It goes without saying that if you want to taste the actual flavour of ethnic food of a place, you should head to a local’s house. But if you are in Guwahati and want to taste Assamese food, you have another option – eateries serving ethnic Assamese cuisine.
Mushrooming all over the city and cooking food the traditional way, these restaurants are flocked by people, largely locals, as they re-introduce them to their traditional food.
Serving delicious, authentic food of the region at competitive prices, no matter where, these eateries have opened up in Guwahati and in many other towns in Assam – and their tables are always occupied. Where, on the one hand, global cuisine is making waves in India, the local Assamese community is also rediscovering its roots through its food and getting bowled over.
So, why is the local Assamese populace so taken by the food that he or she has grown up on and cooks and eats every day?
The hallmark of Assamese cuisine is simplicity. It requires the minimal use of spices, less oil and, like most regional food, easily available local produce – be it the greens, fish, or flowers. Even then, paucity of time for traditional methods of cooking like steaming or cooking over charcoal and usage of local produce, like some herbs that are not easily available in the city any more, has led the local community to no longer cook certain traditional dishes.
This is where these restaurants step in.
"Some traditional means of cooking are no longer possible in modern day homes. For example, cooking in bahor sungat (bamboo tubes)," said Rajiv Hazarika, owner of Maichang, an eatery serving traditional Assamese food in Sibsagar, a small town in upper Assam.
Bamboo is commonly found in Assam and in earlier times was extensively used as a utensil to cook food. "You can cook anything in these bamboo tubes – rice, meat, vegetables, to name just a few – and although it takes longer than cooking on gas, the flavour is different and delicious. We offer such dishes in our restaurant," Hazarika told this correspondent.
"There are also certain herbs, like mani-muni and bhedailota, that were once found in the wild but are no longer easily found in the bigger towns. Restaurants such as ours source and use these herbs to cook some traditional dishes that were once commonly cooked in homes," he added.
Paradise is one of the first and most well-known eateries serving traditional Assamese food in Guwahati. S.K. Bezbaruah, whose family runs the restaurant and who also has to his credit Jakoi, a popular Assamese food joint in Delhi, says that they have kept two things in mind – keeping the fare original and the pricing comfortable for all.
"For example, all our food is cooked in mustard oil, just like it is in most homes in Assam. For the Delhi restaurant, we get the rice (joha variety) and dhekia xaak (fern, a leafy vegetable) all the way from Assam. And the platter is served in a kaanhor thali (brass plate), keeping the authenticity alive," Bezbaruah said.
The Assamese community is largely non-vegetarian and people who frequent Paradise can’t talk enough about their vyanjan non-vegetarian thaali – an assortment of fish cooked in mustard, the typical maasor tenga (a delicate and tangy fish curry), khaar (alkaline mixture made by filtering through banana tree ashes), chicken curry, pitika (mashed potatoes) – all of it and more priced at a decent Rs.280 ($4). And that’s the way it is in most Assamese food eateries.
Although the locals love their chicken, pork and mutton, it’s the fish that rules the roost (pun intended). Whether it’s steamed in plantain leaf – delicate in flavour – or cooked with khorisa (bamboo shoot), or the goroi maas pitika (freshwater fish, roasted over fire, deboned and mashed with mustard oil, chillies and coriander), the list of fish-based preparation is long.
Celebrity chef Atul Lahkar from Assam says that this phenomenon of mushrooming traditional food eateries in the state is a fairly recent phenomenon. "Six-seven years back you wouldn’t have seen so many such eateries here in Guwahati," he said. "But people are now keen to rediscover their roots."
Ashwini Das, who works in a bank in Guwahati, says that for him Sundays are incomplete without a visit to an Assamese food joint. "Like most Assamese, both me and wife love fish. But apart from the maasor tenga and a simple fish curry, we can hardly prepare the other traditional stuff, he said.
"I mean how can I roast the fish over charcoal, or steam in a banana leaf, or cook in a bamboo tube? My kitchen doesn’t allow me those traditional methods of cooking and I don’t have the time to go hunting in the local markets for the right ingredients. So we head to either Delicacy or Khorika (restaurants) and are hardly ever disappointed," Das added.
For Sangeeta Baruah, a homemaker, the ideal place to have a "real traditional" Assamese lunch would be a little further off Guwahati. "There is a place called Brahmaputra Jungle Resort and they serve the best pork. Ask for Sanga pork – it’s cooked in just ginger-garlic paste in bamboo tubes – and team it with joha rice, also cooked in the tubes and served in banana leaf, rolled like a sushi! The pork has a lovely smoky flavour and is exactly what Assamese food is like – simple, healthy, hardly any oil or spices, and delicious," she said.
"I remember eating that kind of food back when I was younger at my grandmother’s place. And not just non-vegetarian food. My sister and I would accompany our grandma to collect different kinds of leafy vegetables from the kitchen garden, or herbs, which would then be cooked simply in mustard oil. Although those herbs aren’t available on the menus, the restaurants these days definitely bring back memories with their traditional way of cooking," Baruah reminisced fondly.
And that’s exactly why these restaurants are doing so well! Tuck in!