I strongly believe that the food of a place is the true reflection of its character. Want to experience a native culture first hand? Start with its cuisine. One such destination that remains largely lesser known despite being an integral part of the country is Assam. This northeastern state is well-known for its silk, tea plantation, fiery Jolokia chilly, bamboo shoots and the Kaziranga National Park home to one-horned Rhinos. These key highlights apart, the finer intricacies of this land and its way of life remain largely unexplored.
Let’s unravel this mystical, serene land through its unique cuisine that presents a confluence of cooking styles of its hills predominated by processes of fermentation and drying for sake of food preservation and the eating habits of the people in the plains marked by abundance of fish, rice and fresh vegetables. Almost all famous dishes of Assam are characterized by minimal use of spices and cooking over fire and are packed with strong flavours derived from fresh, dried or fermented local fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Here is a look at some of the most famous dishes of Assam with their colloquial names that best sum up the diverse flavour ride that this land is:
A typical traditional Assamese meal starts with Khaar, a one-of-a-kind preparations and hands-down one of the most famous dishes in Assam. The hero of this dish is the portion of meat, which can vary as per personal preferences, that is soaked in a sumptuous curry made from pluses, raw papaya and taro. The ingredients of the curry are filtered through dried banana leaves enhances the flavour of this dish, lending a surprisingly refreshing flavour to the curry. It is mostly eaten for lunch with rice.
Something about the name of this dish suggests a very strong, tangy flavour and that’s exactly what Masor Tenga, a popular fish preparation in Assam, is all about. With a curry made from yellow mustard, ginger, tomatoes and locally grown Kazi nimbu, this fish preparation is the go-to food in Assam for beating the harsh summer heat. Masor Tenga is made with a special variety fish called Chonak and the inherent flavours packed in this fish make this preparation a scrumptious ride. Despite the sour overtones of the curry, Masor Tenga turns out to be irresistibly delicious and the secret to this is the process of slow-cooking the fish in the rich tangy broth so that the flavours of the ingredients fuse together.
Paro Manxho is a pigeon meat delicacy that is one of the most famous dishes in Assam. The idea of pigeon meat may sound uncanny to some, but the dish is a delight for anyone who appreciates a good non-vegetarian preparation. Since pigeon meat is known to make the body warm, this is typically a winter delicacy and is eaten with a side of koldil or banana flower – banana plant buds that are shredded and soaked in curries. The intricate texture of the banana flower enhances the flavour of the pigeon meat, making this preparation a riot of flavour.
The Assamese cuisine may be meat heavy but it does have its shares of vegetarian delicacies too. One of the most famous veg dishes of Assam is Aloo Pitika that is consumed as a side dish to enhance the flavours of a humble dal and rice meal. This true soul food that is consumed in almost every household of Assam is prepared by blending mashed potatoes with mustard oil, coriander, onion and salt.
This is a sweet-sour chutney made from Ou (elephant apple) and serves as a flavourful accompaniment for any meal. Ou Khatta is prepared by boiling the fruit until its pulp softens and then mashing it lightly. This mash is sautéed in slight oil with a garnish of mustard seeds and then mixed with jaggery to create a tantalising side dish that can add a pop of flavour to the most humble meals. This famous veg dish of Assam is also a rich source of Vitamin C.
Bora Chaulor Payas
A cuisine so rich and diverse in flavours is bound to have its share of irresistible sweet treats. Leading the way in the long list famous sweet dishes of Assam is Bora Chaulor Payas made with sticky rice and somewhat akin to kheer. The dish is laden with ghee, dry fruits and sugar that make it a truly sinful and rich indulgence. The use of sticky rice adds a nice consistency and texture, contributing to its delectable taste. It is a variant of Payas, another popular rice and milk based sweet dish from the region. The only difference between the two is the variety of rice used. Payas is made with Joha rice.
Think Gujiya with an Assamese twist. Xutuli Pitha is very similar to this classic sweetmeat that forms an integral part of our Diwali festivities. However, this famous sweet dish of Assam uses a very different kind of filling, which resonates well the taste palette of the natives. Xutuli Pitha is made with a filling of rice and jaggery seasoned with sesame seeds. Different regions of the state use different forms of rice for making Xutuli Pitha. While some use powdered rice, others make it with boiled rice. The crisp, deep fried out layer of this sweetmeat juxtaposed with the soft, mushy filling makes it a heavenly delight to taste.