Having grown up in a typical Kobra household, influenced by the Karnataki cuisine in Hubli, it was quite a bewildering culinary experience to walk into my “sasar” in Assam. It is a typical Assamese family with fish and rice as staples. For the family too, a vegetarian daughter in law was a novelty and I am sure a headache too. Everyday my extremely accomplished mother in law used to say, “How can we eat fish and meat when you are eating nothing?”. Nothing signified an array of vegetables cooked in the simple manner of stir fry or gravy which preserves the natural flavours. I was a bit homesick for “Marathi” food. Then I started comparing the similarities and differences in both the cuisines. One thing which struck me was the use of simple ingredients in both the cuisines in day to day care. The masala is generally restricted to mustard seeds jeera, ginger, green chillies. Garlic and onion are used sparingly. Stir frying is the main method of cooking vegetables. Since this article is timed for Diwali, I am going to talk about the similarities in some sweets, though made for mainly Bihu.
As we are a coastal region of the northeast, rice powder based sweets are made predominantly. The amazing array of rice grown in Assam is mind-blowing. There is a variety called”komal chawal” which needs no cooking. We just soak it in tepid water and it gets cooked! It is eaten with gud and dahi or fresh cream.
The various pithas are made with rice powder. I was quite surprised by the word”pitha”. It is I feel derived from the word”peeth”. So the first familiar word I heard during our Bihu festival was that.
Like the ghavan we make, one variety of pitha is made with rice flour and the filling is of fresh coconut and gud like our karanji saran. The difference being in the variety of rice. This rice is called”bora chawal” . The rice is powdered after being soaked and dried for about four to five hours. So the flour is dry but slightly damp.
No more water is added but a small fistful of the powder is spread gently and very thinly on a cast iron tawa. Then a filling of either coconut gud or tilgul is placed in the centre and the pitha is gently rolled up. I’m still unable to gain the expertise of making lovely pithas. Then we have the Tel pitha where rice flour, coconut and gud are made into a batter and small fritters are deep-fried. I can’t remember the Marathi equivalent.
Til gul ladoo is a must during our Bihu celebration in January that coincides with our Makar Sankrant. So are coconut ladoos. Instead of making burfi like we so, the mixture with a little bit of camphor added are rolled into ladoos. Rice kheer or sewai kheer are again staples in all festivals. I can draw up many similarities between the Marathi Konkan regional cuisine and Assamese cuisine. The one very predominant one is in the preparation of pantwa. Rice flour paste is applied to either banana leaves or turmeric leaves. Then a filling made of coconut and gud is put in the centre, the leaves made into parcels and steamed. They taste Devine, especially when made with turmeric leaves.
I can go on and on but believe me, it would be interesting to see the migration of people along the coastline of India and trace further the influences of cuisine. For me , a Marathi girl, Assam is the home I love both for the people and the food, though remaining a vegetarian daughter in law. I have brought my brand of cuisine here and adapted that of my state I’ve grown to love tremendously.
Vidya Borah is a member of the Angat Pangat Facebook Group.