Assam on a Plate: How a Guwahati-based chef is putting Assamese cuisine on India’s culinary map

You’ve been travelling to Assamese villages, remaining with tribal people and understanding about their cuisines for 28 lengthy years. What motivated you to travel so thoroughly to doc these ethnic recipes?

Food stuff is identity. There has been a great deal of confusion about Assamese communities. I wished to distinct this confusion by documenting the reliable cuisines of Assam. We have 23 key communities and quite a few sub-communities in Assam, but they are barely regarded or comprehended. Above time, we have missing every thing we experienced. But without having our traditions, we are practically nothing. Nowadays, there is a disaster of id. Even the new generation is shifting away from regular food items. At the commencing of my culinary journey, I needed to understand Assamese cooking. But when I questioned my mother about our food, she could not occur up with a lot more than 3 or four dishes. I realised it is not feasible to study this cuisine at a culinary institute. So, I made the decision to travel across Assam to discover about the food items of diverse ethnic teams. I frequented villages belonging to various tribes like Rabhas, Tiwas, Karbis, Khamtis, Tai Phakes, Sonowal Kacharis, Bodos, Garos, Misings and quite a few much more. I have been documenting their culinary traditions for the last 28 yrs.

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How do you encourage the tribals to share their mystery recipes with you? Inform us about some of the tribal dishes you learnt to make throughout your travels.

Before I understand to prepare dinner from them, I talk with them, continue to be and celebrate with them. Then slowly but surely, they develop to love me. Only then do they let me to enter their kitchens.
A 12 months ago, I experienced travelled to Tinsukia district near Dum Duma, all around 600 km from Guwahati. On the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, there is a neighborhood known as the Khamtis. They do a stunning dish called pasa. According to me, it is the finest dish we have from the North East. Pasa is a seasonal soup produced from clean river fish, minced meat, fragrant makat leaves, ginger, garlic and green chillies. Creating it is a very long and intricate process. It truly is a get the job done of art.

Chef Atul Lahkar at work. (Picture: Atul Lahkar)

What will make Assamese delicacies exclusive and special? How is it different from other NE cuisines?

To most of the foods globe which include chefs, food items bloggers and diners, Assamese delicacies suggests three issues — pork, bamboo shoots and bhut jolokia. But we have a special variety of cuisines as there are so quite a few unique cultures and communities. Our inhabitants contains tribal as well as non-tribal communities. There is a mix of hill and plain tribes, so there are a lot of differences among the cooking techniques of upper and lower Assam. Our cooking processes are distinct from the other states. Whilst the Nagas have their boiled dishes and chutneys, we like to stew, fry and smoke our food stuff. We use black pepper and enjoy our lentils. We cook dinner pigeon and duck — which the other states do not — and also mutton and nation hen. Contrary to states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, we do not use fermented soybeans. But most critical, fish, and not pork, is the primary meals of Assam. So, there are a ton of dissimilarities in between the NE states.

Assam is pretty wealthy in wild edibles. Which is your favorite herb when cooking?

We have 101 unique herbs in Assam. Many of them are in the marketplace in April all over the time monsoon is approaching. We take care of many illnesses and ailments with these wild herbs. We try to eat all our foods with environmentally friendly leafy vegetables. I enjoy to use lai patta or community mustard leaves in my cooking. You can cook dinner just about anything with them, and also eat them contemporary.

What does Assamese delicacies offer you to vegetarians?

In every domestic in Assam, you will get a pitika or mash. Any vegetable can be smoked or boiled and manufactured into a pitika. It is very nutritious. We like to stir fry our greens, and not overcook them to keep diet and crunch. We are all about seasonality, so in each individual month we make alterations to our recipes. But it is correct that there are very number of vegetarians in Assam. Though there are exceptions, most are unable to consume a meal with no fish and meat.

Baked and Fried: Assamese thali served by Atul Lahkar at ITC Grand Central in Mumbai. (Image: Atul Lahkar)

We barely have any Assamese eating places outside of the point out. As a outcome, there is incredibly very little exposure to Assamese cuisine. As a chef, how are you addressing this hole?

The exposure to NE cuisines is normally constrained to Kolkata. A ton of individuals in Assam have not mingled with other Indian states. Even when they do journey, they typically never share their recipes, probably since they are not so self-confident about their possess cuisine.
But I think food can be a way for Assam to converse with other elements of India. I have been functioning to accurate the false impression that our cuisine is just about pork and ghost peppers. For the earlier lots of several years, I’ve been organising food stuff festivals across India, like this latest 1 at ITC Grand Central, Mumbai, exactly where I’m serving lesser-identified dishes like Assamese chicken with damaged rice powder, banana flower fry, and yellow lentils with elephant apple. In excess of the decades I have invited numerous Indian and intercontinental chefs to come to my restaurant Heritage Khorika in Guwahati, to give them a taste of our food items. I also have a village kitchen area, named Domahi, near Guwahati. It’s a dwelling museum which showcases the kitchens of distinctive tribes and their cooking styles.
It will acquire time for the earth to know our food. But it will undoubtedly happen as we have a wonderful delicacies that is distinctive and pretty healthful. We have so many versions of rice, wild edibles and good create. The entire world requires to uncover Assamese meals.

Your initial e book is because of for launch shortly. What is it about and when can we expect it to be on the cabinets?

My ebook, A Treasure of Assamese Cuisine, is about the lost recipes of Assam. It’s about my sentiments as a chef and my reflections on Assamese individuals and cuisines — what we had, and what we have missing. By means of the guide, I will share my culinary knowledge and insider secrets learnt over the previous 28 many years, and also chronicle my travel adventures. I have integrated recipes as well as the stories behind these recipes. The reserve is finish, and will be out by September or Oct this year. I’m in talks with numerous individuals, together with my close friend Vikas Khanna, for a world wide release.

What else are you energized about in the coming times?

I’m operating on developing a museum of indigenous herbs in Assam. I have a house in close proximity to Guwahati which I intend to use for this. The strategy is to showcase several regional herbs and unique types of dry fish from our rivers and ponds. Lots of of these are having missing, so I want to document them for posterity. The challenge would be concluded by 2025.

Sona Bahadur is an impartial meals journalist and creator based in Mumbai. She is the previous editor of BBC Superior Foods Journal India

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