Bodo's pride

Indrani Ghose walks into a Bodo kitchen, savours the flavourful spread, and comes back craving more

The road wound along the edges of mustard and rice fields of Bodoland, Assam. The trip to Kaliagaon village was not only exciting as I would get to experience village life, but also because my mind was secretly craving for traditional Bodo food.

Regional Indian cuisines are mostly untapped. There are too many of them. India is diverse in terms of people, their cultures and beliefs, terrains, soil, climate and therefore, the cuisines vary substantially from each other. Almost each geographical region has evolved a typical style of food depending on the spices, grains, fruits and vegetables available.

When you think of Indian food, the foremost thought that comes to mind is home-cooked food. So, it was thrilling in a way to walk in, discover and explore the kitchen in a Bodo home.

Their kitchen is out in the open. Several Dokona-clad women were busy preparing several dishes; it seemed like a festive occasion. There was warmth in the hospitality offered by the people here.

Breakfast
Caption

 

Rice, a staple 

Rice and fish are the staple diet of Bodo people. That explained the vast stretches of rice fields I saw during my drive to Kaliagaon. They consume rice in various forms: boiled, hand-pounded, powdered and fermented too. Their diet includes rice-based dishes right from breakfast.

Though it was past breakfast time, I was served their traditional breakfast items. Rice cake, sticky rice and tea (lal chaa — tea without milk and with molasses), all of which vanished in no time. \

The rice cake did remind me of puttu in Kerala. Rice cake of Bodoland is called pitha, there is a wide variety of them.

Watching our hosts make pitha was like attending a cooking demonstration in a very authentic setup.

They use soaked rice, hand-pounded to a coarse powdery state. It is then kneaded with just sufficient water and a pinch of salt so that the dough is neither too sticky nor too loose.

This is stuffed with hand-pounded sesame seeds and jaggery (molasses) and placed in a container and steamed by placing over a bigger pot with boiling water. After turning a few times, the rice cake is cooked well from all sides and is then ready to serve.

For festivals, they prepare a variety of fillings for pitha. Interestingly, there is one pitha which has no filling, no sugar or salt. It is called the dangua pitha.

It is offered to gods and goddesses or departed souls of their households.

Bodo lunch
Bodo lunch

 

Lunch in Bodoland

Next, I sampled on their snacks taking care not to spoil my appetite for lunch. The fried chicken pieces I had tasted so good. Spinach and curry leaves coated with gram flour, deep fried, and some more tea. Very soon lunch was served. The dishes came in a frenzied pace and before I could realise, my plate was a profusion of colours and flavours! It was a sensory overload and my mind was in a turmoil as to which one to try first.

Bodoland cuisine is one of those few cuisines of India which does not serve biryani or pulao! It was rice, accompanied with several delicacies of Bodo cuisine that included spinach, fish, meat.

Some spinach and lentils are cooked standalone and those are the only items that save a vegetarian from starving in these regions.

Fermented food

Bodoland is in the lap of mountain rivers like Aie, Beki, Manas, so fish, crab and snails are a part of their diet. I find myself veering towards fish-based items; blame my weakness for fish due to my genes from Bengal nurtured in Kerala.

I took my first helping of Napham — a fermented dish made by grinding smoked fish, specific leafy vegetables and masala powder.

This mixture is fermented in bamboo stems. It had a strong aroma and delicious flavour. I saved up some to have it in the end so that the flavour would linger on for long.

The process of fermentation is similar for vegetables and meat. I am glad this traditional method of stocking up is still in practice. At a basic level, it is the fermented food that sets Bodo cuisine apart from other cuisines.

Another distinct characteristic of Bodo cuisine is that they make fish and meat with various kinds of spinach, herbs and lentils. This lends a unique taste, flavour and identity to the dish.

Take for example: Snails were made with black gram — Samo inkri Sobai jang. I was at a loss to make out whether the black gram gravy tasted better because of snails or the taste of snail meat was enhanced because of mushy boiled black gram. Mwita Kangkrai — crab with sour roselle leaves was another such dish. Ondla Jwng Naa Jwng — fish curry with rice powder. Another dish, fish with greens like dried jute leaves, was something I could not recollect if I had a similar preparation prior to this.

Pork is the most loved meat dish of Bodos. Another of their favourite is the silkworm!

Since silkworms feed only on mulberry leaves and are low in fat content, high in calcium, and have other minerals like Vitamin B1, B2 and B3, protein, iron, magnesium and sodium, they are very nutritious. Some say they taste like prawns and some say like fish fritters, I leave that for your tastebuds to decide!

Rice beer

And yes, there is something for the parched throat as well. Rice beer, locally called Zau, the indigenous liquor of Bodoland, has tremendous significance in their social life. It is offered to gods, consumed in all festivals and social functions, and offered to guests as a symbol of love and respect.

Almost every house has a simple setup to make rice beer. Efforts are on to get this drink labelled a Heritage Drink! I sincerely hope they get the tag else it is just a matter of time when this traditional drink will lose out to foreign liquor and alcohols.

Finally it is time for goi phathwi (betel nut and leaf) to conclude the meal.

Call it tradition or a digestive aid, either way the strong intense flavour seems right to end the fare.

Within an hour I must have had at least 15 items of Bodo cuisine that had taken shape over several centuries of cultural processes. It helped me to briefly understand Bodo food and left me craving for more.

 

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Bodo's pride

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