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Cuisine of AssamThe Cuisine of Assam, a state in North-East India, is a mixture of different indigenous styles with considerable regional variations and some external influences. It is characterized by very little use of spices but strong flavors due mainly to the use of endemic exotic herbs, fruits and vegetables that are either fresh, dried or fermented. Fish is widely used, and birds like duck, pigeon etc. are very popular. Pork dishes are particular favorites. Preparations are rarely elaborate—the practice of Bhuna, the gentle frying of spices before the addition of the main ingredients so common in Indian cooking, is absent in the cuisine of Assam.
A traditional meal in Assam begins with a khar, a class of dishes named after the main ingredient, and ends with a tenga, a sour dish. These two dishes characterize a traditional meal in Assam. The food is usually served in bell metal utensils made by an indigenous community called Mariya. Tamul (betel nut, generally raw) and paan generally concludes the meal.
IngredientsThe cuisine of Assam is strongly influenced by the local ingredients, especially because this cuisine tries to preserve the natural flavors or augment them by processes like drying, fermentation etc.
RiceRice is the most important ingredient in this cuisine. The large varieties of rice found in the region has led to speculation that the grain was first domesticated in the Assam-Yunnan region. Both the indica as well as the japonica varieties are grown in Assam. The most popular class of rice is the joha. Rice is eaten in many different forms: roasted and ground (xandoh), boiled in its husk and flattened (chira), puffed (akhoi). There also grows a variety of rice that can be just soaked and eaten (kumal saul).
Rice is a part of all meals in Assam. A traditional breakfast consists of chira with yogurt and jaggery. Farmers eat cooked rice soaked overnight (poita) garnished with mustard oil, onions, etc. Snacks would be xandoh, kumal saul or bora saul with milk. For other major meals, rice could be boiled, steamed or wrapped in leaves and roasted.
A special class of rice preparations, called pithas are generally made only on special occasions like the Bihu. Made usually with soaked and ground glutinous rice (bora saul), they could be fried in oil with a sesame filling (xutuli pitha), roasted in young green bamboo over a slow fire (sunga pitha) or baked and rolled over a hot plate with a filling (khulasapori pitha).
Rice is also the primary ingredient for the many rice beers and liquors (lau-pani) made in Assam by different ethnic communities: zou (Bodo), apong (Mishing), xaj (Ahom), hor (Karbi), phatika (Kachari) etc.
FishThe next most important ingredient is the fish, harvested from the many rivers, ponds and lakes in the region. There is no traditional ethnic community in Assam that does not eat fish. Most traditional rural households have their own ponds for pisciculture. Some of the most popular fishes are the rou (Labeo rohita), the illish ( Tenualosa ilisha) and the chital (Chitala chitala), though the varieties of fish available and eaten is very large. The discerning gourmand would be able to tell which region of Assam is known for which variety of fish.
The most popular dish from Assam, the tenga, is an indispensable part of a proper meal in Assam. The most popular tenga is made with tomatoes, though ones made with kaji lime (thick skinned elongated) and thekera (dried Mangosteen, Garcinia pedunculata) added to other vegetables are also popular. Another favorite is small fish roasted in banana leaves.
Greens and vegetablesThe environs of Assam are rich in vegetation, and green leafy vegetables, called xaak, are an important part of the cuisine. Some of them are grown while others like the fern dhekia grows wild. There is a bewildering variety that is eaten and according to custom, one has to have a hundred different xaaks during Rongali Bihu. Locally available green leafy vegetables are: spinach, lai (a family of mustard greens), fenugreek greens, khutora (amaranth), moricha, mati kaduri, mani moni (dichondra), mint, cabbage. Green vegetables are often boiled with water to form a gravy or sauteed in oil with onions.
Other locally available vegetables are: cauliflower, beetroot, kolhrabi, curry bananas, banana flower, banana stem, bell pepper, 'potol', 'jeeka', 'bhool', snake gourd, bottle gourd, 'ronga lao'.
Exotic foodsAssam has its share of exotic foods. One such delicacy is eri polu, the pupa of the Eri silkworm after it has spun its cocoon. Fermented bamboo shoot (khorisa) is another traditional condiment used in Assam.
PreparationsKhar: The khar is a signature class of preparations made with a key ingredient, also called khar. The traditional ingredient is made by filtering water through the ashes of a banana tree, which is then called kola khar (black khar). A traditional meal invariably begins with a khar dish, made of raw papaya, pulses or any other main ingredient.
Tenga: The tenga is a light and sour fish dish, another signature class of preparations. The souring ingredient could be thekera, kaji lime, etc., but the most popular is that made with tomatoes. Fish dishes made with fermented bamboo shoot are generally sour, but they are not called tengas. Fish is fried in mustard oil or curried with bottle gourd or spinach. Meat is curried in spicy gravy. Modern cuisine of Assam has been influenced by east and north Indian cuisine.
Pitika and pickles: Side dishes called pitikas (mashes) are very popular. The most popular is aloo pitika (mashed potatoes) garnished with raw onions, mustard oil, green chilies and sometimes boiled eggs. khorisa tenga is mashed fermented bamboo shoot, sometimes pickled in mustard oil and spices. Kharoli is fermented mashed mustard (Brassica campestris var. toria) seed. Pitikas are also made from roasted or steamed vegetables (tomatoes and egg plants being very popular) and fish.
Pork: Pork dishes are particular favorites in Assam. The basic cooking method is boiling. Onla, of the Bodos, is made with ground rice and special herbs, and constitutes a complete meal in itself.
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