My Take Home Message from the Assamese Rongali Bihu Meal with Gitika Saikia

Food has the wonderful power to make you travel to far off places, while being deeply seated at home. I had been meaning to taste Gitika Saikia’s home-style cooking for the longest time now, and take a food-cation with her to tribal Assam. It is thanks to home chefs like Gitika, enterpreneurs like Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal and APB Cook Studio‘s Culinary Legacy series that I was introduced to a cuisine unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted.

Rongali Bihu or Assamese New Year, celebrates the time of harvest and is incomplete without food. The Rongali Bihu meal at the APB Cook Studio was a delightful afternoon spent with like minded foodies where I learnt more about this ‘exotic’ cuisine from Gitika, sampled tribal Assamese fare, and even shook a leg or two to the Bihu dance.

1. North Eastern cuisine does not receive the due it should!

It’s a pity that I know more about Asian or Italian cuisine than many of the lesser known cuisines across smaller states of India. And I am sure this holds true for a lot of us. Which is why the APB’s Culinary Legacy series is genius – bringing us traditional, diverse, Indian fare that needs to be preserved and propagated.

Rice Beer

A Google search of North East Indian dishes in Mumbai revealed no substantial results – I ended up getting recommendations for North Indian ‘Mughlai’ places instead. It is really a pity – because the food is delicious, and deserves a place in our culinary landscape. Though Delhi has a larger representation of food from North East India including stand alone restaurants, or dishes in bigger restaurants. I happened to speak to two friends who visited Assam and Meghalaya recently – both raving about the simple food, excellent quality of meat, and just how ‘different’ the food is from what we are exposed to. Which is why I’d strongly recommend you attend atleast one of Gitika’s pop-ups. Where else am I going to be able to eat pork with Fiddlehead fern in this city? And Saikia’s rice beer, brewed at home, is potent enough to give the Japanese Sake some tough competition. I’d like to see that on a bar menu in the city someday.

2. Tribal Assamese cuisine is simple, rustic and hearty.

Fiddle Head Fern with Pork

We had an elaborate, celebratory meal at the pop up; starting with the rice beer, moving onto finger food – literally in the case of the finger shaped anguli pitha, dug into the heavier meat dishes. I personally loved the incorporation of meat along with leafy, greens in the dishes, in the case of the Paat Masala Murgi (Herbed Chicken), Kosu Xaak Hukoti Maas (Colocasia with Dried Smoked Fish) and theMaas Kath Alu (River Fish with Elephant Feet & Spinach). The best and only way to eat greens, in my opinion!

The dishes were light, and flavourful – simply prepared without an overdose of spices or masala. Each individual ingredient stands out, may it be vegetable or meat or both. Gitika is known to import most of her ingredients directly from Assam, so there is no question about the authenticity of the meal. Everything was polished off with rice – Assam being a major rice cultivating and eating state. Sadly, desserts are not a major part of an Assamese meal – though Gitika did treat us to Til Pitha – sesame filled rice cakes and Narikol Pitha – coconut rice cakes, the latter reminding me of the Maharashtrian Ukadiche modaks.

3. Respect what others eat. Even if it’s not something you would.

The highlight of my meal was trying the ‘exotic’ dishes that the Bihu meal had on offer. The Polu Leta stir fry – a silkworm pupae stir fry with a nutty exterior, and pulpy within – was something I’d readily eat again. The carnivore in me preferred it to the Pumpkin and Parwal fritters even! 

(Clockwise): Jolphai (Indian Olive) Chutney, Silkworm Stir Fry, Red Ant Eggs Stir Fry, Pumpkin and Parwal Fritters, Anguli Pitha

I’d like to take a minute here to tell you, that the food may be different and unlike something we are commonly exposed to. But different does not mean bad. You may chose to eat red ant eggs, or not. But that does not give you the authority to disrespect it. (Those red ant eggs were deliciously tingly FYI!)

Meals like these enlighten me about newer cuisines, help embrace different cultures, and teach me to be grateful that I can taste home food from different regions of India without budging an inch from the city. Another exciting home style meal I had was the Authenticook Pathare Prabhu experience which you can read about here. Gitika’s Rongali Bihu meal joins the league of fantastic food that I’ve eaten in 2016.

You can find out more about Gitika’s Pakghor on her Facebook page here.

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