Insects, fermented flavours, visions of TV show hosts scarfing down bhoot jolokia like marathoners. Just mention Assamese cuisine and some might even shudder a little or shy away because it has been made to sound so exotic or even intimidating. But it isn’t. These are all myths that have been propagated to create TRPs for TV shows and social media. Some of these myths were busted for me by Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, exactly a year ago when she hosted her first Assamese pop-up in the city. Mumbaikars now have a chance to bust some myths about the State’s food too, with the self-taught proponent of Assamese cuisine, Nath coming from Guwahati with a host of traditional ingredients, her passion and a deep desire to showcase these gastronomical delights.
The first thing Nath said to me when we met then was, “I do not do tribal cuisine.” She was visibly pained when talking about incorrect perceptions of Assamese cuisine. “Momos, crickets… worms…. these are not representative of our food. I want to showcase regular Oxomiya (Assamese) food to the world.” I remember identifying with her at the time. I was similarly upset when a popular TV show showcased kandalee or bichughaas (stinging nettle) as a sensational food in its episode on Garhwali cuisine. Yes, it is eaten and is quite tasty (it was a traditional foraged food used to supplement the diet), but only if found it by the wayside on the way home, is one inclined to risk being stung to harvest and cook it. Is it representative of vegetable preparations on the Gahrwali thali? Not by a long shot.
While elements like insects, ferments, bhoot jholokia exist in Assamese food, they aren’t representative of the cuisine on the whole. These elements exist as part of tribal diets in Assam, but 80% of Assamese society is non-tribal. And just like every cuisine in the world, Assam’s food culture is a confluence of many factors and has many local regional variations.
Assam is rich in local flora and fauna and has evolved its own signature flavour profile based on the climate and topography. “Our diet is local and seasonal and has evolved to make the most of what we have available. We eat many traditional varieties of rice, as it is, or made into a variety of pithas accompanied but many subtly spiced curries, gravies and condiments,” elaborates Nath. Predominantly rice based, Assamese cuisine is full of subtle flavours and delicate accents. Although perceived as meat centric, and associated strongly with pork, Assamese food is more nuanced. With rivers such as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries flowing through and almost every home boasting a pond, fish is much loved and eaten with relish. Being rich in local produce all year round, owing to abundant rain — vegetable dishes are cooked in a variety of ways to supplement meals. Pork has only became popular over the last 20 years or so. Meat is reserved for special occasions and festivals. “Even though it is in India and the bhoot jholokia grows in Assam, our food is not spicy at all. We do not use many spices. Our dals and curries are mildly and delicately seasoned. We also use a lot of souring agents. Our hot and humid climate, has resulted in consumption of souring agents that have a cooling effect on the body. We also eat a lot of fermented foods,” shares Nath.
Local food, global twist
Nath has hosted Assamese food festivals and cooked for visiting dignitaries and celebrities. She’s also a permanent jury member for the Guwahati Food Awards while doubling up as a menu consultant for the Taj Group in Guwahati. Having been mentored by legendary cooks from tea estates, Nath has gained a deep understanding of the varied nuances of Assamese cuisine including the Ahom, South East Asian, and Colonial influences that blended with local techniques and ingredients to create Assamese cuisine.
The ‘Unsavoured Assam’ pop-up that Nath is hosting in the city currently showcases this. In honour of Rongali Bihu, a festival that marks the advent of the spring and is celebrated to welcome the Hindu New Year, Nath has included Bihu festive dishes as well as classic Assamese cuisine. Traditional ingredients and dishes are treated with delicacy and beautifully presented in more modern formats. Take the appetisers for example, “Starters are Western concepts,” Nath says, “But I believe that a food must evolve and stay rooted in traditions at the same time.” It’s a process that has resulted in a thoughtful menu that caters to the vegetarian and non-vegetarian palate.
What’s on the menu, then? There’s Luchi, Guti Aloo and the flavourful Bilahi Ambol, (an appetiser of small puffed puris topped with Assamese baby potatoes and sweet tomato chutney). Then there’s the soul satisfying anguli pitha. Inspired by the traditional one-bowl dish of hand rolled rice flour dumplings, Nath’s version is rich in taste and texture, tossed in a piquant tomato sauce. Other unforgettable dishes included Maas Khorika Aru Kharoli (chunks of fish smoked and served with fermented mustard chutney), and the Haanh Kumura which is duck slow-simmered with ash gourd until it’s falling off the bone.
Also included Bihu specials like Til Diya Chicken (chicken in black sesame seed), the Pani Pitha Aru Bengena Pura, Jolphai Meetha Chutney (bite-sized rice flour pancakes with smoked eggplant and a sweet olive chutney), the Bhaat Kerala Bor Aamor Chutney (stuffed teasel gourd fritters with spicy sweet mango chutney). Desserts include Kola Bora Sawalor paiyox (black rice kheer) and Kumal Sawal, Doi and Gur (rice with yogurt and jaggery).
An Assamese cooking class featuring dishes from the pop-up will take place at APB Cook Studio on April 17; call 42152799. The pop-up is ongoing at Mustard, Atria Mall; 67363338