Music in its winds. Peace in every breath you take.
If this doesn’t define the simple air of Assam, the gateway to the north east of India, nothing ever will.
Lush green fields, rains for quite some time of the year, and simple people. The culturally rich state of Assam, evokes an image as such when thought about for the first time.
While the north east of India is still relatively less wandered and wondered about than the rest of India, Assam and the other states of the north east are gradually becoming go to destinations for people looking for lands and sights which are refreshingly natural, innocent and most importantly untouched by the concrete jungles of rapid urbanization.
I was born and brought up in the beautiful land of Assam breathing in its air, enjoying the stormy rains and winds which would shower down whenever the slightest of heat engulfed the air.
I am from those times when every Sunday was something you would relish because your mother would cook up a chicken curry, when every evening you would look forward to getting back home because of the home made sweets you could savour.
I visited Assam recently, and as I wandered around the country side, it brought back memories from long down the lane, when happiness was eating something special that my mother cooked, and those occasional sweet treats.
To re-visit those days, here is what food in Assam would be about, as you travel through the day, taking in a place ravaged by long periods of strife and neglect no doubt, but of heartbreaking beauty nevertheless.
Food through a day in Assam: What you should eat from dawn to dusk.
1. Breakfast the Cereals way: Jolpan
A typical Assamese breakfast starts with the Jolpan. It is a combination of cereals such as ground rice known as Xandoh, flattened rice known as Chira, Puffed rice locally known as Muri, cooked soft rice also called Kumol Saol or Bora Saol, served along with curd, jaggery, and cream. This entire preparation is a healthy breakfast which is also served as a primary dish during the festival of Bihu. It is served in a brass (pitol) cup unique to tables in Assam.
2. Options for Lunch & Dinner:
A traditional lunch in Assam is more often than not, accompanied by meats in various preparations, a healthy serving of steamed rice, unique vegetable preparations, a spicy pickle of the infamous bhut Jolokia (once the hottest chilli in all of Asia) and more.
In fact the following are just some of the best dishes in an Assamese lunch preparation. The complete list would probably call for a couple of coverages altogether.
A wholesome lunch in Assam isn’t complete without a serving of Khar. A khar can be prepared in different ways like amitar khar (papaya khar), khar dal ( khar with lentils) etc. But what stays common to all these preparations is the khar itself. Khar is basically an alkaline extract from the ashes of burnt dried banana peels. This extract is the core ingredient when preparing any form of Khar.
b. Baby potatoes in a Toss of Ferns (Dhekiya Xaak Aaru Guti Aaloo Bhoja)
Although most travelogues cover food in Assam or the north east with more of non-vegetarian dishes, the truth is that vegetarian dishes are as much in vogue, in local eateries as well as homes of Assam as non-vegetarian dishes. In fact in Assam, non-vegetarian dishes are more reserved for the holidays or special occasions rather than a daily eat. Baby potatoes freshly dug tossed in a simple preparation of ferns (called Haak locally in Assam) is one of the more popular vegetarian sides during a traditional lunch.
c. Kochu (colocasia):
Another vegetarian delight often cooked in Assam to accompany the lunch palate are dishes made from the colocasia plant, locally known as Kochu. It is prepared all on its own as well as with Dal (lentils) and other vegetables. However one must be careful while trying dishes made with Kochu just because some of these leaves can cause itching and irritation, if not properly picked.
d. Duck cooked with Ash gourd (Kumura diya hanhor mangkho)
Duck meat is cooked a lot in Assam, especially to mark special lunches or dinners when guests arrive or when you are eating out. And a rich duck curry prepared with ash gourd (kumura locally) is an all time favorite. Most local eateries would serve this but the preparation time is more, so one has to be patient when ordering it.
e. Pork or chicken with Bamboo shoots
Meat preparations with bamboo shoots is a special dish in the Assamese cuisine. And its various forms can also be viewed in the local cuisines of different states from the north east of India. The newly-grown bamboo shoot used fresh or in processed forms such as dried or canned. And the best place to get it is in the Sunday market. (Every town and city in Assam has a Sunday market, wherein the best of local produce from the villages can be found).
f. Fish wrapped in Banana Leaf (Patot diya maas)
Along the east, north east of India, fish is a major indulgence. Something which is reflected in the almost obsessive varieties of fish preparations one can find here. The patot diya maas is a local delicacy savored in Assam. It is generally prepared by steaming the marinated fish wrapped in a banana leaf. And needless to say the end result is mesmerizingly delicious.
All of these and more put together result in a typical Assamese lunch or dinner.
3. Snacks in Assam:
People in Assam do love their in between snacks. And any journey traversing through the food of Assam would be incomplete without a mention of the infamous Assamese snack, called the Pitha.
The pitha is prepared in a variety of tastes in Assam. It can be sweet, salted, fried, roasted etc. It is a conoction of ground rice mixed with sugar, jaggery or salt which is then fried or roasted or prepared within a bamboo stem based on the type of Pitha one is preparing. My personal favorite however is always the sweeter variants like the ghila pitha with jaggery in it or the narikol pitha (coconut stuffed pitha).
Best Places to eat Assamese food across different cities in India:
For my fellow travellers who would like to experience Assamese food when travelling through India and not only through the lands of Assam, here are a few spots which I have been to, and have liked. Although the best of it is always found where its roots lie in, i.e, Assam.
1. Jakoi in Delhi:
Jakoi is located on Sardar Patel Marg in Delhi. Right where the Assam Bhavan is located, and can be visited for a taste of Assam in Delhi.
2. Axomi in Bangalore:
Axomi is located in Koramangala 7th Block, Koramangala and is a pioneer of Assames cuisine in Bangalore. At Axomi you can find almost every dish that is native to Assam.
3. Gam’s Delicacy in Bangalore
Gam’s Delicacy is another place in Bangalore serving Assamese gastronomical delights. Although a recent addition to Bangalore’s food scene, the delicacy brand has been long associated to authentic Assamese cuisine, and has its roots in Assam. It is also located in Koramangala 7th block.
And going back to the roots. Some famous places to have authentic Assamese food in Assam:
Located in Guwahati, Khorikaa has long been associated with a great Assamese cuisine experience.
Address: 1st Floor, Kamal C Plaza, Guwahati-Shillong Road, Guwahati, Assam 781007
Paradise is an almost legendary place from the food scene in Assam. A name from humble beginnings, it is today the stuff of Assamese cuisine legends.
Address: Maniram Dewan Rd, Silpukhuri, Silphukuri, Guwahati, Assam
These are the best places one can explore based on personal experience of course. However as with food across the world, the best food in Assam too is better experienced in the welcoming homes of Assamese people, and those eateries on the highways which may not boast of even a concrete structure, but do boast of the best of local food in Assam.
Interestingly food in Assam isn’t made rich by the spices or the complex ingredients. Assamese cuisine in fact doesn’t use much of spices apart from the usual turmeric, garlic, the extract of chillies, onions and a lot of love.