[Also see A Question of 'Assamese' Identity, Identity in Exile, Burnt Flesh and Xewali Flowers, and Muse India issues I edited on:
Literatures of Assam, Influence of Insurgency on Assamese Literature]
BAPTISM BY BEER
The Axamiya cuisine is an integral part of its culture and flora and fauna says Uddipana Goswami as she takes us through a culinary tour of her childhood days in Axam
(Published 2000, http://www.tehelka.com/)
We are the bhatuas. We Axamiya (Assamese) cannot do without rice – bhat. Or saul as it is called in its uncooked form. Rice in its various forms is part of our main meals, our snacks and even our drinks.
Rice kept standing in water for a few days turns into beer. It is called lao-pani, or rice beer. In the days of the Ahom (the people who trekked from Southeast Asia and ruled Axam, or Assam, for 600 years), lao-pani was the staple drink and the Ahom had turned producing beer into a fine art. They added a variety of substances like pepper and different kinds of herbs like kapoudhekiya, patixondar, tongloti and jetulipoka to produce lao-panis with varying nuances of taste and colour. Lao-pani made of ripe jackfruits and varieties of banana called athiya kal and bheem kal was made at times. Lao-pani thus made was part of the daily diet. The Mishing, Bodo and other ethnicities have their own drinks indigenously manufactured, with nutritious values to boot. Thus, there are drinks like apong, and ju.
An Ahom custom I'd heard but never managed to establish the veracity of, was that an Ahom baby is dipped in beer immediately after its birth. Well, we are not Ahom. So I wasn't dipped in beer. And drinks were not allowed in my family. So as a child, I never got to taste apong or ju or lao-pani. The nearest I got to lao-pani was paita bhat. Paita bhat is soaked rice.
There was a song we used to sing as kids. Actually it was a kind of game we played. One person tickled you all the way up from your palm to your underarm, singing
Igharar mekuri xighare jau
Pura mase paita bhate khai gusi jau.
(A cat I am, going from one household to another I ransack their houses for roasted fish and soaked rice.)
Soaked rice tastes great, especially if Ma mixes onions and butar guri (powdered gram) or mahor guri (powdered lentils) with it. Some mustard oil and a pinch of salt – the combination of lon-tel – and it is a treat. 'You cannot have it on school days', Ma used to say. I understood why only later when I learnt the principle behind making lao-pani.
But paita bhat is not a regular feature. Mas-bhat is. Fresh river fish with rice. Though fresh river fish is really hard to come by these days, and quite expensive when you do get it, fish still remains central to the Axamiya diet. Rice, a big piece of fish and a little bit of tengar jol, the tangy gravy that gets its taste from the thekera tenga or, in its absence, from the tomatoes added to it, is all it takes to make a feast of the daily meal. A feast my deuta (father), like most Axamiya people, cannot do without.
And then, there is khar. An Axamiya meal is supposed to start with khar and end with tenga. 'Khar khowa Axamiya ' is a common, supposedly derogatory way of addressing us Axamiya, though I don't see why a particular people should be looked down upon because they have a particular dish, and why a people should feel affronted at the epithet if they enjoy the dish. The khar we most frequently used was kalakhar. It is made by drying the trunk of athiya kal and setting it on fire. The ashes are kept soaked in a coconut shell and the juice that flows out is kalakhar. Not only does it make a cooking ingredient but is also used as an Axamiya substitute for shampoo, with the difference that it is far more beneficial than the artificially manufactured shampoo. The kalakhar so extracted is then added to the vegetable, usually papaya and cucumber, when it is being cooked and the end result is a dish as tasty as it is healthful.
So rice with khar or rice with fish or with both is almost a must. Some padina (mint) or dhaniya (coriander) chutney, a mixed vegetable or mashed potatoes, and dail (lentils) is what makes up our normal diet. I love to have roasted potatoes but it is to be had only when we go to our native village. While other dishes are being cooked, the potatoes, and sometimes even tomatoes and brinjals and fish are left to roast in the souka (earthen stove where wood is used as the fuel). When they are cooked, everything is mashed together and the pitika is ready. The dail we usually have can be moog, mah, mosur, or but. When the tangy ou-tenga is added to the mahar dail, it becomes a delight to have. The ou-tenga is a small vegetable and I always used to wonder how the ou-kuwari – as the fairy tale goes – could hide inside it for so long till the rajkuwar saw her, fell in love with her, and brought her out of her shell. But then fairy tales are fairy tales. They even build houses of chocolate in fairy tales.
Of course, if anyone knows anything about Ahom architecture, they wouldn't consider fairy tales too far fetched. The Ahom added mahar dail, bora saul, eggs and other food materials to make a cement that held their huge monuments together for ages. They stand even today; obviously Axamiya people were never too draught ridden or flood driven to devour their ancient buildings.
Meat, for us, is an occasional event. And then too, it is mostly goat meat or chicken. Pork and beef are restricted to certain peoples only. And then, there's pigeon meat – the tastiest of them all. Domesticated pigeon makes ready meat for guests who come by without intimation, especially in the villages.
Venison, it seems, is even tastier than pigeon meat, but we never got to have it. Venison is considered quite a delicacy and I've heard stories of how, in the days when hunting wasn't forbidden, my uncles would go deer hunting in the nearby Orang sanctuary. Even if they regret those killing sprees now, it doesn't help much. Orang is in a sad state today.
Till Sankardeb introduced the Ek Saran Nam Dharma, his brand of Vaishnavism in Axam, it seems there were no restrictions regarding food. One ate almost everything, as long as it wasn't poisonous – even crabs, bats and snakes, all kinds of lichens and ferns and mushrooms and cows and buffaloes and pigs and pigeons and what not. Most of the foodstuff, was first offered to the gods to appease them and then eaten by the people. This was especially true of the indigenous peoples Axam. When Vaishnavism came to Axam, and restrictions were imposed on peoples’ food habits, thanksfully some cults like the Ratikhowa retained these practices.
But by and large, there are many restrictions, and one is not refined enough if one eats anything but the usual stuff. However, I have seen some daredevil guys, cousins and friends, having bats and snakes and wished I could too, if only to find out how they taste. After all, if my ancestors could have it all, why not me? I've had to be satisfied with cooking up stories for ignorant acquaintances in Delhi about how tasty snake meat and toad milk is – they lapped it all up. According to them, if we can have bamboo shoots, we can have anything. I only said, 'O lord, forgive them, they know not what they are missing'. For bamboo shoot, or khorisa as we call it, is just heaven. If you have not had raw, grated bamboo shoot mixed with salt and mustard oil, you do not know what taste is. If you have not had pork cooked in bamboo shoot, you might as well take to eating grass.
Which reminds me, we Axamiya are also said to feed on anything and everything we can lay our hands on, including grass. But of course, it is far from true. We do not eat grass. We have almost everything else that is green and nutritious. Spinach, or paleng as we call it, may be Popeye's favourite green food. Mine is dhekia which is a kind of fern. It grows in abundance by the roadside in villages, so that you only have to go, pick it up and fry it; it tastes great. Then there is also bhedelata which smells icky and doesn't taste too great but is supposed to have a lot of medicinal value. No wonder I never liked to have it. Xak is what we call these green leaves that had so much nutritional value and were to be found everywhere. We can pick manimuni, padina, lai, lafa, nefafu and masandari from our garden. We make pakoras, or phularis as we called them, out of some. Xewali, or the night jasmine is not just a beautiful flower. Its leaves, bitter though they are, make tasty phularis. Dip the leaves in gram flour and fry them and you have mouth-watering phularis as we call them.
Most of these herbs have very pungent tastes; they're either too sour or too bitter; we Axamiya have a penchant for strong tastes, while we are also the people who can be just as happy with bland, boiled mar-bhat and alu, that is, boiled rice and potatoes. We have the bitterest of leaves like nefafu and xewali and we have the tangiest of fruits like the rabab tenga (shaddock) and the Naga tenga – a very politically incorrect name, if I should say so. (For the Axamiya, anything intemperate used to be 'Naga' by virtue of the fact that the Naga were considered a hot-headed race.) But if you have a palate for them, the taste sticks to your tongue for a lifetime. Like they have to mine.
Talking of sticky things reminds me of bora saul. I hated it till I got to know most varieties of lao-pani cannot be made without bora saul. And then, it has a sticky quality by virtue of which it formed an ingredient of the cement used by the Ahom builders. Because of this reason, bora saul was also the rice we used for making those delectable pithas – that typical Axamiya snack more common at Bihu-time. In this avatar, of course, bora saul becomes not just tolerable, but sheer heaven.
There is no Bihu without pitha. Dry, ground rice powder is given a cylindrical shape with sesame or coconut fillings. And accordingly, tilar pitha or narikolar pitha is made. There are also other kinds of pithas – ghila pitha, kakalsinga pitha, sunga pitha, jonai pitha, bakul pitha and so on, named after their shapes and fillings.
Sunga pitha was always my favourite. It is cooked by stuffing the bora saul, whether ground or whole, into bamboo cylinders, and placing the cylinder on fire. It can be had with gur (jaggery) alone, or with doi (curd) and gur. Doi can't taste any better than this, neither with sira (rice flakes) nor with komal saul, that typically Axamiya ready-to-eat rice; soak it in water and it's ready to eat. It is impossible to translate the taste of it into words. It can only be felt.
And then, at the end of every meal, there is the endemic Axamiya addiction – tamol-pan. Tamol is areca and pan is betel leaf. Have them with a dash of sun (lime) and some dhapat (tobacco), and tamol-pan leaves a taste in your mouth that lingers for a long time. Like the lingering taste of a lover's kiss.
Uddipana Goswami poses as a noxiously vain nubile nymphet in search of a nose-job and comes out holding her nose
(Published 2000, http://www.tehelka.com/)It wasn't as though I really needed a nose fix. But all my friends kept teasing me about my 'beaked' nose and then this cousin of mine in New York had gotten her teeth re-set and you won't believe the difference it made to her appearance. So I decided to give it a go. My aunt who is rich enough and doting enough to fulfill all my whims agreed to sponsor me, although she said I looked good enough as I was. Even the doctor said so, to start with. "If I do a shoddy job on an unattractive woman, she will be grateful for the slightest improvement in her appearance. But when dealing with beautiful women, one has to be very careful because it is a delicate job. And that's the way I feel about you," he said when I told him about my nose. Quite good for my ego, I thought. But my ego wasn't at stake here, my nose was. He hadn't really asked me what it was about my nose that bothered me. He was the one who pointed out the scar on it, he was the one who said it is humped; I'd only told him I was worried about the beaked tip.He said that he could set everything right, except perhaps the scar, which could be reduced but not removed altogether, that it wouldn't take more than a day for the surgery and that it wouldn't hurt at all. "Why doesn't everybody get it done if it's that smooth?" I wondered. Because of the cost perhaps? "How much will it cost me, doctor?" I asked him. "Around ten thousand", was his answer. I'd heard of doctors charging more. "Money is no problem, doctor. My aunt is very rich. I only want a good job done." He thought for a second. "Will you buy your own medicines or should I supply them?" "Of course, it will be better if you do." "Then it will cost you more." Aha! Now we're talking. "It will come up to around Rs. 12,000." Fair enough. My aunt will be happy. But she'll be happier if somebody could convince her cosmetic surgery doesn't kill you. "Can you give me the contact numbers of a few of your clients so my aunt can check with them about side-effects and such things?" I asked him. "Why do you need phone numbers? I can easily call them before you do and ask them to say good things about me. Or there is this woman who will not admit that she came to me; she says she got it done in the U.S! How can you be sure?" True. But then, those are myaunt's orders, I persisted. In the end, he gave me one number, which incidentally, turned out to be a wrong number! And what about the whole procedure before the surgery? "You just have to come in at around 9, I'll start work around 11, and you can go home in the evening." "No, that is not what I meant. Don't I have to go to a shrink or something?" My cousin had told me that that is the normal procedure. The shrink is supposed to find out if you are sure of yourself. "What for?" the good doctor sounded as though he had never heard of shrinks, whereas he is supposed to put every patient through one. "If you wanted a nose fix because somebody else is asking you to, you might be abnormal. But I think you are perfectly normal, above normal, in fact." Above normal? My aunt says I'm obsessed with my nose. "Of course not! Or if you kept thinking about your nose all the time, you might be obsessed. If I wanted long legs like Amitabh Bachchan, I might be obsessed. But you are completely normal." Thanks, doctor, for all the ego-boosts. But now that I'm out of your clinic, I'm not sure I want to go through it after all because you are a quack and I bet my nose that you'll ruin it.