The culinary culture in the many tribes of Assam can shock one, albeit pleasantly. What I found most unusual was the lack of spices in food. This took me a while to get adjusted to, as my tongue is used to the barrage of mixed spices that dominate the dishes prepared in the region. By region, I am referring to Nepal and India, since we are more heavily exposed to food from both countries in our homes and the restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I love spices and the wonders they work in uplifting an ordinary plate to the next level. What that has done is lessen our dependency on the natural flavor and aroma of food. My recent trip to Dibrugarh and its surrounding areas in Assam helped me discover what I have been missing all these years.
Monali Hazarika, my newest and only friend from the North East of India, who runs an interesting business in Assam Tea, was very kind to extend an invite that coincided with a visit by two bloggers/youtubers from New Delhi. Delhi Food Walks is a popular YouTube channel that travels the length and breadth of India making interesting videos that have amassed a massive fan following over the years. The short 30-minute ride from Dibrugarh airport took my architect-cum-choosy-foodie friend Alex Shrestha and I to Dhua Chang Ethnic Dhaba in Lahoal. The enthusiastic duo of Lenin Doley and Paul Chetia, who are from the indigenous Mishing and Ahom tribes, respectively, were busy dishing the second helpings of freshly-brewed rice beer (rohi) and smoked pork (dhua changot diya gahori) when we entered. After a round of introductions, we started off with discussions around the cast-iron kadai that occupied pride-of-place and was the central cooking pot at the center of the bamboo cottage on stilts.
Paul asked me to careful when he pushed a plate of king chili (bhoot jolokiya) toward me. I gingerly tore off a tiny portion and prayed before I placed it on the tongue; after all, I had heard tall tales of the legendary heat that kicks in. The miniscule portion did bring tears to my eyes and made me sweat the neck and cheeks. Immediately after, I tried the Naga Tenga, an unusual taste that is sweet mixed with a strong mustard aroma—this is usually an accompaniment with food, often used as an achar. The highlights of the afternoon had to be the silkworm (poulu)—a delicious meat when take out of the crispy shell, and the Bamboo Gahori, or Chunga Pork – delicious steamed pork meat that is wrapped in bamboo leaves, put inside young bamboo stems, and slowly smoked over fire. The water from the bamboo and the fat of the meat cooks it to the next level of deliciousness (I can go back to Lahoal for just that). Another course that we enjoyed was boiled chicken, cooked with just salt and ginger, and a dash of tomato. A special addition to the dish was a local plant, mejenga, that is often used by the Mishing while cooking.
In the evening we traveled quite a distance past Dibrugarh University. At a certain stretch, we left the tarmac and veered into a dusty lane. Fifteen minutes of ride brought us to a group of huts that had bright lights inside. When we entered, we were greeted by a bunch of Deori women and men—cooking and drinking. The stories of simple livelihoods, self-sustaining lifestyle, and how they thrive as a community, not just as households, can be lesson for a MBA class, I thought. All this while, the women of the community were preparing our meal and serving us beautiful brass bowls filled to the brim with the local rice beer (jul mod). I caught one woman making it at one side of the largish hut. After a simple yet delicious evening meal that had rice, black daal (matimah), local hen, and stir-fried tiny freshwater fish (milmus fry) served in ban kahi, and kahor thaal and bati—traditional brass metal utensils of Assam, the men and women broke into an impromptu Deori Bihu dance routine. The tune was addictive, and I found myself tapping my feet and trying to sway as the women did. The tamul paan was a delicious end to a fabulous evening.
Kolowlowa Deori Gaon, the biggest Deori village in Assam, is an epitome of livelihood that is long lost on us. Their warmth and hospitality is unparalleled, and I long for the next visit that will rekindle a special place in my heart, again.