Gitika Saikia bristles with indignation whenever she tells people that she is from Assam and folks ignorantly question her about whether the Assamese really eat everything that moves! Yes, she proudly claims that her kinsmen are adventurous when it comes to all things culinary but adds that there is a logical reason behind this gastronomic risk-taking.
“Most Assamese people were tribal folks and hunters living in hilly regions and dense forests. They were also nomadic in nature and would not stay in one place for long. They had to survive by hunting any animal that came their way – be it fish, bird or a land animal – and cooking and preserving the meat whichever way they could. Over time, some of them turned to farming and other trade, but most stuck to their hunting roots, which explains how they came into their unfortunate legacy of eating everything that moves,” adds Gitika.
She rues that little is known about Assam, other than its famous tea and its wild life sanctuaries. “Assamese cuisine is very unique from other north eastern cuisine, but unfortunately most people presume it to be similar to the more popular and dominant Bengali cuisine, which is unfortunate,” adds Gitika.
This is one reason she has tied up with Trekurious in India to introduce laypeople to the nuances of this fare. She curates a special menu and welcomes Trekurious’ customers to her home where she takes them on a culinary journey to Assam and back, explaining the special aspects of each Assamese dish and the ingredients used. Here she shares some insights of Bodo cuisine, one of the sub-sects of Assamese tribal culture.
COOKING IS SERIOUS BUSINESS
Assam has many tribes of which Kachari is a major one. Bodos are a sub-sect of the Kasauri tribe and are spread throughout the central and lower parts of the state. While most of the other tribes have taken to urbanisation, Bodos have still held on to their traditional cultures, be it in their attire, their lifestyle or even their food.
The first thing to remember is that cooking is no trifling business in Bodo households. Every conventional home would have two kitchens – one where the main cooking is done and an adjunct dining room where the family would sit to eat.
No one other than the lady of the lady of the house and the trusted servants were permitted to enter the sanctum of the main kitchen, to ensure that the area was kept clean and uncontaminated. Young daughters-in-laws had to work their way to gain entry into the kitchen and get access to family recipes, which shows that cooking was serious business. Of course, things have eased up a bit and today Bodo homes have only one kitchen for the sake of convenience.
Interestingly, the Bodos are one of the few communities in India who use the smoking technique to preserve food. Most other regions prefer to either sun-dry ingredients or use oil as a preserving agent. While Gitika does not know where and how smoking as a practice originated amongst the Bodos, she says it is a common practice to see them smoke dried fish and pork chunks, which they then proceed to store in hollowed out bamboo stems. These are then hung over the fireplace in the kitchen to keep them from spoiling and getting mouldy, and also from miscreants stealing them!
Rice is the main staple ingredient in every meal and contrary to popular notion, vegetables and roots do find themselves playing an important role in the daily diet. Some of them might be a little off the beaten track though. Take the case of Narzi, which is made from jute leaves. Since jute is a common crop grown in Assam, its dried leaves are used to use make a thin, bitter gravy along with either pork or fresh water fish. The leaves have a very bitter taste, so the trick is to know exactly how many leaves have to be added to the gravy so that it tantalises the palate but does not make the gravy overwhelmingly bitter.
Gitika reveals that preparing Narzi is like a litmus test for new brides as it shows their culinary skills. Besides eating boiled and steamed rice, rice is also ground in a stone pestle to make a batter to prepare the much-loved Thekeli Peetha, which resembles the idli. The ground rice batter is placed in a thin muslin cloth and then steamed in the mouth of an earthen pot, placed over the cooking fire for few minutes. The rice cake is sometime stuffed with black sesame if it is supposed to be a savoury to be eaten for breakfast, or with coconut and sugar if it is a celebratory snack.
Rice is also used to brew a very potent beer called Zou. The Bodos also offer this brew to Lord Shiva during Baishagu, the festival when they welcome spring, as an offering. Till a few years ago, a guest of honour was always welcomed with a glass of Zou, because it was considered to have medicinal benefits due to various herbs that went in during its preparation and was even said to cure cholera. It is only in recent times that it is looked down upon as a potent intoxicant.
Amongst meat, chicken (called Dau in Bodo) and pork (called Oma) are most favoured by Bodos, with most being inclined towards the latter. In fact Oma with black dal is a common preparation in most households and is made at least twice a week.
The Bodos also like to spice their meals with side dishes called Napham. Akin to chutneys, this is basically fermented fish chutney and it is said that one can predict which household is preparing Napham from a mile away – that is how strong its smell carries! Tiny pond fish are caught and fermented in January and then pounded with salt, crushed red chillies, some mustard oil and spices and stored to be eaten with rice and dal throughout the year.
In days gone by, there were some ingredients that Bodos used to enjoy in abundance that are now exotic even for locals and would raise the eyebrows of most gourmands. Take the case of silkworms, which is deemed a delicacy in most north-eastern states of India. What few people know is that most Assamese eat the pupa of the worm and not the worm itself. But the Bodos prefer eating the protein-rich grub called Polu Leta, after deep frying it.
“Then there are the rare-to-find water bugs called Koroi Pok, which are found in small freshwater ponds in villages near paddy plantations. When the fishermen cast nets, these bugs get caught and Bodos are fond of eating them, since they are rich in protein,” Gitika adds. But, it is rare to find them now; they are considered to be a delicacy even amongst Bodos villagers.
Not too long ago, Bodos would eat bats too, but later some superstitious beliefs took ground that bats nestled only in haunted trees and villagers stopped hunting them. Today, only those bats that are electrocuted are cooked and eaten because their death was natural!
Today, the Bodo cuisine, which was never in the limelight anyway, is slowly slipping away into obscurity. A few home cooks like Gitika are trying to keep the interest alive by tying up with companies like Trekurious that organise pop up curated meals.
Given that India can give any country a lesson when it comes to food diversity, hopefully experiments like these will result in a wider larder of interest about its cuisines from its own citizens. ?
Gitika Saikia has been battling Type 2 diabetes for several years now, which is what turned her attention towards food. And that is when she realised that instead of looking west, she just had to go back to the time tested recipes of her indigenous Assamese cuisine to stay healthy and fit. A communications specialist by profession, who has worked at Tech Mahindra Business Services, Big Bazaar and Zicom Electronic Security Systems, she now runs Gitika’s Pakghor, a homegrown culinary experiment to give people an insight into the gastronomical delights of India’s North Eastern cuisine.