The aromas of Assam

October 2016

By Naini Setalvad

The cuisine of Assam, though simple, is full of delicate flavours and indigenous fare, says Naini Setalvad


The mighty Himalayan range, the Brahmaputra river, large forests, paddy fields, hills, tea gardens and the image of abundant rainfall instantly comes to my mind when I think of Assam, the land of amazing flora, fauna and natural beauty. Though not very well known, Assamese cuisine comprises simple cooking, using very little spices, which have strong flavours. I found plenty of foods in their daily diet that promote well-being. The staple food is rice, fish and an assortment of leafy greens growing in abundance due to the overflowing water bodies, ponds and the Brahmaputra river. Birds, chicken, duck and pork too are part of their cuisine.

Many years ago I had worked with a group from Assam and I was thrilled to know that Assam had over a 100 varieties of leafy greens including ferns, called Xaaks. Since most edible herbs and ferns grow in abundance in the wild, a lot of the produce is organic. Many of them have curative properties that are used in home remedies to soothe a sore throat, cure skin infections, prevent hair fall, or to bring relief in diseases like malaria, and jaundice.

It is a common practice here to have ferns and greens as side dishes at lunch and dinner. They are immunity-enhancing foods which prevent cancer cells from multiplying and even clean up clogged arteries. Since most grow wild in dense forest land, free of chemicals and pesticides, they naturally have higher nutrient content. They are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, are high in iron, calcium, beta-carotene and are great for bones, muscles, hair, skins and eyes.

Kitchen gardens are a common sight in Assam and fresh vegetables from the backyard are tossed into the pot, making the dish amazingly tasty and nutrient dense. Dhekia xaak rosun (Fiddlehead fern) is a popular variety of edible fern used by the Assamese. Mustard greens are widely consumed since their flavour permeate the food which is lightly cooked for a short time on the fire, or steamed or roasted on wood fire with minimum spices, thereby retaining a lot of their nutrients. The cooking medium is cold pressed mustard oil known to be high in good quality mono-saturated fat.

Ash gourd, brinjal, drumsticks, pumpkin, pointed and bitter gourd are frequently shallow fried in mustard oil with salt, lemon and turmeric. Potato is a comfort food for the Assamese and aloo pittika (mashed potatoes in
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