One week of attachment with the army in the remotest corners of the country meant that we were having the same food day in and day out. The food was very much like the army itself- uniform in dimension and taste, highly disciplined in nature and not the type that would express itself too much. Though the food did not rate high on the gustatory index, it kept us going in the biting climate and inhospitable terrains. But very soon, monotony had started to creep in.
As soon as we landed in Nagaon, a relatively small district in Assam, I decided to lay my hands on Assamese cuisine. I had a found an able ally in Rahul who was always game for trying out new food. We traversed through a labyrinth of narrow lanes and culverts, till we chanced upon a joint that looked good from the outside. Turned out that it was good from the inside too.
The Assamese Cuisine is epitomized by its Thali with rice as the base, where there is a myriad of dishes in different flavours, shapes, sizes and colours. My taste buds leapt in excitement as they were initiated into this culinary kaleidoscope.
The entrée was a very unassuming dish called the Khaar. It looks extremely dull and one can easily miss it amongst the various dishes. Made from raw papaya, pulses and taro which is filtered through dried banana leaves, the light brown paste is as bland as a dish can get with a slightly bitter tinge.
The Aloo Pitika was quite comparable to the mainstream dishes. It is amazing that a vegetable that was introduced to the country by the Portuguese as late as the 17th century has today become a mainstay of almost all cuisines. The dish is basically mashed potatoes garnished with onion, coriander, and salt. A very simple and effective item, it is good to taste in between the strongly flavoured dishes.
Leaving out the usual suspects of chicken and mutton, we decided to go for Duck meat with bamboo shoot. The meat had a rubbery texture that left a granular feel on the tongue. This Assamese delicacy, cooked with a mixture of spices, has a slightly acerbic flavour leaving a bitter aftertaste. The smell of duck meat coupled with bamboo and ginger gave out quite a heady smell.
The signature dish was the Fish Tenga– the tenga being one of the styles of preparing the food. It is essentially a fried fish that is let to soak in a watery curry that resembles a mixture of dal and rasam giving quite a tangy taste. The sour taste comes from the tomatoes and lemons.
The Aari Bhapat Dia was a visual delight. It was an extremely soft pasty fish steamed on a banana leaf that had a gentle coating of green mustard chutney. As we dug our teeth into it, the fish melted away, leaving a pungent taste in the mouth.
By the time, we finished the payox for dessert, we knew that we had explored one of the many hidden treasures of the North-eastern region.
While in Assam, we had to search for restaurants, we faced the problem of plenty in Kolkata. Spoilt for choice in a city known for its diverse cuisines, we decided in the end to go for the fabled Arsalan Biriyani.
The good thing about Biriyani is that no matter the style of cooking, they invariably turn out to be good. The Kolkata one was no different either. The Kolkata biriyani, inspired from the Awadhi style is said to have originated in the kitchens of the Nawab- Wajid Ali Shah.
After managing to find a seat for ourselves in the crowded restaurant, we were literally served with a huge mountain of hot piping rice. Cooked for nearly three hours over a low flame and a seasoning og rosewater and strands of saffron lent an aroma that permeated throughout the room tickling our olfactory senses- a true epicurean’s delight.
As I dug inside the layers of biriyani searching for the delectable chunks of succulent mutton, I was surprised to find a huge piece of potato. How the humble potato ended up has an interesting story to itself. When the British dethroned the Nawab, who was a connoisseur of the fine arts, but a military commander of little repute, he took his bawarchis and khansamas along with him. Unable to find meat which had overnight become a luxurious commodity, the cooks started to add potatoes to the biriyani and since then, it has become an indispensable component lending a unique taste to the biryani.
The defining feature of the Biriyani is its subtlety. Right from its pale yellow colour, mellowed spices, mild fragrance and the unassuming potato, everything underplays itself. As opposed to the southern Biriyanis that aggressively scream from the rooftop. If eating the Hyderabadi biriyani is akin to heavy metal, then the Kolkata one is a classic symphony.
The Odisha cuisine, much like the state itself, does not feature prominently in the mainstream Indian cuisine. This made me all the more eager to try their dishes.
I was quite apprehensive because we were going to a place (Kalahandi) that had hardly any restaurants worth of mention. But we were quite fortunate to have a cook in the circuit house who more than compensated for the lack of restaurants.
During the first few days, the cook had prepared the standard roti, dal and aloo because he was (as he said to us later) apprehensive whether we would like their local dishes or not.
Deciding to take matters in our hands, we told him that we wanted a taste of the local cuisine. The usually emotionless face had suddenly turned bright and there was a perceptible happiness that radiated in his entire face. From then on, we were treated to delicacies every day that threatened to extend our stomachs beyond proportions.
Odisha’s unique geographical position- juxtaposed between the north and the south- has led to an amusing mix of combinations. For instance, Idli is taken for breakfast but not with the usual accompaniments of Sambhar or Chutney, instead it is the Channa masala of the north.
Since we stayed in Kalahandi, which was closer to Andhra Pradesh, the dishes were influenced by the Andhra flavours but retained its own unique Odia identity. As a result, there was a more liberal use of curry leaves and tamarind.
Dalma, the mother of all Odian dishes, is the staple food of the common man. The Odia version of the dal, where it is mixed with whatever vegetables one can get, it becomes the go-to dish with the rice. The wholesome dish is not only nutritious but also inexpensive. It is seasoned by the use of chilli powder and crushed dried chillies that lends spicy taste. So much was the former charismatic president APJ enamoured by this humble dish that he made it a constant feature of the President’s menu.
There was a red chutney made from tomatoes, which was sweet and sour at the same time creating a tangy flavour. This side dish, especially when taken along with dalma and rice, gave a unique taste.
The pièce de résistance was the Chhena Podo which is the signature sweet dish of the state. Literally translating into burnt cheese in Odia, it is prepared from cottage cheese, sugar and nuts which is baked for hours before burning it ever so slightly at the end. The sweet was an unassuming cream coloured small square shaped dish, that had a burnt brown base. To me, it felt like the desi version of the cheese cake.
As I dug my teeth into the layers of cottage cheese, the sugar starts flowing into the tongue and as the sweet melted inside my mouth trickling down the throat, I could feel the hard-earned gains of early morning PT melting away.
The last leg of the tour was in Andhra Pradesh where the food is known for its fiery, hot, and spicy taste. Which is logical given the fact that it is the leading producer of red chillies in the country. Right from the large serving of dishes to the astronomical levels of spices, everything was superlative in the Andhra cuisine. Keeping with the trend, we decided to go for the unlimited Andhra meals.
The waiter started off by serving a huge mound of steaming white rice on our plate. We started with Parippu Podi (powered lentils garnishes with dried chillies and spices), sprinkling it over the rice and mixing it with generous portions of ghee that prepared our stomachs for the rest of the dishes.
The main course was the Chepa Pulusu, an excellent fish curry with a characteristically sour flavour derived from tomatoes and tamarind. The fish, devoid of any thorns, so soft that it caressed the tongue while chewing on it. There was then the renowned Gongura chutney that really set our tongues on fire. Sweat started pouring down our faces as we gorged upon this pickle-chutney made from Ambadi leaves.
By the time we had completed our meal, tears started to trickle down our cheeks. Tears of satisfaction.
For most part of the tour, we were pampered like royalty and where we were not, we did the honours to ourselves. The journey ended not just with contented stomachs but also contented hearts. After all, food is not just for the stomach but also for the soul.