The best thing about Assamese food is it allows for innovation. Take the masor tenga (sour fish) for example. You can make it with just tomatoes or toss in gourd, spinach, olives, berries, or the 101 varieties of greens that were found in the land up to our mothers’ grandmothers’ times.
There can be as many varieties of masor tenga as the range of one’s creativity can stretch. But the essence is not to be lost: it has to be sour, light, the fish appropriately cooked, right in texture and taste. And this can be achieved only when all the ingredients are in the right balance.
I remember how my maternal grandmother in Tipling, Duliajan (upper Assam) used to set a huge pot of boiling water on a hearth before disappearing into the expanse of vegetation behind the house. She would shortly emerge out of it with a bunch of fern, Asiatic pennywort, long coriander leaves, spinach, olives, or a few ‘ou’ tengas (an exotic vegetable found in Assam). All of this would go into the pot of boiling water, to which she would add diced tomatoes, chopped green chillies, a dash of salt and turmeric. She would then disappear again to feed the ducks, chicken, pigeons; to churn the cows’ fodder cooking on a hearth under a shed outside in the courtyard; or go around the house doing this and that. When she would enter the kitchen again, the aroma of herbs, olives and greens would indicate that the time was right to add the fish. The fish, marinated in salt and turmeric, would cook in the broth while grandma would weave patterns on her handloom. By the time she would finish, the masor tenga would be tantalisingly appetising to smell and look at. As a final touch, she would dress it up with paanch phuran and green chillies roasted in a few drops of mustard oil. The outcome would be set for all to relish. It would go very well with steamed rice and aloo pitika (mashed roasted potatoes and roasted brinjal, roasted garlic, fenugreek seeds tossed in mustard oil, chopped onions and coriander leaves mixed together).
My paternal grandmother’s cooking, on the other hand, was very different. Settled she may have in the upper Assam town of Golaghat after marriage, yet her culinary style, picked from her natal North Guwahati in lower Assam, never allowed for preparing masor tenga without frying the fish first. One particular recipe that she was brilliant with was fish cooked in ginger and pepper. First, she would fry the fish (that has been marinated in salt and turmeric) in mustard oil. Then she would roast some fenugreek seeds and green chillies in the oil left in the pan; fry some cauliflowers and diced potatoes in the same oil, add coriander and cinnamon powder, grated ginger, garlic paste, pepper, salt and turmeric. When one would smell the warm spices with a hint of pepper and ginger, she would add some water and bring it to boil. To this would then be added the already fried fish, some more grated ginger and ground pepper. When the water is reduced to brown gravy, drops of lemon would be added to it for flavour. Grandma would then serve it with yam and babori greens fried with duck eggs.
Assam is richly diverse. As one moves into it from Bengal and goes higher up, the upper part of the region starts getting different from its lower part in language, music, culture and food fare. Closer to Bengal, lower Assamese cuisine reflects many stylistic Bengali procedures like kosha mangsho: mutton cooked slowly over fire in mustard oil, with lots of freshly ground spices. But in upper Assam, cooking mostly means steaming, baking, roasting and boiling. For instance, this amazing recipe that I picked up from a Mishing friend in Sibsagar (upper Assam): meat boiled in lai xaak (mustard greens), without a single drop of oil. The meat cooks in its own oil, has an amazing brownish-green texture and the flavour of mustard greens, ginger-garlic, and red-green chillies. The same dish is prepared differently by a cousin’s husband, who is from Nalbari in lower Assam. But the taste is subtly unique from the former; and both happen to be first among equals! The cousin’s husband fries the meat and mustard greens in oil with ginger-garlic paste, coriander and cinnamon powder and red chili powder, adding water in small quantities.
The result is flavoured meat in a thick brown sauce.
There are a 100 other such recipes, with diverse ingredients to mix and match, from every nook and corner of the land. The same dish changes with a change in place. Food from the region surprises me no end: there is always more to the tastes that Assam can offer.