From the tantric tradition, comes India’s best cuisine
In which the writer is inspired by Assamese food and legend but is left cold by a legendary fish
The nerves weren’t as bad as some other nervy moments in life—class XII results, quitting my full-time job—but I was more than a little apprehensive.
You see, I was buying river fish for the first time, and it was an ilish no less. The ilish, or hilsa, is scientifically a kind of herring, but that bland description would doubtless make a Bengali splutter. After all, paeans and poems have been written about the hilsa, and, I am sure, delivered many Bengalis—on either side of the border—their slice of heaven on earth.
Frankly, all this hyperbole over a river fish leaves me cold.
If you are a Bengali, this might be a good time to stop reading.
Perhaps you have already torn up this issue of Lounge. Perhaps you are furiously pounding out a protest email to my editor.
If you are still with me, let me explain why I was, for the first time, relaxing my ancestral instincts to pay money only for sea fish. Don’t get me wrong. I do like Bengali food, but it never persuaded me to change my piscine habits.
But Assamese food did.
I was just back from Guwahati, where I was smitten by the Assamese thali. Non-vegetarian thalis elsewhere usually mean just one—maybe two—bowls of meat. In Assam, my non-vegetarian thali had duck, pigeon, fish and chicken, another had pork, duck, fish and meat. The best was a fish thali at Gam’s Delicacy Restaurant, which got my vote for the best thali in Guwahati. The other contenders, Khorikaa and Paradise, were outstanding as well, and they lost out by a sliver.
The fish thali I ate on my last night had patot diya fish (steamed with fresh ginger-garlic, fresh chillies, mustard oil, turmeric, lime juice); fish intestines fried with rice; fish curry with greens (I could discern fiddlehead fern) and tomatoes; fish head with moong dal, spices and onions (muri ghonto); another fish curry with gourd; and a spicy fish chutney. There was the customary Assamese yellow dal and three vegetables as well, one of which was mashed potato, but I won’t waste space on them.
Now, I am a great fan of Naga, Manipuri and Khasi food, but I found Assamese particularly intriguing because it seemed such a blend of mainland India and South-East Asia. I must—shamefacedly—confess that I had eaten Assamese only a few times before. After my latest encounter, I would go so far as to say it’s about the best food I have eaten. Yes, sigh, a notch above my favourites—Goan, Naga and Japanese, in that order.
I liked the simple approach to cooking, the limited use of spice, the sudden heat or tang from a chilli, relish or pickle, the range of condiments, the giant limes with each meal, and the ready acceptance of a variety of meat. I did not get to taste stir-fried silkworm pupae or red ant’s eggs, but I did eat, as I said, pigeon, duck, pork, beef, goat, chicken and lots of fish. It would really be all too much for Hindus from the heartland.
This is a land where about eight in 10 eat meat and Hindu priests are involved with animal sacrifice at Guwahati’s ancient Kamakhya temple, where devotees enthusiastically slaughter buffalo, duck, goat and other animals.
The animal sacrifice is a milder form of what was prevalent in Assam, influenced by the tantric tradition of Hinduism. When the Kamakhya temple was rebuilt in the 16th or 17th century (it was brought down by Muslim invaders, who never could subjugate the Assamese), its grand reopening was marked by the immolation of at least 140 men. Their heads—we are told in a classic book, History Of Assam, by Edward Gait, a British colonial administrator—were offered to the goddess on salvers made of copper. Human sacrifice was common through Assamese history, with sacrificial humans being fattened to the taste of (mostly) goddesses and decapitated at temples.
Let me hasten to assure you that the only Assamese tradition I was trying to be true to was the use of river and lake fish, none of which is available in Karnataka, where I live. So, I turned to the ilish, which the Assamese also eat. The result, with some modifications—cold-pressed sesame oil instead of mustard oil, which I did not have, local spinach instead of fiddlehead ferns—was all right. The ilish was bony and blah. I expect to get the Assamese way of cooking right soon, but don’t expect me to buy ilish again.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.