Bombay Showcase

Of rice and rituals

More or less every regional food culture in India counts rice as important. (Right) Gitika Saikia, a passionate ambassador of the little known cuisines of thenorth-eastern States of India  

Recently, as I served myself dinner, I could not resist putting a few morsels of plain steamed rice into my mouth. I had a sudden craving to savour that unadulterated boiled rice flavour. I’ve come to revere rice after I married into a Garhwali family. I have learnt to cook basmati rice to perfection from my sister-in-law. And my mother-in-law passed on a tradition she had acquired from her mother; when we wash up after a meal, not a single grain of rice is allowed to go waste. Grains stuck to the pot are carefully collected and either eaten by one of us or put into the compost heap to foster new life. Rice is too valuable to waste.

Not only is rice important as food, it is also undeniably integral to Indian religious ceremonies and our social framework. Present in most prayer rituals, served to God and devotees alike, more or less every regional food culture in India counts rice as important. The annual calendar of festivals has many celebrations based on the harvest cycle of rice. We are lucky in Mumbai since our cosmopolitan nature allows us to explore a diverse variety of food and festivals from all over the country. I had the good fortune of partaking in one such festival at a recent food event.

While winter is just round the corner in Mumbai, in Assam, it has already arrived, bringing with it the winter harvest of paddy and the Na-Khuwa Bhooj festival.

Recently, Mumbai got a taste of it, thanks to Gitika Saikia, a passionate ambassador of the little known cuisines of the north-eastern States of India. As we sampled the many dishes she had cooked, Saikia shared the story of Na-Khuwa Bhooj. A harvest festival, Na-Khuwa Bhooj is celebrated in the tribal homes of rural Assam after the harvest of paddy in the months of November and December. Since the first rice harvested must not be consumed alone, farmers will invite relatives to a communal meal to share the good fortune.

After the guests arrive, a prayer ceremony is held, the Gods are thanked and paah proxad ( prasad ) — made of chana , moong and coconut is distributed. Then the feast! New rice is served with a variety of seasonal delicacies that uses the early winter produce. Fresh vegetables from the kitchen garden such as tender mustard greens are tossed into a piquant salad. Fish from ponds, paddy fields and rivers are cooked into interesting dishes such as the xewali phool maas or khar – night Jasmine flowers cooked with alkali (an alkaline powder used in several Assamese dishes). And river fish, maas or moor aru petu bhoja , which is a dish of fish head and intestines cooked with vegetables.

Fowl, such as pigeon, duck, goose, which are also considered warming, are also served. We had kumura aru haanh — duckmeat with ashgourd. And of course, there is pork, without which any Assamese festive meal is incomplete. My favourite was the speciality of this season, pork cooked with lai xaak or (huge) mustard leaves.

Food for inspiration

As I spooned up my last perfect bite of sticky rice soaked in pork fat with a morsel of succulent pork and mustard leaf, I felt so privileged to share that meal. Which is what Na-Khuwa Bhooj is all about.

Saikia is inspiring in her dedication to showcasing her native cuisine. She single-handedly curates seasonal menus, couriering in ingredients, personally cooking meals, serving them round the year. All of which takes fortitude. And she combines all this with well-researched, beautiful stories of food origins and meanings, all accompanied by that wonderful smile. We need more culinary heroes like her, so we might appreciate our cultural diversity more.

(The writer is a food consultant, writer, stylist and author of A Pinch of This, a Handful of That )

Na-Khuwa Bhooj is celebrated in the tribal homes of Assam after the harvest of paddy

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 8:34:18 PM |

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