Assam is my private wonderland, my childhood's Disneyland; with all it's thrills in the jungles, rides on elephants being charged by rhinos, the swoop of hundreds of wild ducks and geese over the Brahmaputra where the majestic Fish Eagle fights with giant mahseer to beach them, and millions of memories that very few children have the privilege to cherish. I had the best of both worlds; a retreating culture of colonialism with its sophisticated hangovers of shikars and gala Christmas parties on one hand and an introduction to the quiet charm of simple people. To add masala and a real zing to it all, were the colourful tribes that surrounded the valley and whose children I went to school with.
Today Assam is still largely unspoiled, topographically speaking. But while I am thrilled to see a mud hut that I can recognize from four decades ago, there is a sad consciousness of how time has been allowed to stand still in the lives of simple folk, who still till the soil and toil in the sun and wade through floods to eke out an ordinary, almost meaningless existence. I begin to notice the barrenness created by felled peepals and banyans: there is a silence now where hill mynas once screeched over the flap of imperial pigeons and no red jungle fowl scurry through the brush and sly leopards no longer growl in the midst of descend at dusk upon a land of dead coyotes poisoned by pesticides. So much has changed in the environment and so little had changed in the lives of the poor.
Oil-rich, tea-rich and bamboo-rich, rural Assam has little to show for its wealth.
But this is meant to be an introduction to a cook book! So let me quit dwelling on the tastelessness of social depravation and tell you to sample the mouth watering opulence that the Assamese lay out on their tables.
Almost every cuisine on the planet is an acquired taste: very few have universal appeal like the Chinese and Indian. The unique aspect of Assamese food is its simplicity and clean tastes. There is a charming rusticity to almost all the recipes. The smells and aromas in the kitchen, when you cook Assamese food, have a primitive charm that is typical and distinctively Assamese.
From the banana to the bamboo, from pigeon to duck, from fascinating flavours produced by ash to desserts smoked in bamboo hollows, the imaginative versatility within the confines and limitations of tribal, rural, agrarian and riverine cultures that peoples the largest valley in the world will astound you.
This book in not one that you will be able to simply pick up and cook from and then expect to enjoy everything you prepare. Wherever you are in the world, I am afraid you will have to first find an Assamese housewife (or man in an apron) whom you will have to befriend, cultivate, flatter and then coax into giving you secrets that each family guards to make almost every single dish in this book special, in an inimitable sort of way. This is the best and the worst thing about most Assamese, in fact almost all the North-Eastern food, even from the hills that surround Assam- they all taste subtly different from home to home, from developed regions in Lower Assam to the forested divisions of Upper Assam, from silted banks of the Brahmaputra to the bamboo forests of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
I am not going to pick up recipes that are my favorites; on the contrary, I shall dive into so many that I had not been privy to before now and open up new horizons for myself so the land I hold so dearly to my heart becomes, for me, a wonderland renewed.
One final tip before I get down to the finger-licking experiences that await you; don't waste time having French, Australian or Napa Valley wines with your Assamese meal. The Assamese are (by and large) not a pretentious people and their down to earth simplicity is never an affectation. Tried and tested, I can recommend a few Italian Chiantis or a simple buttermilk prepared from home made curd and then end with a shot of Grappa- never Port and cheese: a Cohiba Havana cigar? Sure.
And please, please all you wealthy joggers, treadmill stompers and weight-watchers, don't worry, Assamese food has the least calories and is not fattening.
Friday, November 03, 2006.