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Assamese cuisine (Assamese: অসমীয়া ৰন্ধন-শৈলী) is the cuisine of Assam. It is a style of cooking that is a confluence of cooking habits of the hills that favor fermentation and drying as forms of preservation and those from the plains that provide fresh vegetables and an abundance of fish and meat. Both are centered on the main ingredient — rice. The confluence of varied cultural influences in the Assam Valley has led to the staggering variety and flavours in the Assamese food. It is characterised by the use of an extremely wide variety of plant as well as animal products, owing to their abundance in the region. It is a mixture of indigenous styles with considerable regional variations and some external influences.
The cuisine is characterized by very little use of spices, little cooking over fire and strong flavors due mainly to the use of endemic exotic fruits and vegetables that are either fresh, dried or fermented. Fish is widely used, and birds like duck, squab etc. are very popular, which are often paired with a main vegetable or ingredient. 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.) The preferred oil for cooking is the pungent mustard oil.
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. The food is usually served in bell metal utensils made by an indigenous community called Mariya. The belief is that when food and water is served in such utensils its good for health and boost up immunity. Tamul (betel nut, generally raw) and paan generally concludes the meal.
Though still obscure, this cuisine has seen wider notice in recent times. The discovery of this cuisine in the popular media continues, with the presenters yet to settle on the language and the specific distinctiveness to describe it.
Rice 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 or scented rice. As a staple, rice is eaten either steam boiled (ukhua) or sundried (aaroi). Some very fine quality of rice namely, Karaballam or kauribadam etc., are available in Assam only.
Rice is eaten as snack in many forms: roasted and ground (xandoh), boiled in its husk and flattened (chira), puffed (akhoi). (kumol saul), a preparation of rice that is precooked, dried and then husked can be simply soaked in warm water and eaten as a light meal.
Rice is a part of all meals in Assam. A traditional breakfast consists of chira with yogurt and jaggery. Mostly farmers eat cooked rice soaked overnight (poita) simply accompanied with salt, mustard oil, onions, etc. Snacks are xandoh, kumol saul or bora saul, sticky rice, which can be eaten with sweet or salty accompaniments. For other major meals, rice could be boiled, steamed or wrapped in leaves and roasted. 'Sunga Saul' is a special preparation in which (sticky) rice (bora saul) is cooked in bamboo hollows called 'sunga'. 'Sewa diya Bhaat' is another preparation where sticky rice is steamed over boiling water. They are generally served with meat or fish. Sticky rice is also wrapped in leaves, usually plantain leaves or tora pat, and dropped into boiling water to prepare 'tupula bhat'.
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 (kholasaporia pitha).
The next most important ingredient is fish, harvested from the many rivers, ponds and lakes in the region. The extremely wet climate and the large numbers of water bodies has ensured that large varieties of fresh water fish are available in abundance in the valley. It is a staple item in the Assamese palate. 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 big fishes are the Borali (freshwater dhark), rou, and cital (big), khoria (medium) (Chitala chitala), maagur, Xingi, borali, bhokua or bahu, Xaal, Xol, etc. The small varieties of fish available and eaten in Assam like puthi, Ari (long-whiskered catfish), Goroi (green snake head/ spotted snake head ), Koi or Kawoi (climbing perch Anabas testudineus), Kholihona (Indian paradise fish Ctenops nobilis) borolia, mua, ceniputhi, tengera, lachin, bhangun, pabho, etc. The discerning gourmet can tell which region of Assam is known for which variety of fish.
The mas tenga (sour fish ), which is commonly eaten by most communities of Assam, has lately turned into a signature dish of Assamese cuisine. The most popular souring agent for the tenga is tomatoes, though ones made with kajinemu juice (thick skinned elongated lemon) and thekera (dried mangosteen,) are also popular.
The most common way of eating fish in traditional Assamese homes is by preparing a stew with herbs, vegetables, and greens as per preference and availability. Fish is also prepared by roasting or char-grilling. A favorite is a small fish roasted in banana leaves (paatotdia). Hukoti is a special fish dish prepared from dried small fish like (puthi maas) pounded with arum stem and dried and stored in bamboo tubes. Variations of this exist among the ethnic communities of northeast India in general and Assam in particular. Dried and fermented small fish puthy mas (Ticto barb), three to four in number, are roasted with lavish amounts of green chilis, tomatoes, ginger and garlic (all roasted). The ingredients are then pounded in a mortar to make a coarse paste and served with rice. Fish eggs and innards are also cooked and consumed.
The Assamese meat and fish dishes are characterized by a low amount of spices and oil, higher quantity of ginger, noroxinghow paat (curry leaves), Khorisa (fermented bamboo shoot) and lemon juice, and differ completely in taste from the dishes of neighboring Bengal and are quite similar to the cuisines of nearby South-East Asian and East Asian countries. Chicken, Venison, Squab, Mutton, Duck and Pork is very popular among the indigenous ethnic Assamese communities like Sonowals, Bodo, Rabha, Keot(Kaibarta), Ahom, Moran, Sutiya etc. Upper caste Assamese Hindus, such as Assamese Brahmins(including Ganaks) and Kayasthas of Assam, Kalitas of Lower Assam refrain from pork consumption. Beef is occasionally consumed by Assamese Muslims, although they traditionally refrain from consuming pork. The Christians, many indigenous Assamese communities, and the non religious sections consume all types of meat.
The basic cooking methods include cooking, shallow and deep frying. Onla, of the Bodos, is made with ground rice and special herbs and constitutes a complete meal in itself. Other meats include squab, duck, chicken, goat meat, venison, and turtle although venison and turtle meat are legally prohibited. The combination of duck/white gourd and squab/papaya or banana flower is very popular. Meat is generally stewed using limited spices as well as a choice of herbs and vegetables.
Most communities of Assam are entomophagous. Various indigenous ethnic groups of certain areas partake of the silkworm, water bugs, grasshoppers, and other insects. Insects are fried or cooked or roasted in leaves and then prepared according to the timing of the meal. The red ant egg is considered a delicacy during the Rongali Bihu festival.
The 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 dhekia (fern) grows wild. There is a bewildering variety that is eaten and according to custom, one has to have 101 different xaak (greens) during Rongali Bihu. Herbs, greens, and vegetables are commonly eaten by simply cooking in water and salt, lightly frying, as a thick soup or by adding to varieties of lentils. They are also prepared in combination with fish, meat and eggs.
Among spices there are ginger, garlic, onion, cumin seed, black cumin, black pepper, chilli, turmeric, coriander seed, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, fenugreek seed, white mustard seed, aniseed, Malabar leaf, Cumin, etc. Some herbs peculiar to Assam are maan dhaniya, moran Ada, madhuhulong, bhedai lota, manimuni, masundari etc. An Assamese meal is incomplete without green chilis, many varieties of which are available in the region. Assam is famous for the bhut jolokia or ghost pepper which was recognized as the hottest chili in the world. Panch-furan (mixture of 5 spices) is used for adding flavour to Dal.
Although modern cuisine of Assam has been influenced by east and north Indian cuisine, Assam is still rich in traditional dishes.
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 the sun-dried skin of a few varieties of banana , which is then called kola khar (The name derived from the local term for banana, "kol" or "kola.") A traditional meal invariably begins with a khar dish, which can be prepared with raw papaya, mustard leaves, vegetables, pulses, fish or any other main ingredient.
Xôkôta is a severely bitter type of preparation. It is prepared with dry jute leaf, urad bean and khar. However, the combination of khar (alkaline) and tenga (acidic) is not recommended. The liquid khar is also simply eaten as kharoli with rice which is prepared by adding a few drops of mustard oil. Assamese people have a peculiar tradition of eating a large variety of bitter dishes, many of which are considered delicacies. Some dishes in this category include, fresh bamboo shoot, cooked or lightly fried, cane shoot, Neem leaves fried, titabhekuri, bitter gourd, Xukuta, Titaphool, Sewali Phool etc.
The masor tenga is a light and sour fish dish, another signature class of preparations. There are numerous ways of preparing the sour fish curry among Assamese people. The souring ingredient could be mangosteen, lemon, etc., but the most popular is made with tomatoes. Fish dishes made with fermented bamboo shoot (khorisa) are generally sour, but they are not called tenga. Fish is fried in mustard oil or stewed with bottle gourd or spinach. Another tenga dish is prepared with matimah (urad bean) and outenga (elephant apple). Bottle gourd can be added to it. Tengamora or noltenga and lentil is a distinct tenga curry.
The narasingh masor jhol is another authentic dish from Assam.The fishes are cooked in a light gravy of curry leaves which is a common aromatic herb used in southern and some northern parts of India. The curry leaves are also known as noro-shingho paat in Assamese. The fish preparations in Assam emphasize on retaining the natural flavors of the fishes and hence few spices are used.
Pura refers to various forms of grilled and roasted food. Vegetables, meat and fish are often served in this form. Aalu bengena pura pitika, pura maas pitika (mashed grilled fish), pura mankho etc. are a few of the popular dishes.
Poitabhat is a favourite dish in Assam during the summer season. Cooked rice is soaked overnight and left to ferment. It is and served with mustard oil, onion, chili, pickles, pitika (mashes), etc. The 'poitabhat' preparation is sometimes made alcoholic according to preference.
Side dishes called pitika - পিটিকা (mashes) is a signature characteristic of this cuisine. The most popular is aloo pitika - আলু পিটিকা (mashed potatoes) garnished with raw onions, mustard oil, green chillies 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 to which a khar has been added, and kahudi to which an acidic agent (lemon juice, dried mangosteen) has been added. Pitikas are also made from roasted or steamed vegetables (tomatoes and eggplants being very popular). Small fish, asiatic pennywort, matikaduri, tengamora leaves, heartleaf, dôrôn (Leucus longifolia), etc. are roasted separately wrapped in banana leaves and mashed into 'pitika'.
Pickles are made of mango, indian gooseberry, hog plum, Indian olive, Tamarind, star fruit, mangosteen, radish, carrot, elephant apple, Indian jujube, chili, lime, garlic, etc. Panitenga and kharoli are signature Assamese pickles made from ground mustard seeds.
Chutney is made of coriander, spinach, tomato, heartleaf, curry leaf, chilli, lentil, chickpea etc. Xukan masor chutney (chutney made of dried fish) is popular among the tribal communities. Salad is made of carrot, radish, tomato, cucumber, beetroot, etc.
'Bora' are fried balls of mashed lentil or gram — it is equivalent to vada in few other Indian languages. It may contain other green leafy vegetable locally called 'xaak' within it, and it is best while served with 'teteli' (tamarind) curry or dip. There is a huge variety of 'bora' preparations in Assamese cuisine. The base ingredients include greens, vegetables, fruits, flowers, skin, and shoots of various plants. 'Bora' can also be prepared from fish eggs etc.
Some other preparations in Assamese cuisine include Kahudi, Panitenga, Khorikatdiya, Tenga sorsoriya, Posola, etc.
Liquor is an integral part of linguistically and culturally diverse communities in Assamaese society. Rice is a primary ingredient for the many rice beers (Nam-lao - নাম-লাও) and liquors made in Assam by different ethnic communities: zou (Bodo), aapong (Mishing),mod(মদ) (Sonowal Kacharis), Nam-lao -নাম-লাও (Tai-Ahom), Haj (Tiwa), hor (Karbi), photika - ফটিকা (Kachari), etc.
Jolpan (snacks) in Assamese is what is breakfast although it is not always served as breakfast in Assamese cuisine. They are eaten as light meals between main meals and widely served during Bihu, weddings, Assamese shraadhs or any other kind of special occasions and gatherings. Some types of jolpan are Bora saul (varieties of sticky rice), Komal Saul, Xandoh, Chira, Muri, Akhoi, Sunga saul, etc. eaten in combination with hot milk, curd, jaggery, yogurt or seasonal ripe fruits. These are probably some of the earliest forms of "cereals". Assamese people have been eating them mainly as breakfast for many centuries.
Pitha (rice cake) is a special class of rice preparation generally made only on occasions like Bihu in Assam. Made usually with soaked and ground rice, they could be fried in oil, roasted over a slow fire or baked and rolled over a hot plate. Some pithas are Til Pitha, Ghila Pitha, Xutuli Pitha, Sunga Pitha, Bhapotdiya Pitha, Lakhimi Pitha, Tora Pitha, Tekeli Pitha, Deksi Pitha, Muthiya Pitha, Kholasapori Pitha, etc.
It is made in other areas such as West Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa (Odhisa), Delhi, Punjab, etc.
An Assamese meal is generally concluded with the chewing of Tamul (Assamese: তামোল). Pieces of Betel nut (Areca Catechu) are eaten in combination with Betel leaf (Piper betle), edible limestone and tobacco. It is a routine item after every meal.
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