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The Tastes of Assam

The confluence of rivers and plains enrich the diverse history- both culinary and otherwise, of the communities from the East, West, and North of Assam. From the capital of Guwahati, an ancient city on the banks of the Brahmaputra, to Majuli Island, teeming with a unique riverine culture, to Sibsagar, an important oil and trading centre- dissimilar elements make Assamese cuisine unique. The complex cultural systems are marked by a heterogenous population of tribes, ethnicities, and religions, finding expression in distinctive culinary techniques.


The uses of fresh, local ingredients constitute the elaborate dishes of Assam. The reliance on quality and freshness of ingredients sets this food apart. The cornerstones of the culinary traditions are the large varieties of rice found all over the state, which are subsequently roasted, ground, flattened, and then cooked in bamboo hollows, or made into pithas (soaked and ground glutinous rice sweets) on special occasions. There is hardly any ethnic community which does not consume fish, and pisciculture is commonly practiced by many rural communities. Meats such as pork, beef, and duck are relished too, and the preparations for these are characterized with ginger, curry leaves and lemon juice, delivering hot, pungent and aromatic flavours. The abundance of wild plants in the region have meant that ferns and greens have come to become central flavours of many meals. It is said that, traditionally, on Rongali Bihu or the Assamese New Year, one should have one hundred and one xaaks (greens) for longevity and prosperity.


Local materials such as banana leaf and bamboo hollows as cooking vessels continue to dominate the culinary scene. Besides, the region is well known for the use of smoking and fermentation in cooking. The balanced and layered flavours of the utmost quality ingredients help reveal the essence and freshness of the cuisine. 


While Assamese food contains many distinctive indigenous elements, it also shares its history with global and Indian cuisines. Ahoms, who ruled Assam from the 13th – 19th century share their heritage with the ethnic Tai people, thereby leading to Asian influences. More recently, around 1859, labour from Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh arrived in the state to support tea cultivation, imbuing Assamese food with central and coastal Indian flavours.


A unique marker of Assamese cuisine and taste is khar, an alkaline flavouring which is ubiquitous in the state.  Colleen Taylor Sen, in her seminal text, ‘Fasts and Feasts: The History of Food in India’ states that: ‘The Assamese are virtually alone in preserving the six basic tastes of ancient Hindu gastronomy, including sour and alkaline…a dish called khar that has an astringent or alkaline taste, is probably unique in the world of food.’ A traditional meal in Assam begins with a bowl of the alkaline khar, this whets appetites and promotes digestion. The khar sets the stage for the other tastes which follow; the sour, salty and sweet. 


Khar is both a term for an ingredient as well as a set of dishes which are made with it. The ingredient, known as Kola Khar is most commonly made by burning the dried skin of the bhim banana down to ash, which mixes with a little mustard oil before getting added to preparations. Currently the idea of ‘root-to-stem’ eating is in vogue, and it’s interesting to note how Assamese food embodies the frugal philosophy of minimal waste. Khar can be made from papaya, cucumbe, potato skins, and even fish. Many believe it is the scarcity of salt which led to the proliferation of this intriguing flavour and the profusion of fermentation in Assamese cuisine. Both these elements transform the food’s flavours, longevity and nutritional profiles. Salt was previously the preserve of aristocrats and high-castes, leading to the distinctive invention of khar which was easily produced and cost effective. Today, the use of khar is diminishing as baking soda, another alkaline is becoming more convenient for the modern cook, but, of course, there can be no comparison in taste. 


Umami is a deep, savoury flavour, classified as the ‘fifth taste’ after sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  The discovery is attributed to, Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who wanted to pinpoint the bold taste, present in ingredients such as tomatoes, cheese, meat and seaweed. In 1908, he pinpointed the flavour to glutamate, an amino acid, now produced in industrial quantities as the flavour enhancer, Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Japanese cuisine proceeded to introduce this flavour to the world. Khar presents its own individual taste and Assamese culinary ambassadors should firstly preserve traditional production methods of khar and this unique flavour profile deserves to be recognised as one of the finest exports of Assam. 


Until very recently, dishes such as khar and tenga were confined to family kitchens, but curious minds around the country are now exploring Assamese food. Kolkata has always been seen as the gateway to the Northeast, but in the last five years Delhi, Pune and Mumbai are beginning to understand the nuances of regional dishes as well as appreciating the cuisines on their own terms.  In Guwahati, there is a revived vigour for promoting and documenting Assamese dishes. In the recent Guwahati Food Awards, restaurants such as Heritage Khorika by Atul Lahkar and Paradise restaurant swept the board with representations of their community’s food. It is important to note that chefs in the region are maintaining a focus on the seasonal and locally grown produce, underlining the significance of provenance. Cultural expansion makes the need to make Assamese cuisine relevant and accessible for younger generations important. This will emerge out of modernization and flexibility of Assamese chefs to add diverse, global elements to dishes.


A larger trend in global food markets stresses documentation and understanding various subliminal qualities of individual local traditions, rather than perceiving a regional cuisine as one over-arching entity. It is important that we recognise the distinctiveness of Assamese cuisine, of the different tribes, religions and communities. It is the vibrancy of techniques and flavours that each divergent community brings to the fore.


Assamese food has a deep footing in traditional methods and flavours, underlined by sustainable, seasonal and local produce. It is this ‘uniqueness’ of Assamese cuisine, the one-of-a-kind flavours that must be recognized for their contributions to global cuisine and should be placed on a much larger national and international platform.

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