The cuisine of Assam is mainly based on rice and fish. Assamese food is strongly influenced by the local ingredients, especially because this cuisine tries to preserve the natural flavours or augment them by processes like drying, fermentation etc. In Assam people consume rice in variety of forms and flavours. Pitha, a rice based sweet is a popular dish of this region. People put less oil and use mustard oil as the medium of cooking. Rice is eaten in many different forms — roasted and grounded (sandoh guri), boiled in its husk and flattened (chira), puffed (akhoi). There also grows a variety of rice that can be just soaked and eaten (kumal saul).
Typical Assamese Breakfast:
A traditional Assamese breakfast will constitute rice-based cereals with milk, yoghurt or thick cream. Normally jaggery or sugar is added but for those who prefer savoury items, salt can be added. Also there will be various kinds of pitha (cakes) that are prepared from rice powder. Another rice based breakfast item is boita bhat. This is boiled rice soaked overnight and garnished with mustard oil, onions and green chilies. Snacks would be sandoh guri, kumal saul or bora saul with milk.
For other major meals, rice is either boiled, steamed or wrapped in leaves and roasted. Authentic Assamese cuisine is bland and yet very delicious. Very little oil is used and practically no spices. All Assamese people are non-vegetarian. Chicken is taboo in orthodox families and there are some, who may not eat meat. But it’s difficult to find anyone who does not eat fish and duck’s eggs. Pork dishes are particular favourites among the tribal communities in Assam. The basic cooking method is boiling with herbs and vegetables. Roasted pork is also considered a delicacy. Some of the popular dishes of Assam are:
(a) Tenga: The tenga (meaning sour) is fish-based dish and very popular among the Assamese community. The souring ingredients used vary according to taste, but usually lime or tomatoes are used to give this sour effect.
(b) Khar: The khar is a traditional and ethnic preparation made with a key ingredient, khar. The traditional ingredient is made by filtering water through the ashes of a banana peel, which is then called kola khar (black khar). A traditional meal invariably begins with a khar dish, made of raw papaya, pulses or any other main ingredient.
(c) Shak (green leafy vegetables): Owing to the suitable climatic conditions, Assam is rich in vegetation, and green leafy vegetables, called shak and thus an important part of the cuisine. Some of them are grown while others like the fern dhekia grows wild. They are usually separately fried with chopped onions and green chillies in minimum mustard oil.
(d) Khorisa: Khorisa is mashed and fermented bamboo shoot which the Assamese community is very fond of. Usually they put small quantity of khorisa in pulse and meat based dishes. It is also pickled in mustard oil and spices.
(e) Pitika (mashes): This are side dishes, but nevertheless very popular in Assam. Aloo Pitika (mashed boiled potatoes) is most popular amongst them. Mashed potatoes are garnished with raw onions, mustard oil, green chilies and sometimes with boiled eggs or mashed fermented bamboo shoot. Roasted or steamed vegetables (tomatoes and brinjals being very popular) also form different types of Pitikas. Fish pitikas however beats all — small fishes wrapped in banana leaves are either roasted or steamed. Then they are mashed with green chilies and mustard oil.
(f) Pickles: Khorisa tenga, mashed fermented bamboo shoot pickled in mustard oil and spices, is one pickle you will find in every household. Kharoli is fermented mashed mustard seeds which is a must try if you visit Assam. Bhut jolokia is a type of chilly that has recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being the hottest chilly in the world and is found only in Assam. This variety of chillies are pickled in mustard oil. Be careful! the smell of the chilly can water your mouth…a small piece of the skin is enough. Jolphai is a variety of olive found in Assam. It is pickled in mustard oil and spices and is very popular among the Assamese.
(g) Sweets: A special class of rice preparations, called pithas are generally made only on special occasions chiralike the Bihu. These are cakes prepared in different ways. Made usually with soaked and ground glutinous rice (bora saul), they could be fried in oil with a sesame filling (sutuli pitha), roasted in young green bamboo over a slow fire (sunga pitha) or baked and rolled over a hot plate with a filling (boga pitha).
(h) Beverages: Tea plantation is a major industry in Assam. Assam tea is famous world-over for its colour, taste and flavour. Apart from chah (tea in Assamese parlance) there are a couple of beverages that the locals drink. Rice is the primary ingredient for the many rice beers and liquors (lau-pani) made in Assam by different ethnic communities: zou (Bodo), apong (Mishing), saj (Ahom), hor (Karbi), phatika (Kachari) etc. Another local liquor of Assam is Sulai — pungent and avoidable!