Discovering the many flavours of Assam in the restaurants of Guwahati


A baido (a term of respect for women in Assamese) with the pitha
she had prepared at the Taj Vivanta, Guwahati, breakfast 
Highlights:


  • I'd fallen in love with Assamese food after experiencing a series of pop up meals featuring the cuisine
  • I got to make my first trip to Assam in April 2018. This was to attend the Manas Spring Festival
  • I got to spend a couple of nights in Guwahati and managed to check out some of the eateries there
  • In this post I talk about going to restaurants such as The Mising Kitchen, Heritage Khorikaa and Majuli Asanj for dinners that featured food from across Assam and where I got to learn about some of the diversity that exists across the state
  • Traditional breakfasts on the streets at the 6 Miles Road and then at the very posh Taj Vivanta Hotel
  • And a stop for momos at a place called Chinese Hut

The call of Assam

2017 was the year when I fell head over heels in love with Assamese food. This was at the culmination of a series of excellent pop up meals featuring this cuisine that I had experienced in Mumbai, and the odd one in New Delhi, over the past couple of years.

My first introduction to Assamese cuisine was in Geetika Saikia’s  first pop up in Mumbai and the food had piqued my interest no end. Last year I spent a lovely afternoon with Joyee and Priyangee who run O’Tenga, the Assamese food delivery service in Mumbai. I had lunch with them and got to know more about the principles behind their food. A few weeks later I had another Assamese pop up meal. This time in Delhi and hosted by Plavaneeta Borah. Plavaneeta, has lived in various parts of the country and this shows in her food and her thinking, which have taken in influences from her travels and is yet anchored in her roots. My Assamese food feasting continued into 2018 when I had a lovely Assamese meal as a guest of chef Ashish Bhasin of the Trident BKC. The occasion was that of an Assamese Food Festival held under the Rivaayat Programme of the Trident whh showcases traditional food from across India. During lunch I got to meet chef Kashmiri Barkakati Nath who had done the menu there. I had an engrossing conversation with the two passionate food lovers on food in general and Assamese food in particular.

With each meal, I was even more smitten by the cuisine of Assam than I was before. I liked its simplicity and subtlety and the sense of homecoming that the meals stood for in my case. They reminded me so much of my native Bengali food even though the dishes were unique and different from what we eat. We do share the common culture of the east after all.

Ironically, I hardly knew anyone from Assam while growing up in Kolkata. Nor had I eaten any Assamese food when I was there. My only encounter with the world of Assam in Kolkata was the token Assamese dance number that girls in my school would do during the annual function, usually to the tune of the late Bhupen Hazarika’s song Ganga, whose high notes I couldn’t match in the choir much to our teacher’s frustration. Add to this the news reports that we would read about the insurgency in Assam in the 90s through my high school and college years, and that would be the end of my awareness of the world of Assam till long. This ironically was even though we lived next door in Bengal. 

Destination Assam 

At the start of the new year, I had decided that this year  would be where I visit places in India that I had never been to before. It was as if the meals wrote about earlier here were willing me to go there. I wasn’t sure how it would happen, but I knew that the universe would find its way, and sure enough it did!

I got a mail out of the blue a couple of last month from Puspanjalee  Das Dutta, a Guwahati based blogger, editor and food enthusiast, inviting me to The Manas Spring Festival.

I began packing my bags even before I finished reading her mail!

Landing at the Guwahati airport with singer Joy Baruah, Akkil Suvarna, chef Gautam Mehershi. We pwere received by Mitali Dutta who had conceptualised the Manas Spring Festival

While we were meant to spend our time at the National Manas Park, a forest reserve, I wanted to spend a couple of days at Guwahati too to get a feel of the city as I had never been there before. 

With the spirit of hospitality, that I came to realise, is  typical of Assam, Puspanjalee and the Manas Spring Festival folks offered to host me and most kindly booked me into the Rajdhani Regency Hotel at Guwahati. This is a centrally located hotel run by a charming Assamese couple. The rooms are spacious, the bathroom large, clean and with a good hot shower and plumbing. I would recommend it strongly for business travellers who are not looking for luxury but want a comfortable place to base themselves in. The owners were the stay sponsors of the event and were doing interesting things in terms of organising cycling tours for visitors who wanted to explore Assam.

The owner of Rajdhani Regency with Puspanjalee (in purple)
and Mitali in the middle

I expressed my desire to taste the local Assamese food in Guwahati to my hosts and on social media. Countless offers of help came up in response. Many readers on social media offered suggestions on where to eat, some offered to meet me themselves, others who were expats offered to connect me with their families and friends who lived in Guwahati.

It was as if everyone was keen to show me their favourite places to eat at. I was overwhelmed by their kindness. I wished that I had a full week to explore all the suggestions but that was not possible. I did manage to go to a few very interesting restaurants while in Guwahati though. Let me tell you about those in this post.

Guwahati food explorations


With Sisir Kumar of Guwahati Foodie

My faithful companion through most of these outings was young Sisir Kumar. He is a food enthusiast who had left Guwahati for completing his higher studies and then returned to his home town once he was done. He runs the Guwahati Foodie Facebook group. He often conducts food tours for visitors from abroad which is no surprise given he knows his stuff, is very enthusiastic and articulate too. Puspanjalee and Mitali had given him the responsibility of looking after me in their absence and I couldn’t have asked for better company.

To market, to market to buy a fat pig

The first stop on our expedition was the Mising Kitchen, a place recommended to me by many. When I stepped in to the restaurant, I realized that the name was not a typo but referred to name of a tribe belonging to Assam. A realization made me feel a bit silly about how little one knew about one’s own country and made me conscious of how much that there is to learn out there.

Mising Kitchen is a no frills restaurant which envelops one with a sense of warmth the moment one enters it. It was packed by the time we reached, which was around 8.30 pm on a weekday. The feel of the restaurant reminded me of the Bhojohori Manna outlet in Oshiwara. It was brimming with happy diners, relishing their home food and at costs which were not daunting. The service was very warm with a smiling young waiter attentively looking after our table.

There were a variety of fish and meat thalis and a la Carter dishes on the menu. We skipped the thalis as we did not want a full meal, just a sampler of the menu, as we had one more restaurant to go to after this that night.

Sisir and I decided to go straight for the pork. We giggled like two naughty boys, without grown-ups around to supervise us and tell us what to eat, as we did so.

I have rarely eaten an Assamese meal in the past where pork didn’t feature in the menu and ordering pork seemed to be the obvious thing to do during my first Assamese meal in Guwahati. 

What I did learn later though is that pork apparently does not feature in the repertoire of those who live in the plains of Assam in areas such as Guwahati. Many wrote to me on social media, during my stay at Guwahati, expressing their unhappiness with the way pork and Assamese cuisine are seen to be synonymous by outsiders today. ‘Pork is not a part of the Assamese cuisine. Nor are silkworms!’ they said.

‘Assamese,’ as I realized, was used by them to refer to those who live in the plains of Assam and not necessarily those who live in the tribal belts of Assam. This could be bit confusing if you don’t live in Assam yourself. Possibly a reflection of undercurrents that had led to the division of undivided Assam but let’s leave that topic for the political scientists for now.

Pork is a favourite of the tribal folks living in the hills of Assam as I said earlier. From what I came to understand, things are changing in the plains too with a number of restaurants in Guwahati now offering pork on their menus. The ‘millenials’, as a young Assamese lady told me on Instagram, can’t seem to get enough of it!

We had two pork dishes at the Mising Kitchen. The quality of the pork was excellent in both. The meat in both cases was truly tender and was paired with lots and lots of delectable fat. Each dish  that we had ordered tasted very different from the other.

Khorika pork


One was the pork khorika. Khorika refers to a style of barbecuing where bamboos sticks are used as a skewer and in rural areas this is done on wood fire pits. The pork was most mildly seasoned here, with just some salt perhaps. The dish was all about highlighting the great quality of pork used. The chunks of pork were then served as a ‘salad’, as Sisir put it, with sliced onions and finely chopped green chilies and a squeeze of lime juice. If there was ever a dish made for pork lovers, this was it!

O'Tenga pork


The other dish that I tried at Mising Kitchen was the O’Tenga pork. I thought it would be spicy as the meat looked rather red in colour. It was not so though. The dominant taste was that of the tanginess of the O’Tenga wood apples which cut the fatty meatiness of the pork and made the dish a very well balanced one.

There was only one ‘problem’ with the two dishes. They were too good! 

My plan was to nibble on a couple of pieces of heboirk and then move on as we had plans of going for dinner elsewhere. However, both the dishes were so delicious that I ate a lot more pork than I had planned and I am not sure if I could advocate that as responsible eating.

Mitali Dutta, who is the one behind the idea of the Manas Spring Festival, tells me that Mising Kitchen was set up in 2015 by a lady named Nibedita Yein Pegu. Nibedita’s husband, Lakhi Pegu, has designed and planned the menu it seems. To me, this is a wonderful example of the gender parity that I seemed to have noticed during my short stay in Assam.

When I asked Sisir if pork is considered to be ‘safe’ to eat in Assam, Sisir said that it is so and gave me two reasons for this. 

First was the method of cooking the pork on a very high heat which ‘sanitises’ the pork according to him. 

The other is the fact that the pigs reared for consumption are given good feed. This is in contrast to many other parts of India where pigs would often be left to feed on garbage and waste. This is not the case in the hills of Assam as pork is an integral part of the diet of those who belong here explained Sisir. So they were always particular about the quality of meat on offer and continue to be so.

Inside chef Atul Lahkar's Heritage Khorikaa


In conversation with chef Atul Lahkar at Heritage Khorikaa

The other very impressive meal that I had at Guwahati was at Heritage Khorikaa. A restaurant that Sisir insisted that I go to. This restaurant is run by chef Atul Lahkar who was earlier the chef in restaurant called Khorika before he parted ways and set up his own. Both Khorikaa and Heritage Khorikaa operate in Guwahati today and I realised that both restaurants had their set of loyalists.

Chef Atul told me that he is trying to bring flavours from across Assam into his restaurant. He  has incorporated locally used ingredients, as well as cooking methods that he came across during his travels across the state, in his menu. He pointed out that there is a huge diversity in the cuisine of Assam and that the food of the plains is fairly different from that consumed in the hills. He tries to offer a bit of both to his patrons. He also runs a café where he offers fusion dishes using Assamese ingredients and I do hope to go and check this out the next time.

Chef Lahkar offered to feed us a sampling of what turned out to be some exquisite food from his kitchen.

Dal, kazi nebu, bora tenga, dal pitika


Rice was at the core of the meal of course.  With that was served a divine dal pitika or dal mash which reminded me of the dal pora or dal shukno of my mother’s Bengali kitchen. The pitika was spiked with chillies which livened up the dish. Adding further freshness to the meal was the salad that the chef rustled up with local greens, sliced onions and green chillies.

There was the customary tenga or sour sauce. In this case, made with bora or what we know as bori in Bengal and wadi in Punjab. Dried lentil dumplings.

I wanted to give the pork a bit of a break that night so Atul got us a most ethereal chicken stew flavoured with fresh garlic, the cooking style of which was from the hills he told me. He brought a rather robust duck and white pumpkin curry where the spicing reminded me of a garam masala based Mughlai dish. “You always serve duck to special guests,” said the chef with a smile.

What struck me at the end of the meal was that while we often sit in Mumbai and Delhi and wonder if enough is being done to promote regional Indian food and produce by restaurants today and get excited if someone professes to do so, my meals at Heritage Khorikaa at Guwahati and earlier on at Pousada by The Beach at Calangute, showed me that there are lot of interesting stories playing out across the country in the regional food arena outside of the big cities. It is just that we need to seek them out.

I was quite encouraged to find the restaurant reasonably full even though it was closing time on a weekday night by the time we reached. Interestingly, if Mising Kitchen reminded me of the Bhojohori Manna at Oshiwara, the ambiance of the Heritage Khorikaa reminded me of that of Kewpies in Calcutta with its old ‘Raj Bari’ feel. Chef Lahkar is an avid photographer too and you can see his captures from across Assam adorned on his wall.

Every city has an iconic restaurant, or a couple of them, which people will always tell you to go to if you are a visitor to the city. Then there will be others who will tell you that they are overrated. This could get a bit confusing for first time visitors.

An example of this in Guwahati would be the Paradise Restaurant. It was one of the first, if not the first, restaurants I am told which was dedicated to showcasing Assamese food here. They go by the traditional definition of Assamese food at Parafise from what I understood from Guwahati based food enthusiast, Sanjukta Dutta. So ‘Assamese’, that they do not even serve pork as she quipped. I did not get to try the place during my short stay at Guwahati but in case you are interested, it is located opposite the Heritage Khorikaa.

A taste of the many Assams 

While on the subject of regional Indian food, what I found interesting in Guwahati was that there were a number of small restaurants across the city which professed to offer food from tribes across Assam and even the rest of north east. Take the Bodos and the Nagas for examples whose food seem to be represented in restaurants here.

I went to a restaurant named Majuli Asanj on my first night in Guwahati after the Mising Kitchen visit. It was recommended by Mitali and Puspanjalee as their go to place for comfort food. Majuli is a freshwater island in Assam which is famous for it its natural beauty, flora, fauna and food.

The more than a decade old, no frills restaurant, is run a gentleman named Rajiv Bora. Mr Bora told me that he keeps travelling across the island of Majuli looking for inspiration and brings the ideas that he gets back to his restaurant and puts it on his menu.

Dinner at Majuli Asanj


I was absolutely full unfortunately by the time we reached the restaurant. I am afraid that I could not do full justice to the meal laid out in front of us. We had ordered the vegetarian thali there which had traditional favourites such as a dal soured by o tenga, the alu pitika mash, sautéed guti aloo (micro baby potatoes), a white pumpkin curry, a fresh tomato subzi and a very light and delicately flavoured version of what we know as mochar ghonto in Bengal. The Assamese word for mocha or banana blossoms is koldil.

There was non-vegetarian fare too including an Assamese version of the fish patoori (fish steamed in banana leaves with a mustard paste), pigeon and duck curries. As in almost every Assamese meal that I have had, we were served a payokh (payesh in Bengali, kheer in Hindi) at the end.

Though I could not eat much at Majuli as I was pretty full, I did manage to get a taste of everything presented to us. What  struck me about the meal was about how light the food was and the subtlety of flavours that each displayed. Assamese cooking uses very little oil and masalas Sisir had told me earlier. Our meal at Majuli proved this.

Local herbs and chillies are used as the key seasoning agent in Assamese food. Puspanjalee told me that even in a bit city like Guwahati there are weekly haats or markets where locals buy produce native to their own community and use them to cook. You will not get these herbs in the super markets and malls though, and there are plenty of them in Guwahati.

If I have given you the impression that Guwahati is all about quaint places serving Assamese food then I would be wrong. These are the sort of places that I had sought out as a first time visitor to the city. However, I did see wide stretches of roads dotted with impressive malls in Guwhati. Through the windows of which, one could say modern restaurants with offers of pasta and Asian curries and coffee shops too. 

Guwahati is the entry point to the north east after all and is clearly a city on the move.

Good morning Guwahati


Tekeli pitha and lal cha


Now what about breakfast? If you have been a reader here then you would know of my love for breakfasts and of how I like to find out local breakfast joints while on the road.

There was a bit of problem in Guwahati though when it came to this. Most people I asked didn’t seem to have an answer when I asked about places that serve traditional breakfasts in Guwahati.




I got a sneak preview of what could be on offer thanks to Sisir again when we stopped at the junction of the 6 Miles Road in the morning on our way to the Manas National Park from Guwahati. 

There were a few vendors who had set up street food stalls below the flyover offering breakfast to those who stopped by. We gave the kachoriwala a miss and went to the gentleman selling tekeli pitha. These are  steamed rice flour cakes or dumplings with a thin layer of grated coconut and jaggery applied in the cross section. They are steamed in a kettle and served fresh. The experience of having them is akin to eating a dense and rather dry muffin and the flavour comes from the coconut and jaggery filling. You can order lal cha to have on the side with it. Sweetened black tea to which a sprinkling of salt is added.

Posh pitha

The Assamese breakfast spread at the Taj Vivanta, Guwahati


The one place where you do get the fully loaded Assamese breakfast in Guwahati is the rather posh, classy and tastefully done, Taj Vivanta Hotel. 

Sanjukta Dutta, whom I mentioned earlier in the post, took me there to experience a traditional Assamese breakfast. She was very keen to give give a taste of her native Assamese cuisine and was kind enough to make time for me despite the very tight window that was available at my end.

To my right is Sanjukta Das



Laid out for us by the folks at Taj were doi (curd), kol (banana), gur (jaggery) and sira (flat rice). There was  hurum (rice crisps) too which is paired with cream.  The equivalents of these combinations in Bengal would be doi cheere kola and muri doodh kola respectively. Dishes which my mother loved as a kid. Her attempts to feed them to me came to nought them as I found them to be too 'boring' as a child, spoilt first born that I was. The presence of sira and hurum underlined the importance of rice in the Assamese diet.

Doi Kol Hurum


Coincidentally, the first time I had doi cheere kola combination was in another five-star hotel. This was when chef Gaurav Lavania at the ITC Sonar Hotel in Kolkata offered me doi cheere kola as I was recovering from a stomach bug that I had carried to Kolkata from Lucknow. I quite took to this dish as a grown up and relished it at the Vivanta in Guwahati too.

These combinations would be good options for international travellers from the west used to having cold cereal for breakfast in my opinion so I am glad that the Vivanta offers them.

There were pithas (Assamese crepes made with rice flour) too. On offer was the long cylindrical narikol pitha stuffed with grated coconut and bigger versions of the tekeli pitha that I had eaten at the 6 Miles Road stall. There were sesame ladoos as well including those made with black sesame and to have with all of this, la cha. Interestinglythey had added pepper to the tea here.

I did have my cappuccino though too at the TAJ. Can’t start my day without it after all as you might know from my Instagram hashtag, #firstcappuccinooftheday. 

It was nice to enjoy the humble fare from Assamese homes in the luxurious setting of the Taj Vivanta. It is good to see posh hotel chains making an effort to expose their guests to local flavours. The Taj had hired local Assamese ladies to make the pithas and the laddoos to add that sense of homeliness to the breakfast. The ladies were addressed to as ‘baido’ by the staff. A term of respect used to address elder women here.

Momofuku...the Guwahati chapter


Steamed momos at Chinese Hut


Mains and breakfast done, the only question that remained was what does Guwahati snack on?

I spotted a number of Kolkata-like roll and cutlet shops dotting the busy market streets of Guwahati. However, I couldn’t come to Guwahati and not have some momos could I? It is the one dish that the rest of us associate with the north east after all!

I requested Sisir to take me to a momo joint on our way back to Guwahati from Manas. Sisir, as I had come to realise by then, had all answers and had one for me in this case too. He took me to the Chinese Hut, a small restaurant located opposite the Nehru Stadium. It is run by a local Assamese family and also offers tandoori chicken and rolls and is not really an ‘authentic’ Tibetan place. Sisir swore by the momos here and I soon saw why.

Inspired by memories of the Tibetan momo restaurants which had sprung up in houses at Elgin Road in Kolkata when I was in college, I ordered pork momos here. Both the steamed and fried versions.

The meat filling was tender and interestingly served as roughly chopped pieces of meat and not the finely ground mince that we are used to. Sisir told me that there are places in Guwahati where the pieces inside a momo could be diced even larger. 

“We love our pork and like to taste what we are eating,’ explained Sisir.

Check out the pork filling


What astounded me though was how delicate and thin the flour casing was in both the steamed and fried momos. The finesse exhibited in these would do the chefs of Tim Ho Wan and Din Tai Fung, the legendary dim sum places of the Far East, proud!

Served with the momos was the pork broth which we used to glug gratefully in the Kolkata momo joints when we were in college. We were young, hungry and broke then and every tummy filler, especially the ones served free, were most welcome! 

I eagelryvpolished off my nostalgia soaked bowl of broth happily in China Hut.

Fried momos with pork broth at Chinese Hut


Sisir told me that he had been coming to Chinese Hut since his student days. I noticed that we were surrounded by a sea of dating couples here. When I mentioned this later on Instagram, expat Assamese from across the world told me that they too used to come to Chinese Huts for dates when they lived in Guwahati!

This deceptively nondescript looking restaurant, whose ambiance reminded me of the small eateries of Elgin Road, Hazra and a place called Bindoosri in Garia, all in Kolkata, was all about nostalgia and warm fuzzy memories and bloody good momos in my books.



And that’s the story of the two nights that I spent in Guwahati, featuring three restaurant meals, two breakfasts and a momo stop. In addition to these, there was a competent omelette and toast breakfast and a fully loaded, no holds barred, Punjabi lunch at the hotel, and two amazing Assamese home cooked meals at the houses of Puspanjalee and Mitali which I had written about in an earlier post.

I am not sure if this post qualifies as a ‘where to eat in Guwahati’ piece. It’s tough for a first  time visitor to a place to do so on the basis of a couple of nights spent to be honest. 

However, I can assure you that each place that I visited was on the basis of fervent recommendations of the food lovers of Guwahati who welcomed me to their city with open arms and that does mean something.

With Sisir and blogger Ishani Nath at the Pitha joint


One thing which struck me through my first visit to Assam, was the pride each person that I came across had in their state. I was impressed and inspired by their eagerness to share this love with everyone they came across.

I loved the fact that everyone wanted to show me their favourite place to eat in Guwahati and what one should eat there.

I love the fact that no two people agreed on what the ‘best place to eat’ at Guwahati was.

That made the experience even richer for me.

My first visit to Guwahati and Assam left me hungry though. Hungry to go back. To Guwahati. To Assam.

I would urge you to do so too as Assam, as their tourism campaign says it is, is indeed ‘awesome’!

Appendix:

Costs (April 2018)


  • Mising Kitchen, 2 dishes and a bottle of water: Rs 586
  • Majuli Asanj, dinner for 2: Rs 1,010
  • Chinese Hut: Around Rs 500
  • Taj Vivanta, Heritage Khorikaa comped
Previous posts on Assam and Assamese food:


Pictures:


Mising Kitchen



Hertiage Khorikaa






Chinese Hut
The only two who were not on a date at Chinese Hut


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