Delectable & Divine
The name Assam is derived from the word asama, meaning “peerless” in the now extinct Ahom language. The neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya were once part of Assam. The capital, formerly Shillong (now the capital of Meghalaya), was shifted to Dispur, a suburb of Guwahati, in 1972. Assamese cuisine is the regional food of Assam. It is a style of cooking that is a confluence of cooking habits of the hills that favour fermentation and drying as forms of preservation and those from the plains that provide fresh vegetables and an abundance of fish and meat.
Both are centred on the main ingredient being rice. Rice is the staple diet and the common people of Assam eat it every day. Along with rice, fish curry is very common. Other dishes include those made of lentils, vegetables, meat and some sweet dishes. The people of Assam prefer to eat non – spicy foods.
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Assamese are mostly non-vegetarian, and their staple diet is rice. Fish, chicken, duck and pigeon and pork are widely eaten and quite popular. Fish curry is another favourite which is prepared as a sour dish called Machor tenga. Assamese cuisine is known to be very light and rightly deserves the tag ‘comfort food’ for various reasons. It’s also very healthy and not bland in taste. Healthy Veg/Non-veg Assamese Food: Assam is blessed with the mighty Brahmaputra which means the soil is rich with nutrients. Lifestyle. Although in general Brahmins observe all the customary rituals, they appear usually less rigid in some of their traditional lifestyle choices, such as they may eat meat, fish, unlike their counterparts in North India. With the ‘Tropical Monsoon Rain forest Climate’, Assam is a temperate region and experiences heavy rainfall and humidity.
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Like Southern Indian cuisine, Assamese cuisine is mostly rice-based and incorporates fresh vegetables and meat. But the dishes in Assam also include things rarely seen in other parts of the country, including river fish, duck, and pigeon. Pitha is one of the most popular street side dishes found in Assam. It is made of rice flour and can be made in a sweet as well as savoury preparation. It uses a batter of rice and is filled with a filling of either cabbage, radish, jaggery, coconut. Major Fruit crops of the state – Banana, Pine apple, papaya, Assam lemon, Orange, Guava, Litchi, Jack fruit and Mango.
Some more beneficial information about foods from Assam
This cuisine is characterized by very little use of spices, little cooking over fire and strong flavours due mainly to the use of endemic exotic fruits and vegetables that are either fresh, dried or fermented. Fish is widely used, and birds like duck, pigeon, squab, etc. are very popular, which are often paired with a main vegetable or ingredient. Preparations are rarely elaborate. (The practice of bhuna, the gentle frying of spices before the addition of the main ingredients so common in Indian cooking, is absent in the cuisine of Assam) The preferred oil for cooking is the pungent mustard
A traditional meal in Assam begins with a khaar, a class of dishes named after the main ingredient. Another very common dish is tenga, a sour dish. Traditionally, both khar and tenga are not eaten together in the same meal. The food is usually served in bell metal utensils made by an indigenous community called Mariya. The belief is that when food and water is served in such utensils it’s good for health and boost up immunity. Tamul (betel nut, generally raw) and paan generally concludes the meal.
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Though still obscure, this cuisine has seen wider notice in recent times. The discovery of this cuisine in the popular media continues, with the presenters yet to settle on the language and the specific distinctiveness to describe it. Besides rice, the next most important ingredient is fish, harvested from the many rivers, ponds and lakes in the region. The extremely wet climate and the large numbers of water bodies has ensured that large varieties of fresh water fish are available in abundance in the valley. It is a staple item in the Assamese palate. There is no traditional ethnic community in Assam that does not eat fish. Most traditional rural households have their own ponds for pisciculture. The most common way of eating fish in traditional Assamese homes is by preparing a stew with herbs, vegetables, and greens as per preference and availability. Fish is also prepared by roasting or char-grilling. A favourite is a small fish roasted in banana leaves. Hukoti is a special fish dish prepared from dried small fish like (puthi maas) pounded with arum stem and dried and stored in bamboo tubes. Variations of this exist among the ethnic communities of northeast India in general and Assam in particular.
Assamese also consume meat, The Assamese meat and fish dishes are characterized by a low amount of spices and oil, higher quantity of ginger, noroxinghow paat (curry leaves), Khorisa (fermented bamboo shoot) and lemon juice, and differ completely in taste from the dishes of neighbouring Bengal and are quite similar to the cuisines of nearby South-East Asian and East Asian countries. Chicken, Venison, Squab, Mutton, Duck and Pork is very popular among the indigenous ethnic Assamese communities.
The basic cooking methods include cooking, shallow and deep frying. Onla, of the Bodos, is made with ground rice and special herbs and constitutes a complete meal in itself. Other meats include squab, duck, chicken, goat meat, venison, and turtle although venison and turtle meat are legally prohibited. The combination of duck/white gourd and squab/papaya or banana flower is very popular. Meat is generally stewed using limited spices as well as a choice of herbs and vegetables. Most communities of Assam are entomophagous. Various indigenous ethnic groups of certain areas partake of the silkworm, water bugs, grasshoppers, and other insects. Insects are fried or cooked or roasted in leaves and then prepared according to the timing of the meal. The red ant egg is considered a delicacy during the Rongali Bihu festival.
Spices are also a very important part of Assamese cooking, Among spices there are ginger, garlic, onion, cumin seed, black cumin, black pepper, chilli, turmeric, coriander seed, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, fenugreek seed, white mustard seed, aniseed, Malabar leaf etc. An Assamese meal is incomplete without green chilies, many varieties of which are available in the region. Pura refers to various forms of grilled and roasted food. Vegetables, meat and fish are often served in this form. Aalu benzene pura Pitika, pura maas Pitika (mashed grilled fish), pura mankho etc. are a few of the popular dishes.
Cooking with fish is popular, the Noroxinghow masor jul is another authentic dish from Assam. The fishes are cooked in a light gravy of curry leaves which is a common aromatic herb used in southern and some northern parts of India. The curry leaves are also known as noroxinghow paat in Assamese. The fish preparations in Assam emphasize on retaining the natural flavours of the fish, and hence, few spices are used. The khar is a signature class of preparations made with a key ingredient, also called khar.
The traditional ingredient is made by filtering water through the ashes of the sun-dried skin of a few varieties of banana, which is then called kola khar (The name derived from the local term for banana, “khol” or “kola.”) A traditional meal invariably begins with a khar dish, which can be prepared with raw papaya, mustard leaves, vegetables, pulses, fish or any other main ingredient.
Assam is famous for the bhut jolokia or ghost pepper, which was recognized as the hottest chili in the world. Panch-furan (mixture of 5 spices) is used for adding flavour to Dals, which was not earlier eaten by indigenous people of Assam but now slowly due to external influences Dal is also eaten with their own traditional style of cooking it. Pickles are made of mango, indian gooseberry, hog plum, Indian olive, Tamarind, star fruit, mangos teen, radish, carrot, elephant apple, Indian jujube, chili, lime, garlic, etc. Pani tenga and kharoli are signature Assamese pickles made from ground mustard seeds.
Cooking with greens
The environs of Assam are rich in vegetation, and green leafy vegetables, called Xaak, are an important part of the cuisine. Some of them are grown while others like the dhakai (fern) grows wild. There is a bewildering variety that is eaten and according to custom, one has to have 101 different Xaak (greens) during Rongali Bihu. Herbs, greens, and vegetables are commonly eaten by simply cooking in water and salt, lightly frying, as a thick soup or by adding to varieties of lentils. They are also prepared in combination with fish, meat and eggs.
Besides various other dishes, Jolpan (snacks) in Assamese is what is breakfast although it is not always served as breakfast in Assamese cuisine. They are eaten as light meals between main meals and widely served during Bihu, weddings, Assamese shraadhs or any other kind of special occasions and gatherings. Some types of jolpan are Bora saul (varieties of sticky rice) eaten in combination with hot milk, curd, jaggery, yogurt or seasonal ripe fruits. These are probably some of the earliest forms of “cereals”. Assamese people have been eating them mainly as breakfast for many centuries.
Pitha (rice cake) is a special class of rice preparation generally made only on occasions like Bihu in Assam. Made usually with soaked and ground rice, they could be fried in oil, roasted over a slow fire or baked and rolled over a hot plate tea of course is an indispensable part of Assamese cuisine. It is served in form of Black tea, Milk tea, Herbal Tea, Spiced tea, Green Tea, Lemon tea (adding lemon juice to black tea), etc. Most of the Assamese people like to drink laal saah (red tea). Liquor is an integral part of linguistically and culturally diverse communities in Assamese society. Rice is a primary ingredient for the many rice beers.
Here are a few easy to make Assamese Recipes for our readers to try:
Recipe-1] BAANHGAJOR LAGOT KUKURA [Chicken with bamboo shoots]
Recipe-2] MASOOR TENGA- TANGY FISH CURRY [Assamese style fish curry]
Recipe- 3] XAAK ARU BHAJI [Greens with assorted vegetables]
Recipe-4] OU TENGA [Elephant apply pickle / chutney]
Recipe-5] ALOO PITIKA [Mashed potato in mustard oil]
Recipe-6] ASSAMESE PITHA [Home made sweet]
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About the author
Dr. Kaviraj Khialani – celebrity master chef - is a Mumbai-based author, writer, academician, food –health-lifestyle coach, mentor & consultant.
He is specialized in over 33 International Cuisines & has worked with brands like the Taj Group of Hotels, Kuwait Airways to name a few. Chef Kaviraj has been awarded several Global and National Awards for his outstanding performance and achievements in his chosen field. He has been featured on Star Plus and Colors Television on several food shows as well.