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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 food preservation, and those from the plains that provide fresh vegetables and abundance of fish from its many rivers and ponds; both of which 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 abundant availability in the region. It is a mixture of different 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 mash;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. 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.
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 diet 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 different 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 warn 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 would be xandoh, kumol saul or bora saul, sticky rice, which can be eaten with sweet or salty accompaniments as per preference . 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 some variety of 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 the fish, harvested from the many rivers, ponds and lakes in the region. The extremely wet climate of the region 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 Shark), 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 would be able to 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. However, the most common way of eating fish in traditional Assamese homes is by preparing a stew with a variety of herbs, vegetables and greens as per preference and availability. Fish is also prepared by roasting or char grilling. A favorite is 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 numbers are roasted along with lavish amounts of green chillies, 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 fish innards are also cooked in various ways and consumed.
- See also Local Fishes of Assam
The Assamese meat and fish dishes are characterized by low amount of spices and oil, higher quantity of ginger, norosingho paat (Curry leaves) and lemon juice, and differ in taste from the dishes of neighbouring Bengal. Pork is not taken by the majority of Assamese Hindus, such as Brahmins, Kalitas, except for Ahoms. Beef is occasionally consumed by Assamese Muslims, although they traditionally refrain from consuming pork.
The basic cooking methods for various dishes 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 also entomophagous. Ethnic tribes of certain areas also partake of 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.
Greens and vegetables
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 hundred and one different xaaks (greens) during Rongali Bihu. Herbs, greens and vegetables are commonly eaten by simply cooking in water and salt, lighly frying, as a thick soup or by adding to different 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 chillies, many varieties of which are available in the region. Assam is famous for the Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Pepper which has been recognized as the hottest chilly in the world.
Although modern cuisine of Assam has been influenced by east and north Indian cuisine, Assam is still rich in traditional dishes. Various types of dishes are prepared and served throughout the year.
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 particular varieties of banana , which is then called kola khar (The name derived from the locale term of Banana, "Kol" or "Kola"). A traditional meal invariably begins with a khar dish, which can be prepared with raw papaya, mustard leaves, different vegetables, pulses, fish or any other main ingredient. Xôkôta: It 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 also 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 that 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 also can be added to it. Tengamora or noltenga and lentil is also a distinct tenga curry.
Pura refers to various forms of grilled and roasted food. Different types of vegetables, meat and fish are often served in this form. Aalu bengena pura pitika, pura maas pitika (mashed grilled fish), pura mankho etc are 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, chilli, pickles, pitika (mashes), etc. The 'poitabhat' preparation is sometimes made alcoholic according to preference.
Pitika - পিটিকা
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 fishes, asiatic pennywort, matikaduri, tengamora leaves, heartleaf, dôrôn (Leucus longifolia), etc. roasted separately wrapped in banana leaves and mashed into 'pitika'.
Pickles are made of mango, indian gooseberry, hog plum, olive, Tamarind, star fruit, mangosteen, radish, carrot, elephant apple, Indian jujube, chilli, lime, garlic, etc. Panitenga and Kharoli are signature Assamese pickles made from ground mustard seeds.
Chutney and salad
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.
'Bor' is 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 'Bor' preparations in the Assamese cuisine and the base ingredients include greens, vegetables, fruits, flowers, skin, and shoots of various plants. 'Bor'is also be prepared from fish eggs etc.
Some other preparations
Some other preparations in Assamese cuisine include Kahudi, Panitenga, Khorikatdiya, Tenga sorsoriya, Posola, etc.
Liquor is an integral part of various linguistically and culturally diverse communities in Assamaese society. Rice is a primary ingredient for the many rice beers(lao-pani - লাওপানী) and liquors made in Assam by different ethnic communities: zou (Bodo), aapong (Mishing),mod(মদ) (Sonowal Kacharis), xaj - সাজ্ (Ahom, Tiwa), hor (Karbi), photika - ফটিকা (Kachari), etc.
In some places, the Assamese smoke pipe mix includes opium, cannabis, tobacco, betel nut extracts and others. This has got religious fervour amongst the people.
Snacks and cakes
Jolpan (snacks) in Assamese is what is breakfast although it is not always served as breakfast in Assamese cuisine. The items served in Bihu, marriage or any special occasions are called Jolpan. Some Jolpan are Bora saul, Komal Saul, Xandoh, Chira, Muri, Akhoi, Sunga saul, etc. along with curd, jaggery, and yogurt. These are probably some of the earliest form of what we called "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 special 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 even made in other areas such as West Bengal,Maharashtra,Orissa(Odhisa), etc. these are also sold and made in Delhi, Punjab
Some other snacks
An Assamese meal is generally concluded with the chewing of Tamol (Assamese: তামোল). Pieces of Betel nut(Areca Catechu) are eaten in eaten in combination with Betel leaf (Piper betle), edible lime and tobacco. It is a routine item after every meal.
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