Assamese cuisine is not all about momos or pork.
“A tribal Assamese bride is served rice beer 9 times by nine relatives”, Gitika Saikia tells us while we drink the sweet beer. “Imagine a tipsy bride at the end of the ceremony”, she chuckles. Xaj or rice beer is made specifically during Bihu and offered to priests in a pooja conducted for departed souls. The catch here is that the ceremony should be conducted secretly and the neighbours shouldn’t know about it. However, the beer is served to everyone (including neighbours) once the rituals are over.
Like their traditions, Axomiya (tribal Assamese) food too is unconventional. It’s more rustic than the food eaten in the urban region of Assam. A regular tribal meal which differs from tribe to tribe and geographic location consists of rice, spicy chutney, vegetable, smoked fish or meat cooked with vegetables.
Mumbai got a taste of tribal Assamese food last year when Gitika Saikia of Gitika’s Pakghor quit her corporate job to host pop-up meals at her house. You might have seen pictures of her Polu Leta (silkworm pupae stir fry) and Amlori (red ant eggs with hen eggs) doing rounds on Facebook food groups. Saikia belongs to Sonowal Kachari tribe but her food has a strong influence from the Bodo tribe, thanks to her in-laws.
Tribal food, compared to urban Assamese food, is different in certain ways. The tribes use more exotic vegetables, herbs, fish and poultry due to easy accessibility. For instance, to make the famous Maas Tenga (fish in sour gravy) the tribes use sooka tenga (a sour leafy vegetable), outenga (elephant apple) ortenga mora (rosselle leaves) to make the curry, whereas the urban homes use tomatoes.
The khar (indigenous soda) or alkali in the villages is organic as opposed to the sodium bicarbonate used in urban homes.
Made by burning the dried trunk or roots of choppedaatheya (a variety of banana), this sour powder is then mixed with vegetables or fish to make a curry, which is the first course of Assamese midday meal. ”An Assamese woman’s culinary dexterity is judged by how well she can make khar”, says Jyoti Das in her book Ambrosia. The papaya khar is the most common khar. Both Sonowal Kachari and Bodo tribes have a common love for khar and are also known as Kharkhuwa Axomiya owing to their love for the ingredient.
Bodos use more rustic techniques like drying and fermentation while cooking on wood-fire and smoking is common in all the tribes. Small river fish and pork are usually roasted on wood-fire. They also stuff food in a bamboo-hollow or wrap it in banana leaf to steam or roast. Meat, fish and a few vegetables are sundried for storage purposes.
The food is low on spices and is usually flavoured with local herbs like mosundari (heartleaf), masala paat,maan dhoniya (long coriander), bhedai lota (skunk vine) etc. The food is cooked in home-grown mustard oil and most of the dishes have very less or at times no oil. Bhut jolokia is added to spice-up the dish or is usually pickled.
Love For Meats, Fish And Vegetables
Assamese tribes love their meats and eat pork, chicken, duck, pigeon, goose and mutton regularly. During monsoons youll find them catching the tiniest fish (dorikona, muwa, kaawai, goroi and puthi) which hide in the paddy fields thanks to the excess water. Contrary to the popular belief, an Assamese meal is a perfect balance of meats, fish and vegetables. The meat is usually cooked with vegetables specific to that region. Mora paat (jute leaves) is cooked with both fish and pork and lofa xaak (leafy vegetable) is boiled with fish and minimal herbs.
Red ant eggs and silkworm pupae are cooked during Bihu. The tribes build nests for amloi parua ants and harvest the eggs and larvae within a month. The silkworm pupae are extracted from the cocoon and the silk is given back to the weavers.
Rice is a staple in every Assamese house and they use the short-grained joha rice. This black rice is fragrant and leaves a purple colour when cooked in milk. Its used to make Kola Bora Paokh (sticky rice pudding).
Saikia gets a weekly consignment of produce from Assam, which includes joha rice, smoked pork, dried and fresh bamboo shoots and bhut jolokia. The seasonal specials like red ants eggs, silkworm and goose meat are flown in too. Heres a preview of what she serves in her pop-ups.
Pitha aru Phika Saah Assamese identity is never complete without pitha, says Das in her book. Pitha are rice cakes made with rice powder, sesame, jaggery and coconut and is eaten with Phika Saah (black tea).
Lau Khar Its an essential part of an Assamese midday meal. The bottle-gourd is cooked with khar giving it a mildly sour flavour. The dish is like a thick, comforting soup that can be eaten with rice.
Alu Pitika Potato mash mixed with herbs, garlic, chillies and mustard oil.
Ou Tenga Maas Rohu cooked with elephant apple, which acts like souring agent. The thin curry is lightly flavoured and is cooked in mustard oil. Eat it with sticky rice.
Dhekia Xaak aru Gahori A dry dish of succulent pork cooked with fiddlehead fern.
A standard meal at Gitikas home begins with pickles made of bhut jolokia, bamboo shoots, and pork and is wrapped up with black rice pudding. During her Rongali Bihu pop-ups you’ll find silkworm pupae and red-ants eggs on the menu and in September she serves goose meat with lai xaak (mustard leaves).
Check out Gitikas Pakghor on Facebook to stay updated with her pop-up schedule or call her at +91 98204 45990 to book spots for lunch or dinner. She is hosting a Khar Khuwa Bhoj (harvest feast) at APB Cook Studio on 6th December. Do go for it and book your seats here.
This article was originally published on Burrp!