Today we are talking about the Assamese Thali.
It was not long ago I started joining a few of the Groups on different social media platforms that discussed about food. My intention was purely to learn from these home/professional cooks. I have to admit I was stunned and mesmerised by the kind of hard work and effort people put to prepare something. The variety and the methods etc. It was then I realised how ignorant I have been and I decided to explore and experiment a little. Meanwhile, this post is inspired by all the people from these different groups and blogs, who love cooking.
Let’s be real, no matter what you say we all love to eat. Food is something that binds us, nourishes us, teaches us sharing and expresses our caring for our loved ones. Food is the soul of every culture and tradition. Every community has its own speciality which is unique to them. Assamese cuisine is also no different.
What is an Assamese Cuisine?
Assamese cuisine is the style of cooking that is typical to Assam and its people. This type of cooking is an amalgamation of techniques that belongs to both hills and plains. It is a beautiful combination that includes the fermentation and drying of the hills and fish and meat of the plains. It is mainly characterised by the use of less oil and spices, and heavy use of smoked, dried and fermented food stuffs. The extensive use of fresh vegetables and fruits in cooking is another distinct characteristics of Assamese cuisine. Apart from these Khar or Alkali is one of the most unique and signature dish of the Assamese cuisine. A traditional meal is invariably comprises of Khar.
In present day context the Assamese cuisine has also adopted many things from its neighbouring states and underwent changes. For example, use of wide variety of spices, oil and Ghee or clarified Butter, inclusion of sweets, which is found absent in traditional meals. However, the cuisine has not lost its authenticity and the soul that makes it unique and special.
The Making of an Assamese Thali…
Believe me, I never knew that there is an Assamese Thali that exist until I visited a restaurant. I am not sure if there is any typical traditional Assamese Thali. Of course we have certain dishes that are served during special meals and there are certain dishes that are marked as the speciality of Assamese cuisine. Perhaps when we intend to serve our unique dishes in a single plate it Becomes “The Thali”.
However, we can not really say that we never had a plate full of variety at our homes. A normal daily meal at any Assamese household will have something similar to that of the above image. Rice is the staple food of Assamese cuisine. Apart from rice, lentil, fish, meat, vegetables, Khar and mashed potato or Pitika is very commonly prepared. Out of numerous dishes, I made a humble attempt to prepare my version of a simple Assamese Thali (not so traditional of course) that included few things my family enjoys the most. There can be variations and inclusion of several dishes, as many as one likes.
My version of an Assamese Thali…
Assamese Thali undoubtedly starts with Khar. A khar can be prepared with various things such as Raw Papaya, Green Vegetables and fish etc. It is prepared with the key ingredient also called Khar. The most common ingredient used to prepare Khar or Alkaline is sun dried banana peels. The process involves filtering through the ashes of sun dried banana peels. it is called Kol-Khar i.e. Khar made from banana. This key ingredient later can be used in preparing the signature Assamese dish also known as Khar by preparing with other veges and food stuffs. This is undoubtedly the proud dish of Assamese cuisine.
Bhedailota-Mas/Stink vine and Fish curry:
When we talk about fish Curry preparation in an Assamese Thali 90% of the time it is a Fish Tenga either with Tomato or Elephant apple. But there are other types of fish curries as well that we hardly see or eat when it comes to a thali. One of such dishes is a fish curry made with stink vine. This curry is not only tasty but also has several medicinal benefits to the body. However, the unbearable stinky smell of this plant that resembles to the smell of a fart makes it difficult for the people to eat. But there are ways in which it can be prepared without leaving any of it’s smell in the curry. The vegetarian version of this curry can also be prepared by replacing the fish with some lentil/moong or sprout pakoda which is also known as Bora in Assamese.
An Assamese meal is incomplete without a meat preparation. Duck being the most popular followed by Pork, Pigeon, Mutton and Chicken etc. The Assamese preparation for meat is traditionally a bit different from it’s neighbouring states. As a land of diverse population the influence of hills and plains is clearly visible on food. Use of less oil and spices, heavy use of ginger, coriander leaves, fermented bamboo and smoked meat consists of a basic meal/dish preparation. Another very unique way of cooking meat dishes in Assamese cuisine is the use of fresh vegetables. Some of the most popular meat preparations are with fresh vegetables, such as, Duck-White Gourd, Pigeon- Banana Flower and Mutton- Pumpkin etc. In my case it is Pumpkin and Mutton preparation that stands out the most.
Apart from curries meat is also served in Smoked, boiled and roasted forms. Steaming fatty meat is another popular way of serving meat dishes to the guest. any of these forms make a wonderful Thali accompaniments.
A very humble but the most desired dish of a Thali is a Pitika. It can be any type of Pitika which basically refers to something mashed. Most popular one is Alu-Pitika also known as Mashed Potato. There are other forms as well such as, Mashed Brinjal and Mashed Potato with boiled eggs. etc. This is one of the most simple and uncomplicated dishes that draws its similarity with the rest of the states of India as Chokha. However, there is something that is unique that we serve. The Mashed Taro leaf, it is prepared by steaming Taro leaves and mixing it well with ginger, garlic, chilli and tomato. The non-vegetarians can mix fermented fish or dried fish with this preparation as well. Apart from these dishes there are hundreds of such recipes and dishes that are very unique to Assamese cuisine.
Meanwhile, a clear influence of the neighbouring states can also be visible in an Assamese meal in the present day. For example, stuffed bitter gourd, fried brinjal and pointed gourd and different types of lentil dishes etc. However, it is to be noted that these are only few of the dishes that I attempted to include in my Thali.
A Thali for me at the end of the day represents the emotion, love, care and we feeling. That’s all for today see you next time with another such interesting topic to discuss.
Note: (I am not a food expert/historian or writer. I am a foodie and a food enthusiast. My words and writing in this blog are my personal views. The information that I share in this article is based on observation and some data gathered from the internet. If anyone has something different to say regarding what I have discussed is most welcome. As I may not be aware of many things and if I have mistaken please correct me. It will be foolish of me to ignore a suggestion and continue with something wrong if I do so.)