Dubai: One of the spiciest chillies in the world – bhoot jholokia or ghost chillies come from the picturesque hilly region of north east India – Assam. For a region that gifted the world this spicy chilli, not much is known about its food.
Gulf News food team set out to explore Assamese cuisine, and we discovered how a small community in the UAE is preserving its traditions through food.
Forty-year-old Sumon Bordoloi, an Indian-Assamese expatriate who moved to Dubai in 1999, says food brings back many fond memories. He works as a marketing manager at an insurance company and loves to cook. As soon as he gets back from work, around 6.30pm, he rushes to his kitchen to prepare a traditional Assamese meal for his family. Saturdays and Sundays are spent picking fresh produce, herbs at a supermarket and inviting friends and family over food. Just the way he grew up seeing his family do.
Bordoloi said: “I can easily cook for around 200 to 300 people because I am used to cooking for large gatherings, especially during Maag Bihu.” This is one of the biggest Assamese festivals, and it marks the end of the winter solstice, where days become longer and nights shorter.
I can easily cook for around 200 to 300 people because I am used to cooking for large gatherings, especially during Maag Bihu.
It is a harvest festival where people gather in paddy fields right after crops are cut and head to cook inside a temporary constructed hut. This festive preparation lasts all night long, and usually, men of the household and neighbourhood stay up to cook. Dishes prepared at this festival are primarily rice-based, similar to their daily diet. Some of the popular dishes cooked on this day are Pitha or dumplings made from bora saul, a special kind of glutinous rice, tengesi or small fish fry, and duck curry with ash gourd called hanhor komora is a festive preparation. These dishes are the heart of Assamese cuisine, explained Bordoloi.
For 42-year-old Indian-Assamese expatriate Geetika Khanikar Dutta, hanhor komora or duck curry happens to be one of her favourite dishes. She often cooks it for her daughter and husband. A food enthusiast, the Dubai-based homemaker she loves to cook. She often recreates her favourite childhood recipes for family and friends. This helps her bond with the Assamese community in the UAE.
Dutta said: “The fondest memory I have while growing up in my hometown - Duliajan or Duroijan, which means far distant in the regional Assamese language, is of my grandfather cooking for us. That too on a wood-lit fire.” Her grandfather had a priest-like status among the people of his town. As per the community’s religious practices, he could only eat food cooked by himself and not anyone. So, he cooked for his entire family.
For Dutta, it is the smoky flavoured food cooked by her grandfather on a wood fire, using basic spices like turmeric, ginger, garlic and salt that is unmatched. “I can never explain how much I miss it, nor can I describe its taste and that feeling in words,” she said.
Of tribal influences and unique dishes
This north-eastern Indian state runs along the east of the Himalayas and is considered a part of what is known as the seven sister states, a popular term for contiguous states that includes Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya. And these states are home to some of the oldest tribes, like the bodo and kachari. Dutta explained: “The cuisines of neighbouring states like Nagaland and Mizoram have an influence on Assam’s food. Because of their shared geographical boundaries, they had a lot of migration of tribal people, who do not add spices or masalas in their food.”
They use a lot of locally grown herbs and fresh produce, retaining authentic flavours. Before any modern food trends or fad diets, the tribes were already eating an alkaline diet. Khar – a well-known alkaline dish made using the ash extract of banana peel, along with raw papaya and fish happens to be this region’s favourite. Many nutritionists and food scientists have pointed out the health benefits of following an alkali-rich diet in recent years.
Iswar Das, a 51-year-old Assamese civil engineer based in Dubai, explained: “Khar is something that can either be prepared as a dish or used as a standalone ingredient. It uses ashes of banana peel.” Not so popular among kids, this dish grows on you for its bitter taste and mushy texture. Especially when you start living away from home and your loved ones, explains Das.
Khar is something that can either be prepared as a dish or used as a standalone ingredient. It uses ashes of banana peel.
Another unique ingredient in Assamese cuisine is bamboo shoots. It comes in various forms – dried, fresh, fermented, in broths, stir-fries, and even salads. These edible young shoots arrive during the monsoon. They are harvested in forests and home gardens, just like how bhoot jholokia or ghost chilli is grown in most Assamese kitchen gardens. The cool, humid climate there makes it suitable to cultivate them. Owing to this conducive weather, Assam is also famed for its tea plantations.
Black tea, rice and meals in an Assamese household
The world knows Assam for its tea. And it should come as no surprise that Assamese love their tea. They wake up to their freshly brewed cup, which is prepared without milk. What makes an Assamese cup of tea so perfect? It’s the tea leaves and brewing technique. Tea connoisseurs believe that the secret to a perfectly brewed tea is timing and temperature. For instance, if you like your tea strong, do not brew it for long; instead, add more tea leaves. Brewing it for long will make it bitter.
Dutta said: “I have never seen my grandparents drink milk tea. Instead, they drink black tea in traditional brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) cups known as kaah baati. There is no concept of disposable or ceramic cups. Traditionally, even food was served in brass utensils.” A trend that people in the cities have started following only now, for various health benefits. Serving in these utensils is a way of showing respect, especially to the elders, explained Dutta.
With tea comes breakfast. It is an important meal in an Assamese household. According to Dutta, a typical breakfast consists of doi chura with gur or flattened rice with yoghurt and jaggery or kumol saul, a type of rice eaten either with milk or yoghurt, sugar or jaggery. Rice remains a constant at all meals. Even in the neighbouring states of West Bengal and Bihar, rice-based dishes, especially dahi chura with a savoury vegetable, is popular.
The West Bengal connection
Speaking of neighbours, West Bengal and Assam have a lot in common, but more so when it comes to food. Dutta explained: “The Assamese and Bengali language scripts are the same. So if you are well versed with one, you can easily understand the other.” Sharing its border with West Bengal, Assam shares its cooking style and food culture. For instance, both cuisines use freshwater fish such as rohu and katla. Their typical traditional sweet snack, such as murir laru or murmura laddoo, made using puffed rice and jaggery are popular in both states. However, unlike panch phoron – a Bengali five-spice mix, Assamese food does not take the spice route. They like to keep their flavours simple and straightforward. In the interiors of Assam, people would not even know what chicken curry masala or fish masala is, Dutta explained.
A cooking technique of serving mashed dishes in Assamese is called pitika. Be it with potatoes, tomatoes or aubergine. All you need to do is boil, blanch or roast them, add mustard oil, cut onions, and salt. This technique is much like how Bengalis make a potato mash called aloo shedho.
A confluence of different cultures, Assamese cuisine preserves its simple flavours. Bordoloi, Dutta and Das left their hometowns a long time ago to live and work in the UAE. Whether at home or cooking for their community in the UAE, they relive old memories while creating new ones. Relaying recipes and flavours to the younger generation, here is one such Assamese dish, recreated by Dutta.
Hanhor Komora or Assamese Duck Curry
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
1 whole duck, cleaned and cut into curry pieces
1 medium-sized ash gourd, cut into cubes
2 to 3 bay leaves
3 to 4 cardamom cloves, whole
1 small black cardamom
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp jeera and dhaniya powder or cumin and coriander powder, equal measure
3 to 4 whole green chillies or 1/2 tsp red chilli powder, optional
3 medium-sized onions, chopped
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste, equal measure
1. Heat oil in a pan, add all the masalas or spices and add chopped onions. Fry them until the onion changes colour to light brown.
2. Then, add ginger-garlic paste and saute for about 30 to 40 seconds on a medium flame.
3. Next, add duck meat and salt and cook for about 20 minutes.
4. Then, add ash gourd, cover it, and cook for a few minutes.
5. After that, add a little water to it and cook until done.
Note: Do not cook it for long as you do not want the ash gourds to become too mushy.
Serve hot with steamed white rice.
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