Cuisine of a land is a specific set of cooking tradition and practices. It reflects the culture of a specific society. A cuisine is primarily influenced by the ingredients that are easily available and the climate of the area. Religious food laws also exercise strong influences on its food habits. In Assam eating means much more than just indulging your stomach. Food is sacred and eating is almost a ritual but the cooking process is fuss-free and in sync with nature, a trait that reflects the simple lifestyle of the inhabitants.
Assamese cooking is a mixture of different indigenous style with regional variation. The food of upper Assam is blander than lower Assam. I have noticed that they enjoy meat preparation with xaaks and green chillies whereas in many places of lower Assam dry red chilly paste or pepper paste is used. The cuisine of upper Assam has the oriental influence whereas lower Assam has the influence of near west places like Bengal and Bihar. The Assamese unique food preparation is distinguished by its distinct flavour of exotic herbs, the smell of lime (gol nemu), lemon (elachi nemu or kagji nemu) and the sweet smell of joha rice. We also have our own share of exotic delicacies like the Eri polu (pupa of Eri silk worm), the tangy eggs of the Amroli paruwa (a species of red ant), fermented bamboo shoot, herb chutneys and khar. Mother nature has given Assam abundant greenery. The biodiversity of Assam makes it a biological hotspot with many rare and endemic plants and herbs. There are more than 3000 species of medicinal plants and herbs. Xaak forms an indispensable part of Assamese cooking. Compared to the varieties of xaak grown, the types of xaak or herbs grown wild are very high. The people of this land of blue hill and red river take full advantage of Mother Nature’s bounty. It is a common practice for a typical Assamese kitchen to have fermented and dried bamboo shoot, dried cocum (thekera), rice powder, powered lentils (mahor guri), Kharoli, Khahodi and chilly pickle.
We Assamese cannot do without rice. Rice is our staple food. It is cooked several ways. Still in rural areas and to honoured guests traditional way to enjoy a meal is to sit down on bamboo mats or low stool (pira). It is served in heavy bell metal plates. Ban Kaahis are also used to serve an exotic Assamese meal to honoured guests. It can be enjoyed in plantain leaves also. An Assamese meal is served in courses. Each course is relished with a portion of rice. Our Non Assamese friends lovingly call us Khar Khoa Asomiya as khar is served as a first course of a meal. The last course of a meal is tanga (a tangy curry). Mustard oil is our cooking medium. Garlic, ginger, onion, pepper, fenugreek seeds are basic spices. Cumin seed, coriander, bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom and chillies are used to prepare special dishes like meat and certain fish dishes. Garnishing with coriander and green chilli is a common practice. The use of green chillies while cooking varies from family to family or from pocket to pocket. Ghee is occasionally used. We are fresh fish lovers. We like to eat fish if possible everyday. It is enjoyed eating with hands as many fishes, specially the small ones are full of sharp bones. More the bones tastier the fish is. Baked fish in plantain leaf is a delicacy. Fried small fish is a favourite side dish. Meat is also a delicacy. Dal is also served along with one or two Bhajis. We also have our very own chutneys like Kharoli, Pani- Tenga etc.
Versatility of Assamese Cuisine is very wide. There are hundreds of Khar and Tenga preparation. Each family has its own unique lentil and herb dishes. Taste of wide range of chutneys varies from families to families. Many families still have their closely guarded recipes. I am sure it will take thousands of pages to write down our low cal and low fat cuisine. It is just a beginning. I have opened a door. There are many more to be opened and explored.