Assamese food is lightly cooked, allowing you to taste the freshness of ingredients
Food is one of the nicest ways of getting to know your country, I've always believed. And quite a few of our state houses in Delhi are doing all they can to help us cross borders – not with catalogues and booklets of information, though I suppose they have those as well, but with their restaurants and canteens.
This past summer, I discovered Assamese food in all its splendour when I visited Jakoi, the restaurant that had then just opened in Assam Bhawan on Sardar Patel Marg. A few days ago I got a mail from them about a festival that they were organising – Uruka – for Magh Bihu.
Magh Bihu is one of the three Bihus of Assam, and the festive occasion was being marked with a table heaped with food. So I landed up there – and enjoyed myself so thoroughly that I thought I should write about it. The festival was a one-day affair, but I hope they will repeat it for the Rongali Bihu in April. And that will be something to look forward to.
Assamese food is being described as subtle. Most dishes are lightly cooked, allowing you to taste the freshness of ingredients. They have a wide variety of fries, which whet your appetite without ruining it. So we started with yam fries, little balls of ground masoor dal and spinach, and a fish called puthi, which had been fried crisp. I then made my way to the entrees, and had a wonderful time with the rohu kalia.
The fish had been cooked in a rich gravy of whole masalas and onions, and had a sweet and tart touch to it which went wonderfully well with plain boiled rice – joha saulor bhaat. I didn't have the dal with fish head, though my companions all swore by it. The big bones added their taste to the dal, which also had nice round pieces of potato in it – something that I don't see in the Bengali preparation of the same dish. The chicken, likewise, was light and aromatic, and had juicy potatoes in the gravy. Being a closet vegetarian, I simply loved the mahor boror aloo bilahi tenga – which was a dish of soft balls made out of ground masoor dal and cooked in a light yet tangy gravy.
There were lots of other dishes – from banana flower and potatoes to cauliflower and dal with coconut – and nice side dishes such as tomato chutney, a delicious spinach and pea salad and tart digestives such as kharoli. And, of course, there were sweets to mark the festival – a gujiya-like sweet called Chandra kala and a creamy kheer cooked with carrots.
We paid Rs.450 per head for the feast – which was a steal, for all that it offered. I would suggest that you bombard Jakoi to make sure that they have a similar food-fest in April. It's an evening you are not likely to forget. At the Magh Bihu, a young boy, clad in a traditional Assamese outfit, even did a beautiful Bihu dance while the gathering clapped their hands in rhythm. I, for one, felt like I was almost in Assam.