Flavours of Assam
Minimum cooking, freshness of ingredients and use of less oil lie at the heart of Assamese cuisine
When it comes to Assamese food, many – at least in mainstream India – often tend to look at it as an extension of Bengali cuisine. That, one would say, is a lazy way of looking at Assamese cuisine. Simply because, in the process of finding the similarities between the two East Indian cuisines, their differences get lost.
So, if bhaja (fries or bhoja in Assamese) is a common mode of cooking food between these cuisines, what separates the two is also the strong style of Assamese food preparation called pitika. Pitika, essentially, is a mash prepared from a number of seasonal vegetables like brinjal, potato and tomato, also done with a fresh catch of fish (particularly Goroi fish). The secret behind producing a pitika with a lingering aftertaste is the use of the freshest ingredients, done with a dash of high quality mustard oil which can bind the dish with its strong aroma. Something that can attract a guest to the dining table straightaway!
In fact, not just in pitika, the role of aroma in any dish is as important as its taste in Assamese cuisine. The reason why ingredients like dhania (coriander leaves), maan dhania (a kind of coriander leaves), pudina (mint leaves), kazi nembu (Assamese lemon), elaichi nemu and zora nemu (types of lemon with unique flavours) are liberally used in most dishes. The ubiquitous masor tenga (a tangy fish preparation) is impossible without a copious amount of lemon juice and fresh coriander leaves.
Going back to Bengali cuisine, if use of posto (aphu in Assamese) and sorse (mustard seeds, xorioh in Assamese) is the common weakness of Bengali and Assamese people (which again is used in preparation of both vegetables and fish), Assamese cuisine also use horse gram paste (bootor dail pisha) and kharoli (a fermented mustard paste) besides souring agents like kokum (thekera) and elephant apple (ou tenga) abundantly.
Also, if paturi (patot diya in Assamese) is a common style of cooking in these two eastern cuisines, Assamese also do pura (barbeque of vegetables, rice, fish and meat, often done in bamboo hollows or put straight into log fire). Once done, most pura dishes are laced with a dash of mustard oil, the common cooking oil in Assam.
The various styles of cooking food in the State point to the fact that Assamese cuisine hinges on simplicity and clear taste of a dish. When food is cooked in an Assamese household, the smell from the kitchen has the charm of rustic cooking, in sync with nature, thus reflecting the simple, bucolic lifestyle of the people.
Assamese food, unlike many other Indian cuisines, uses few spices. The typical spices used in an Assamese dish are fresh pepper, cumin seeds and powder, pas phuron (five spices). Ginger (aada in Assamese, used both as chopped and as a juice extracted from the root), nohoru (mostly in whole form) and onion (mostly used finely chopped) are used to enhance the taste of a dish.
Also, the importance of the banana plant in Assamese cuisine is significant. If like the Bengalis, the Assamese like to eat mocha (banana flower, called kol dil in Assamese) as crunchy chops (dumplings), it is also used as a dry preparation (sabji) and to make a fiery dish of pigeon meat -- a delicacy in the State, mixed with black pepper. The banana stem is used to prepare yet another Assamese speciality, posola, after chopping fine the tender part of the stem. The raw bananas are eaten in various forms -- as a sabji, as chops (after boiling and mashing the bananas), et al. The banana peel is dried and ground into a tasty paste called kharoli, an Assamese speciality. The leaves are used as a base to steam poppy seed pastes, misa maas (prawns) and puthi and xoru mass (a small variety of freshwater fish) rolled in poppy or mustard seed paste with coriander leaves.
Yet another ubiquitous dish in an Assamese household is khar. An alkaline flavoured preparation, it uses fresh vegetables, such as the raw papaya and the ash gourd (kumura).
If bananas are a necessity in an Assamese kitchen, so are bamboos. While the bamboo hollows and skewers made from it are used as modes of cooking, the bamboo shoot is grated and preserved to be put in to fish and other curries, and also to prepare a spicy pickle with a variety of hot chillis, such as roja jolokia, bhot jolokia and koni jolokia.
Among meat, though mutton, pork and chicken are eaten commonly, duck meat is a delicacy along with pigeon meat. A Bhogali Bihu feast is incomplete in many households without a duck meat curry done with jaati lau (a local gourd, also used to prepare a variety of the tangy curry, the tenga). Among rice, the aromatic joha variety is yet another delicacy, often used in the Bhogali Bihu feast.
The common Assamese dessert is the payox (kheer) made of either joha or koni chaul (a small grain variety of rice), narikol laru (coconut balls), and a range of pitha (prepared from ground rice, a Bihu speciality).
Pithas, apart from one variety (ghila pitha), needs no oil and is taken also as an accompaniment with tea. Pithas come in a variety of names. One such name is aanguli pitha (its shape is like an aanguli or finger), prepared with rice flour mixed with water to make a soft dough which is then given the shape of a finger by pressing it against the palm and steamed thereafter. There is also a chunga pitha (pitha made of sticky rice (bora chaul) and steamed in a bamboo hollow), usually eaten with curd or fresh cream and jaggery during Bhogali Bihu. Khola sapori pitha (a rice pancake), prepared with rice powder, water and salt is also another interesting pitha variety.
Narikol bhapot dia pitha or jun pitha (a steamed pitha with a shape of a half moon), again prepared with rice powder, a pinch of salt and warm water to make a smooth dough and steamed with grated coconut and jaggery, is commonly eaten too.
Even though many dishes are common, the style of cooking, many times, differ between lower and upper Assam. While in a lower Assam kitchen, lots of dry chilli paste, green chilli paste and pepper paste are used to cook meat, in upper Assam, people often cook meat with green leaves (xaak) and sesame (til) pastes.
(Jumi Ahmed is a Guwahati based food expert of Assam. She can be contacted at - 98640-18477 )