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A Tale from the North East

An inveterate cook who is equally comfortable cooking for two and she is for two hundred, Sneha is a gracious host who enjoys hosting popups. Have you met Sneha yet?

Sneha Saikia is a talented Assamese cook who has a wide repertoire in her arsenal and  awide range of culinary interests. She enjoys experiencing and learning about foods from all across the world, in addition to interacting with culinary professionals from different disciplines. An inveterate cook who is equally comfortable cooking for two and she is for two hundred, Sneha is a gracious host who enjoys hosting popups, especially featuring food from her native land- Assam, which she is particularly passionate about promoting. Sneha Saikia recently spoke to Sid Khullar and we believe that Chef at Large readers might find some useful insights regarding North Eastern Cuisine.

Sid Khullar(SK):You’ve been in north India for a while. What are the main differences you’ve found between north and north east Indian food?
Sneha Saikia(SS): Personally, I believe there is a lot of difference between cuisines of Northeast India with rest of the Indian states. The main difference lies in the ingredients used, for example, cuisines of North India are spice based and with bhuno of the curry as a common technique, whereas our cuisine is herb based with use of different kinds of leaves or herbs.

SK: Do you believe there are any similarities in the food cultures of Assam, Orissa and West Bengal?
SS: The Central part of Assam has some similarity with Bengal.

Boiled dry fish with green brinjals.

SK:While the food of the north east is certainly quite different from that of the rest of the country, do the cooking methods differ too?
SS: Yes, the cooking process is quite different than other part of Indian states. We do not bhuno our ingredients and also do not believe in bringing artificial color to our dishes. Our dishes are always natural in color. Food wise, Assam can be divided into three parts, Upper Assam, Central and Lower Assam. The cooking techniques from Upper Assam and Lower Assam are water based and that from Central Assam being developed and exposed, has been influenced by the neighbouring states and tea garden workers from Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Most also have influences from Bangladesh who saute in mustard oil and tempering is done with onions and garlic. One can go a step further and say that we have learned cooking with mustard oil from Bangladesh.

Boiled fish with local herbs.

SK:I know you’re an awesome cook. Still, there will be times you feel like having home food, but do not feel like cooking. Is there a friend’s house you visit during such times, or a restaurant that meets with your approval?
SS: Whenever I feel like eating a home cooked meal or my cuisine from my part of the world, I land up at Nagaland Kitchen at Green Park or Dzukou, Hauz khas Market. The food there always is refreshing and a reminder of home.

SK:You’re a prominent member of many food communities, online and offline. Has awareness and understanding of north eastern food and cooking increased in the past few years? Why do you feel so?
SS:It is very sad that even in this day and age, people of Delhi, are hesitant to try Northeastern cuisine. The ratio is very less who are keen to know more about our cuisine. Nevertheless, I keep posting my food and get appreciation from few. Sometimes, I do get comments that are somewhat unpalatable and offensive on some posts but I plod along.

Mustard leaves Khar.

SK: Are all the required ingredients for say, Naga cooking, available in Delhi? What can be found here and where and what have you been unable to find?
SS: I mostly source my ingredients from back home and store it safely for months. Some ingredients are available in INA Market as Thai and Japanese ingredients are almost same with our cuisine. These days we get some stuff on online stores too. But, mostly we get our ingredients from home via relatives or postal services.

SK:While north eastern main courses are somewhat known here, most of us do not know much about desserts from that part of the country. Could you enlighten us please?
SS:Frankly there is no dessert concept in our cuisine. We are more into tea and drink Laal Saah which is tea without milk or green tea. We do have sweets like pitha and payoxh which is kheer, but we eat it as jolpan or in festive occasions . These days people have started making kheer as dessert.But people mostly prefer paan and tea after a meal.

Koni Saul r Pyaox (Kheer made with various types of millets).

SK: How about sharing a breakfast dish’s name from each of the north Eastern states? That’s another area many of us could do with more information.
SS: The sunrise is at 4 am so day starts very early and there is no breakfast concept in the region. People eat their heavy meal by 8 am and go for work and come back early and have dinner at 7 pm. City life has changed this a bit and in cities people have started eating breakfast. Instead of breakfast, we have afternoon tea concept. We have light snacks with tea during 2-4 pm. Luci bhaaji (poori and aloo subzi) is very common dish for guests which is served with omelette and tea.

SK: I find most people I’ve met from the north east love their pork! Are there are cultural reasons for this?
SS: Pork is mostly consumed in Nagaland and Mizoram. But in Assam, not all the caste eat pork. Pork is only consumed by Tribals of Assam. In villages of other castes, It is still a taboo and not allowed in the kitchen. City life is completely different than rural areas. People strictly follow rules of eating. In Assamese cuisine, Pigeon and Duck meat are mostly served dishes and prestigious for guests.

Sneha Saikia in conversation with Sid Khullar.

By Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is a wellness coach who works with different aspects of lifestyle change towards the accomplishment of goals such as weight loss and blood sugar management among other health situations that require the presence of specialised, precise diets and lifestyle change. His methods address aspects of food, nutrition and the mind.