Tenga and khar, people think that is all there is to it.” Atul Lahkar, in his black floral shirt and blue jeans, looks grim. “No wonder we Assamese had an inferiority complex about our food.” We’re sitting at a much too cheerful Café Coffee Day just off the traffic-inflamed Zoo Road. Atul is Guwahati’s ‘celeb chef’, who’s appeared on cookery shows on TV channels and most famously with Gordon Ramsay for BBC Channel 4. He’s in his late thirties and sports a spiky hairdo and glinting gold earrings. A frothy cappuccino lies untouched on the table as he waxes eloquent about the benefits of Assamese cuisine — healthy, fresh, no oil, boiled and steamed, no spices, among others. “Ethnic Assamese food will definitely move the world one day,” he says, and then hands me his business card with a flourish.
It’s a phrase that stays with me as we travel through Guwahati’s crowded streets flanked mostly by massive half-constructed buildings, looking for those repositories of culinary revolution. Although Guwahati is seen, and has promoted itself, as the ‘Gateway to the Northeast’, for me, growing up in the tea gardens of Upper Assam, the town was a doorway to the rest of the world. It was from here that we could get to Big Cities such as Calcutta, it was here we could ‘eat out’ at restaurants like Ming Kitchen, Woodlands and Dhaba. Not once do I remember dining on Assamese food. “There were hardly any Assamese restaurants here,” Atul waves his hand towards the road. “In fact, seven years ago, you couldn’t do this story.”
Much has changed in Guwahati. Rapid economic growth has transformed this sleepy riverside town into a bustling, if ungainly, commercial hub. Malls are more common a sight than the graceful betelnut trees after which the city is named. Located just off G.S. Road, crowded with construction material, is Khorika (10.30am-4.30pm, 6.30-10.30pm; 9435010935), the restaurant where Atul works. This first-floor space, named after bamboo sticks used to roast meat and vegetables over an open fire, is divided into two airy rooms and decorative pride of place is given to a huge horai (betelnut bowl) draped with a gamocha (scarf) in front of a larger-than-life picture of Bhupen Hazarika. Within the menu, an extensive eight-page affair that brings together various tribal sub-cuisines such as Misching and Kachari, I wonder what I’d find that would prove Atul right. We settle for a non-veg akhaj (thali) with pork khorika, and people-watch as we wait.
It’s 3.30 on a Monday afternoon, long past lunchtime, but the place is packed. The background music, a queer mix of the Chipmunks and Assamese pop, can’t be called melodious, but on our thali lay a little symphony. A light yellow dal and a creamier black one, soft aloo pitika (mash), bilai pitika (roast tomato chutney) and a sour ou tenga stew balanced by a gently sweet papaya khar (alkaline mixture made by filtering water through banana tree ashes; apparently, khar cleanses the stomach and neutralises the acidic properties of tenga). The pork khorika, to our disappointment, was tough and dry. Atul’s recommendation, the chicken with black sesame seed, was an interesting variation of the Khasi doh iong made with pork. The fiery dish had traces of pungent bamboo shoot and left a lingering lemony flavour in our mouths. Similarly well prepared, the hilsa sorsori or mustard curry wasn’t overpowering and allowed the sweetness of the fish to come through. The mua patot diya, fish served in a leaf, however, is best left well alone — it came cold, dry and without the eponymous banana leaf.
Atul also shaped the menu at Delicacy (11.30am-11pm; 9864747474) when it opened about five years ago. This clean-cut, brightly lit place, strewn with busy tables, offers similar fare to Khorika but with a focus on fish. We had a goroi maas pitika — a flavoursome freshwater fish, deboned and mashed with ginger, mustard oil and generous amounts of coriander and green chilli. It made for an appetite-whetting starter and was followed by a chital maas prepared with mustard. A relatively expensive local fish, much in demand, the chital was soft, creamy and melted away into sublime nothingness. I tried the duck gourd curry (hahor logot kumura) with some trepidation — I usually find this meat too strong — and then proceeded to finish the platter and lick my plate clean. The thick, pulpy vegetable with its faint tinge of sweetness perfectly offset the succulent, salty meat that you can suck off the bone. For dessert, request the friendly staff to stow your bowl of payas (milky rice pudding similar to kheer) in the freezer. By the end of your meal, the payas will be thick, chilled and refreshing rather than watery and warm.
Despite all the fanfare that accompanies celebrity chefs and glitzy new restaurants, there is one place where it all started, and which remains demurely low-profile. Paradise restaurant (10.30am-midnight; 0361-2666904), the most elegant of the places we visited, occupies two storeys of a grand old building in Silpukhuri. It opened in 1984 and retains a faded red-velvet colonial charm. The lighting is dim, the furniture heavy and the staff dressed in liveried uniforms. Unlike the sprawling ‘tribal’ menus at Khorika and Delicacy, the one at Paradise is a prim three pages that begins with a parampara (royal Ahom) thali and inserts ‘Chinese’ at the end like an embarrassing secret. Our advice is to stick with the first, a delightful meal presented on a heavy traditional brass plate polished to a shine.
While the amluki (gooseberry) soup is served in not-so-traditional white ceramic, floral-pattern cups, it’s a tangy appetiser and crisp palate cleanser. The thali brought together a medley of flavours — a light tenga yellow dal, mustard seed-encrusted splat of aloo pitika, a sharp mooli leaf khar preparation, mix vegetable fry, a yam fish curry and a surprisingly bland steamed fish smeared with a mustard paste. (Assamese food is clearly hugely influenced by Bengali cuisine.) A little bowl of treasure, however, contained kharisha, grated bamboo shoot fermented in water seasoned with mustard oil and chillies, and laddoos of kharoli, dry mustard paste with mustard oil and tamarind, and mahor guri, powdered chana with salt, lemon juice and chillies. I would happily have eaten just these with plain joha rice. After we’d licked our fingers clean, the dessert came in the form of puffed, crispy rice, melted jaggery and thick clotted cream. The hurung was a lovely play of textures and flavour. And it looked very pretty.
For breakfast the next day, we headed out of town to Sonapur, about a half-hour drive from Guwahati. After we left pit-stop Jorabad behind, we drove along a wide road lined on the left by a number of low-cost resorts with restaurants that style themselves as dhabas. Ignore them all and turn off the main road into a dusty dirt track that slowly winds up a forested hill. At the very top is the Brahmaputra Jungle Resort (7am-10pm; 97060-99375), where you can fish in a large, muddy pond hemmed by flowers, go for a pony or elephant ride or, like we did, squat lazily in one of the wood and thatch huts spilling down the slope next to a cluster of gorgeous kako bamboo. The views of the surrounding hills patchworked by leafy tea plantations are sublime. Here, we discovered, you can feast on a traditional Assamese breakfast (7.30-10.30am) of doi (curd), chira (flat rice) and jaggery or sandor guri (ground rice) with milk or curd. Further down the hill, where we stopped for a mid-morning snack, was Tepesia (8am-10pm; 9864441374), a less atmospheric place dotted with huts. We made our way to the large summerhouse in the middle of the duck pond reached by a bamboo bridge. Tepesia could do with a good scrubbing, but it’s a peaceful spot where cows amble, ducks sun themselves and hens cluck under a bougainvillea bush. It’s a refreshing change from the often overwhelming chaos of Guwahati. To top it all, the food was fantastic. The sanga pork, cooked in hollow bamboo in a simple ginger-garlic paste, was succulent and soft and carried wonderfully smoky overtones. The rice, also cooked in bamboo, came prettily wrapped in banana leaf, and looked like rustic sushi. Order the bilahir pura (roast tomato chutney; and the yellow dal to cut the oiliness of the meat.
Our lunch spot that day was at Majulir Ekhas (11am-5pm; 9854131588), literally one meal from Majuli, owned by a gentleman from the island. Located in a basement room, down a shady flight of stairs, the restaurant is a sunny yellow place with a basic canteen-style of seating. There’s no written menu as it changes every day, so ask for the day’s special. We couldn’t detect anything ‘majulir’ about our thali, but it was simple and wholesome. For starters, we had a small bowl of rice mixed with water, mustard oil, ginger and chillies and a dab of goroi pitika on the side. The thali comprised yellow rohor dal, crunchy kos kol (type of cooking banana), fried banana flower, mild sesame-flavour vodailota (local herb), a light amla stew, sweet boiled papaya, mixed yam, pumpkin and potato fry, brinjal and alu pitika, kol posola (banana stem) khar, a bowl of spicy local chicken curry and crispy fried mua maas.
We saved Maihang (11am-4.30pm, 7-10.30pm; 9854373978) for our final meal. This cheerful, fairy-light lit place was empty when we walked in at seven but had filled out nicely by the time we were leaving. Their menu is extensive, with Assamese food and a variety of dishes from other parts of the Northeast. We noticed some great vegetarian options as well — a veg special thali and a long list of fresh vegetables that included stir-fried dhekia or local fern, drumstick with pumpkin anja and yam with fermented soya bean. Their fish selection is really quite excellent and we opted for an ari (catfish) tenga, which was a buttery bowl of delight. The catfish has a clean, strong flavour offset by tangy chunks of ou tenga (clear tenga is made with tomato and lime). The local chicken with akhoni, a popular Naga dish, was also superb with flavourful — rather than overpowering — fermented soya bean. Maihang also offered exciting dessert choices: sweet potato in milk, milky bor, pumpkin- and gourd-based pasties, but none were available at the time. As I scraped up the last bit of payas, Atul’s grandiloquent prediction stole back into my mind. At the end of my culinary odyssey, I’m not sure if this cuisine will change the world but it will certainly make a lot of people happy.