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 mustard oil with onions, mustard seeds, coriander and salt is an all-time favourite). Onion, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes are often added to vegetables and curries. All of them are anti-aging and hold powerful photo-nutrients.
Every part of the banana, from the fruit, to the leaves and stems is used in Assam. The banana is a super food high in potassium and a stress buster. The flowers too have curative properties and are extremely beneficial for a healthy uterus. Bamboo shoots and fruits too are incorporated in their food. Mustard seeds and mustard paste are very popular and frequently added to vegetables, rice, eggs and fish. Little fiery chillies, chutneys, pickles made from leaves, vegetables, fruits, dried fruits are a part of the cuisine, and so are fermented food containing natural probiotics and also sundried foods.
Commonly used lentils are masoor and mung, often eaten with khar as an ingredient with rice. Khar is exclusive to Assam, and is made by drying and burning the skins of banana, preferably a variety called bheem kol which are quite big, full of seeds and have a very thick skin, to get the ashes. Water is then filtered through the ashes. This water is called kola or kol khar and is then added to the main ingredients, such as raw papayas, bottle gourd, rice, fish or lentils. In the absence of the traditionally made khar from banana skins, baking soda is used which is less acidic than khar. The Assamese love their tenga which is served normally at the end of a meal with plain rice. Tenga refers to a light tangy fish curry soured either by lemon or tomato, of which the most popular version is the masoor fish tenga.
Rice is the staple grain of Assam. The state has an extensive variety of rice, ranging from sticky, aromatic, parboiled to wild rice, with colours varying from white, purple to black. Today black rice is considered a super grain. Rice is often cooked in mustard oil, salt, lemon and had with mustard paste. Breakfast dishes, snacks and sweets too are made from rice. Kumal chaul (parboiled sticky rice) with doi (curd) and gur (jaggery) is universal breakfast fare in Assam. Puffed rice with jaggery and yoghurt is a much loved dessert. Kola bora payokh is a pudding made from black sticky rice sweetened by jaggery. The use of jaggery instead of white sugar is healthier as jaggery is a natural sweetener containing vitamins and minerals unlike white sugar. Curd is excellent for gut flora. Last, but not the least, is pitha which is rice cake made on special occasions. Its healthier version is roasted over a slow fire, sweetened with jaggery, and has sesame seeds.
Fish, known as maas, is a daily necessity, obtained from ponds, water bodies and rivers. Every part of the fish is cooked, from the fish head which is made into a curry, to fish eggs that are made like normal egg bhurji. Fish is often covered with mustard paste and steamed in banana leaf. Tiny fish like pukchimas are flavoured with salt and turmeric, and shallow fried in mustard oil. Steaming fish in a bamboo hollow by stuffing the fish in it and closing the opening with a banana leaf or a cloth so that the flavours don’t escape is an authentic Assamese style of cooking. Fish is one of the healthiest foods containing good quality protein and fat.
Black tea is an intrinsic part of the Assamese gastronomy. Most of Assam’s tea unlike other tea growing regions, is not planted on the hills but at or near sea levels or in the valley of Brahmaputra. Served plain, black, spiced or with milk, its taste and flavour is truly blissful. Black tea contains antioxidants that fight free radicals which destroy healthy cells and lower immunity. A cup of black tea is a stress buster that aids digestion and increases energy.
Assam is blessed with an abundance of foods that naturally promote well-being and are a treat to the taste-buds, besides being fresh and often organically grown.
2 big potatoes
1 small onion
3 green chillies medium length, finely chopped
Salt to taste
2 tsp of cold press (raw) mustard oil
Bio: Naini Setalvad is a nutritionist, specialising in lifestyle and immunity disorders. Her foundation, Health For You, throws light on healthy food habits.
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