Assam is uniquely positioned between the greater landmass of the rest of India to its West, and the countries of the Orient to its east, south and north. This has resulted in an intriguing mix of influences on all things cultural. Whether it is music or language, facial characteristics or cuisine, this amalgamation gives everything a rare distinctiveness.

The cuisine of the State, especially, shows a wide variety of influences which have combined to make the food of Assam highly unusual. These range from the food of the people of the surrounding hills, to that of the successive migrations of the people from the “rest” of India, including Bengal and some parts of North India. The foods of the indigenous tribal population of the State have also greatly enhanced the variety of cuisines to be found here. (done)

The first thing that strikes a first time foodie sampling the cuisine of Assam is the delicacy of the flavours and the lightness of the food itself. There is a subtlety in the taste and aroma that makes sampling Assamese cuisine an experience of a different kind. Oils and fats in general are used sparingly, while a profusion freshly plucked herbs enhance the flavour greatly.

There is a great deal of non veg food on most tables, yet there is none of the “heaviness” that one associates with the non veg food of some other parts of the country. Vegetables and greens are used profusely, while rice, whether whole or powdered is a staple. All this makes Assamese cuisine generally a healthy one to follow. (done)

Assam is crisscrossed with a great river system, while the high rainfall levels ensure that the large lakes and ponds and full to the brim almost around the year. A large variety of fish is found in these water bodies, and it is no wonder that the people are avid fish eaters. Most main meals have to have a fish component in some form, whether as (“Khaar) (alkaline) or “tenga” (acidic), roasted, dried, or mashed, or just lightly fried in mustard oil. Other delicious ways of having fish include barbecuing over live coals in a hollow bamboo tube with herbs and chillies.

“Khaar” is an item that starts a main meal, usually lunch. It can be made with vegetables such as unripe papaya or with pulses such as split black gram and chickpeas, and fish can be added to it, as well. It is considered an appetizer, and though its alkaline flavour is an acquired taste, once hooked on it, people become quite rabidly addicted. The alkalinity is achieved with the addition of agents such as the distillation of the ashes of the trunk of a plantain tree, or the skins of a particular kind of banana.

Luckily, these agents are available off the shelf these days, though they are still made laboriously by hand in the rural areas. Also eaten as a starter is a mildly bitter item, such as bitter gourd.

The other quintessentially “Assamese” food is “tenga”, or, literally “sour”. It finishes the main meal, and is eaten just before the curds and the sweet pithas. This, too, has its veg as well as non veg variants, though most Assamese like their tenga to have some kind of fish in it. This tangy, refreshing item is obviously influenced by dishes of the East, and has, besides fish, vegetables such as tomatoes, snake and ridge gourds, a variety of greens, herbs such as cilantro, all lightly fried in mustard oil and then allowed to simmer in a generous quantity of water till the flavours meld and mix.

A variety of souring agents are used, each imparting its own unique flavour to the dish. These include lime, lemon, thekera (a variety of kokum) outenga or elephant apples, tamarind, amlokhi, (a kind of gooseberry) herbs such as sorrel, and tomatoes. (done)

Palate ticklers such as the mustard based “kahundi” and “kharuli” are great accompaniments. “Pitika” or “mash” is another quintessentially Assamese dish. Simple to make, pitika can be of vegetables, such as potatoes, colocasia or brinjal, or fish. Ideally, these should be roasted over a slow fire, or barbecued, before the charred flesh is peeled off and then the soft insides are mashed up with herbs, mustard oil, and seasonings such as chillies and salt.

Of course people take short cuts and use boiled or grilled ingredients these days, but nothing really can compare with the pitikas made with fish speared with slivers of wood, and then barbecued, and finally and lovingly deboned and mashed before being served on a banana leaf.

In a country that is significantly vegetarian, Assam and indeed much of the North East is staunchly non veg by choice. The Assamese have a variety of meats in their cuisine, with traditional recipes for cooking them. The unusual taste of chicken cooked with banana flowers, or mutton with sesame seeds, or pigeon with bamboo shoots and herbs owes much to the delicious blending of the cuisines of many cultures that have come to these valleys over centuries of migration.

Indians from other parts of the country are sometimes surprised by the popularity of pork in the diet of tribals and Hindus, besides Christians, but it is a meat that is greatly relished in these parts. Besides, duck meat is considered a great delicacy, especially in winter, when fresh duck meat is considered to be at its prime. At one time, wild game, especially venison and wild birds were considered delicacies in this part of the world, which was teeming with wildlife.

These days, the imperatives of conservation have made them unavailable to the people. The cooking of all meats is light, and is never oil-laden, with the meats, herbs and vegetables infusing their own flavours gently in the dish.

Mention must be made of two items of great importance to the Assamese cuisine here, that is, chillies and bamboo shoots. The “bhot jolokia” has been documented as being the fieriest in terms of Scoville Heat Units on the planet. The Assamese like a pungency in their food, though, in general, it is not nearly as fiery as that of South India, for instance. Still, to break a chilli at the side of one’s brass plate, and breathe in its spiciness before adding it to the mound of rice is a time honoured ritual at mealtimes. There is also the bamboo shoot, which is used as a vegetable, sometimes on its own, but often in its fermented form along with other vegetables and greens or meats to give its own unmistakable flavour to the whole. (done)

The Assamese are rice eaters, with wheat having made inroads into the cuisine in the form of breads, leavened and unleavened, only comparatively recently. The climate of the place is of course conducive to growing rice. The kinds found in the valleys are unique. There is the “joha” rice, for instance, which comes under the category of “fragrant non-Basmati rice”. A small grained, flavourful cereal, it is considered to be a better choice than the more famous Basmati by those who have been lucky enough to have tasted it.

There are other unusual rices available here, too, one of which is the “komol saul” or “soft rice” which needs no cooking. The grains become edible after a brief soak in water. No wonder this rice is in demand among farmers who carry it to the fields in packets for their midday meal.

There is also the “bora saul”, the sticky rice which is found also in the South Eastern cuisines. It is a flavourful cereal quite commonly eaten on its own, while its adhesive qualities make it ideal for cooking varieties of sweets. Indeed, the binding qualities of this rice are so great that the Ahom kings, who were great builders, used a mixture of this rice and ducks’ eggs (along with a few other natural ingredients) as cementing agents in their buildings.

In keeping with the rest of the items in the cuisine, Assamese sweets, too, are in fact healthy choices! The pithas and larus that are made from sesame (til) and coconut are traditionally sweetened with gur rather than sugar. The til pitha is an oil-free sweet that is made from powdered bora rice. This pancake-like pitha is filled with roasted and sweetened sesame. Cooking it is an art in itself, for it is the rice itself that has to bind together for the outer shell of the pancake, and the temperature of the skillet has to be just right in order to achieve the desired level of stickiness.

The larus, or sweet balls, can be of coconut or sesame, and are always handmade. Surprisingly, even though coconuts grow very easily in the valleys, the traditional cuisine of Assam uses it very sparingly in its main dishes, though it is freely used in sweets. Even if it is used, these days, in combination with fish or meat, it is the influence of neighbouring Bengal that is apparent at that point.

Of course in today’s world, it is inevitable that there should be all kinds of influences on the cuisine of a particular place. This is so in Assam, too. European and American ideas intermingle with inspirations from the rest of India, especially Punjab and Bengal. But interestingly, recent years have also seen a strong revival of interest in ethnic and traditional Assamese cuisine.

Till some years ago, there was not a single eatery in the capital city of Guwahati where one could get Assamese food. One had to go to an Assamese home in order to be able to savour the traditional cuisine. Today, there are several excellent places where one can get authentic Assamese fare.

In fact, the cuisines of the numerous tribes that make up the population of the state are also being served at the food festivals and in some eateries. Some of the dishes, such as the “onla wangkhrai” of the Bodos and the “napham” of the hill tribes can now be tasted even in urban centres.

Rural, primarily agricultural festivals are celebrated with gusto in the valleys, even in the urban centres. The local liquors are much in demand at these times. Among these are the “laopani” or “jumai” or the Boros, the “apong” of the Mishings, the “judima” of the Dimasas, the “sajpani” of the Tai Ahoms the “sujen” of the Deoris, or the “Bor Alank” of the Karbis.

And of course there is the tamol paan, the betel nut and leaf, with a dash of lime, without which no meal can be called complete.

(Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and a trained classical vocalist who lives in Guwahati, Assam.)