an alakaline solution prepared by filtering water through the ashes of the banana peels or trunk that is first dried in the sun and then burnt. A group of dishes that are made with this special preparation and pulpy vegetables such as papaya, gourds and cucumber are known as Khar. This has led to the expression “Khar Khua Asomiya” or the Khar eating Assamese.
Pitika is a customary side dish and is prepared by mashing the main ingredient. Aaloo Pitika is prepared by mashing potatoes and mixing it with salt, raw onions, chillies and mustard oil. Pitha is a widely popular sweet made by soaking and grinding rice and then roasting it over fire to make rice cakes. Many variations of pitha such as Gila Pitha, Sungha Pitha, Til Pitha, etc. are prepared and eaten during Bihu.
Many external influences can be seen on Assamese cuisine. For example the substantial use of mustard seeds in fish preparations is similar to that in Bengali cuisine. Assamese dishes prepared with bamboo shoots, coconut milk and spices exhibit a Thai influence.
Assam is a composite culture of many different tribes. Although they differ from each other in certain food habits, they are all part of the composite Assamese cuisine. Each tribe has its unique essense in their dishes. The Bodos for instance do not consume fresh fish like most of Assam, but prefer fermented fish called Napham. They also like to cure their meat but either smoking it over fire or drying it in the sun. The Deori and Mishing tribes of the Majuli Island often enjoy a simple meal of vegetable and meat boiled with herbs found on the island. Most tribes of Assam including the Bodos, Mishings and Rabhas often enjoy a glass or two of Laopani or Zou or rice beer along with their meals.
The kitchen is traditionally reserved for women and a woman’s skill in cooking can often determine her hand in marriage in many of the tribal societies. To this end brides in the Bodo tribe with the help of others often prepare a dish that is later served to the guests during the wedding.
By and large the flavours of Assam demonstrate a convergence of cooking habits of the plains that favour fresh vegetables and fish and the hills where people prefer their food fermented and cured leading to a large variety in the cuisine.