By Bikram Bora:
Of late I heard about the movements regarding introduction of beef and pork in the menus of universities and the angry opposition against it, from my better aware friends. When I tried to go through the narratives that are written and spoken about the entire thing, I got myself entangled in big, tongue-twisting, multi-syllabic terms like ‘Brahmanical Hegemony’, ‘food fascism’ and many more. And both the demand for freeing the dietary space of universities and the angry threatening of the so-designated ‘food fascists’ left me astounded. Being a person termed as ‘outstation’, Delhi and the neighboring parts never cease to amaze me. Especially, when it comes to food, one of my favourite topics of discussion. And when you come from a place where there is no fixed insistence on dietary patterns, the stubborn struggle in the university and the angry reaction against it amuses me even more.
It is difficult to ascertain whether the ‘relatively liberal’ food preferences or the ‘relatively relaxed’ social fabric has contributed to Assam having no strict insistences on food. Beef is not banned there, despite having low consumption and pork is a much-savored delicacy. So, it will be worthwhile watching how the ‘food fascists’ who insists on representing the entire nation in their propaganda will operate in Assam and other parts of ‘North-east’. In attempt of homogenization of ‘Indian culture’, any kind of fascists tend to disregard the factor of North-east for their own convenience, as it often brings an inconsistency in their arguments. So, before insisting on what should go down our bellies, these people should be made aware of how much we people in the hills and valleys of India’s eastern frontier indulge us in the ‘vice’ of eating things that walk, crawl or fly. Then probably we can come to a consensus that can be termed as ‘national’!
Before going in detail about my carnivorous extravaganza, keeping in view the concern of the readers, it is of utmost importance to put two disclaimers. The first one is, if you do not feel at ease, with a completely different pattern of food habits from the one you follow, then probably you shall find better avenues for the stimulation of your grey cells than this piece of gibberish. And second, this is an entirely personal reminiscence. This does not reflect the dietary patterns of all the sections of people of Assam. Being a bewilderingly heterogeneous existence Assam is, you are bound to encounter all sort of people from ‘shuddh shakaharis’ (though rare) to extreme forms of carnivorous behavior.
For someone in Assam, Bengal or the plains of Manipur, not having fish amounts to sacrilege. The only non-veg item, that caters to the need of all the classes and castes regardless of their cultural and religious affiliations. Regardless of whether you are Hindu or Muslim, tribal or non-tribal, fish would be always in your preference. In Assam, there are two varieties of fish sold, the ‘local’ or the one of native origin, caught by fishermen folk of the riverside, and sold fresh in urban markets, with a taste that suits the tongue, but not the purse of many. The other one is the ‘saalani’ one, or of non-native origin, brought from fisheries in places like Andhra and Orissa, kept fresh by putting ice. The term also encompasses the ones that are reared locally, but the breed is not indigenous. In Assam, the word ‘local’ had a powerful impact, be it the people, the fish or even the commodities. If you are local, the world is yours. The number of recipes that exist for fish exceeds all the other delicacies combined. The sour curry, mustard curry or the dried and fermented ones, people are simply crazy for fish. My uncle, who always experiences an instable bowel movement after having dried fish, never gets tired of having it again and again.
Being brought up in towns, we always had a fascination towards the villages, be it sheer utopian admiration or exotic romanticisation. At my grandparents’ village, the late-winters when rain was scarce, it was a time for ‘Pukhuri Xisa’, a practice done in almost religious frenzy by the non-urban carnivores. The small ponds and water bodies, amidst the paddy fields were generally the places where an Assamese village household will rear their fish. After the harvest, when the fields were empty (Ravi crops being a rarity), people will suck out the water out of the ponds and will take all the fish home. The process in itself is a celebration. The fish, the slimy eels, and the crabs that you find at the bottom of the ponds were no less than luxuries. There was this page-boy who stayed with my grandparents, who hailed from a village of traditional fishermen. He was a much-loved figure commonly known a Bhaiti, (younger brother), a most common pet name, if you go out in the street and shout ‘Bhaiti’, tons of people of all age groups will turn around. Having the knack for fishing, Bhaiti was capable of catching fish with any equipment that he could lay his hand onto, be it a spear, a fishing-net, a Jakoi, or even with bare hands. The freshwater eels, a traditional delicacy, that used to terrorize us for their snake-like looks, were caught with bare hands by him, a stunt that made him a hero in our eyes!
Talking of crabs, though they are rare, if found they are ready to find their way to the kitchen. Though people often have reservations regarding their looks, those who have tasted it never fails to do it once again. There was this boy I know during my school days who loved crabs. During rainy season, crabs used to appear at school playground, he used to collect them and ride straight home during lunch breaks, to deliver them to his mother, who will make the crabs wait for him at the dining table when he comes home after school.
My school was some four of five kms away from my home, situated inside a military complex surrounded by Assamese villages. It was a tiresome job to wake up during those rainy mornings just to attend it. On the bend on the road where my school was located, there was this temporary market-place, where local pork was sold. People from the neighboring villages used to carry it in the morning and their stock was generally cleared up within hours, the magnitude being higher during weekends, as the middle-class tendency towards savings allowed the consumers to have anything non-veg (barring fish of course) only during weekends. The rule was bent if you are an ONGC or OIL employee, the traditional luxury loving class. If you are an ‘ONGC Sakori Kora Lora’, the chances of your achieving a better demand in the marriage market were higher. (I owe this particular piece of funda to a very popular page in Facebook). Coming back to pork, the way the sellers used to carry it to the market would have scared the wits out of a non-connoisseur. To carry one pig, sometimes two or three bicycles were used. The very common bicycle being Hero Royal, the Bura Cycle (for old men), in regard to the propensity of being used by old people more, as opposed to the youngsters who prefer trendy ones with more cutting-edge looks and technology. The pig would be cut into three pieces, the first bicycle would carry the head, the fleshy part by the second one and the rear part was the share of the third bicycle. In the market, all the heads would be kept together, not for sale, until and unless you are a food fetishist.
The earliest buyers would always have the advantage of choosing the most ‘royal’ parts of the flesh. For someone like me, the spare ribs full of fat seemed more attractive than the fleshy parts. A vice that had always left me complaining about the pork momos of Delhi, as they rarely contain the juicy, fat ribs. However, the word pork is not digested well by all sections of people in Assam. The Muslims and some sections of Hindus, most notably those up in the social hierarchy and Vaishnavites generally have less chances of tolerating it. Because of belonging to a tribe that has traditionally been pork-eaters but now largely Vaishnavites, the dichotomy left my family undecided in a dietary dilemma. Pork is not allowed within the kitchen, but the younger ones in the family have found a new way not to compromise with their taste buds. Now it is cooked in the Guhali (cow-shed). Neither the elders nor the cows can complain about that. Cows had traditionally been vegetarian, as far as my knowledge of the animal kingdom is concerned. However, their knowledge of fascism is limited and of food-fascism, none at all.
The younger generation, most notably those who stay away from the home state have however developed a strange and inexplicable obsession towards pork, or rather say Gahori, the local name. The word Gahori is uttered with such reverence that for anyone who is not aware of the language will for sure consider it to be the name of some celebrity. It’s not difficult to understand why the pork-seller at Lajpat Nagar in Delhi has put a sign outside his shop, “Gahori is sold here”, keeping in mind the large Assamese population inhabiting those parts. And adding to our jubilations, they also sell Khorisa (bamboo shoot), an essential ingredient for a traditional pork curry.
I have no intention to displease our food fascists, but the reason why chicken is way below in the dietary hierarchy is not intentional but essential. No doubt, after fish, chicken is most widely consumed, but well, it lacks the food-x-factor, if such a thing exists. Chicken is too commonplace to deserve any special mention. You have guests coming for dinner, have no idea about their dietary affiliations, chicken is the safest option. Anyone will have chicken merrily, until and unless they belong to the rare and extinct species of vegetarian Assamese, the existence of which is often doubted by the specialists. Though there are very few special recipes for chicken, most people prefer the one without any spice, some chili and lots of potatoes. The potatoes added to the curry are quite enjoyable, a phenomenon I found strangely missing in Delhi. The agricultural lands surrounding Delhi in fact produces much more potatoes than Assam, then why not add potatoes to Chicken curry, that was one of the first questions arising in my mind after coming to the capital. Later on when I got familiar with the phenomenon called Aloo Paratha and started loving it, I understood where all the potatoes go.
And while talking about the winged creatures, ducks being a delicacy is an understatement. During summers, having duck is a feat to be cherished as the quantum leap in your blood pressure will left your physician asking, “Haah Khaisil Hoine” (You had duck, right?). Duck with Kumura (a vegetable of gourd family) is something that is a part of the nostalgia of anyone from Assam staying away from home.
Half of the country will remain scandalized if I just mention that among all the winged creatures that are edible, pigeons are my favourite. So was I, when my friend told me that he had to part with a lustrous 500 rupee note as a fine when the skin and feathers of a pigeon he digested with contentment was discovered by police, at the place where he presently stays in Rajasthan. On a serious note, eating pigeons can’t be an issue, but leaving the remains in a neighbourhood where the bird is held in reverence as a religious symbol in insensible. Coming back to pigeons, they cost nearly a fortune back in Assam due to relative non-availability, and the day you feel like having it, you won’t find any. Even if you discover one after conducting a frantic search all over the town, the price quoted will shatter all the theories of conventional demand and supply. Still, you are jubilant of getting one. You bring it home, prepare a curry with black pepper and relish it like a castaway being deprived of all dietary luxuries for decades. Feeling feverish? We offer you pigeon soup, who needs chicken soup. However, the pieces in the curry or soup will be microscopic for anyone used to well-bred broiler chicken.
And if someone is recoiling after reading all these, then let me warn you not to read any further. Because some things that we eat and take for granted might not be pleasurable for your sensibilities. Due the tradition of mass-production of silk (eri, mulberry, and the unique Muga), the silk-worms are common throughout the state, especially within communities with a rich tradition of weaving and handloom. And why should we let the silk-worms go in vain? They are indeed edible. If you travel around Upper Assam during Bihu and land up in a village where it is still celebrated with the traditional flavor, you will be happily served with properly cooked silk-worms. As far as my own taste-buds are concerned, their taste is something what I in a somewhat bombastic manner will term as heavenly.
The small river snails that are cherished by some communities will make many people, not only outside Assam but also within Assam to exclaim in horror. However, due to having a father who was more than adventurous in regard to food, I had the unique opportunity to taste it and liked the fleshy thing. Some people make good snail curries by adding pepper which I have to taste yet. My dad’s obsession with the snails was so much that once he brought a full container of them from Nagaland and kept them in our backyard, and in not in a very clever manner, forgot to cover it. The next morning, the entire house was literally flooded with hundred of small river snails. He was panicking, not because of the snails spreading all over, but because of the fear that people will crush them with their feet and his grand idea of a snail-feast will be over!
Though personally I am much more adventurous and less prohibitive about food than many Assamese (many people, even from Assam will recoil after reading the last two paragraphs), still the environmental laws keep me abstaining from having species that are, well, endangered. And I think, these laws are doing their job quite well in a largely carnivorous state. The people have stopped consuming river turtles, river dolphins and deer. By means that doesn’t comply very well with the Indian penal Code, venison i.e deer meat is still available in some pockets. However, at large, the consumption of rare species is at once condemned by the educated Assamese middle-class. And those who try to bypass the laws, get a dose of it either by the police or by some other ‘miraculous means’. One such ‘miracle’ was this anecdote I heard from a friend. Near his place, during the time of the harvest festival of Bhogali Bihu, some local meat-seller sold deer meat. Many people bought it and was quite happy as the price was comparatively low. Later on they came to know that it was not a deer but a pygmy-sized horse that was slaughtered by the cunning meat-seller! (Even I feel terrible after hearing that, I have never tried horse, though I won’t mind having, as I have a wild aspiration to go to Central Asia).
Again on a serious note, one thing I have found noteworthy in Assam is that, despite the social inequalities, the respect of the communal space and the social fabric is remarkable. A person is rarely offered any food that can harm his cultural sensibilities and in public spaces, the safest dietary patterns are followed. Nor any impositional ban on any delicacy exists. Beef is consumed by only a few communities in Assam, but still there has been no institutional ban on beef nor there exist any attempt to build public consensus in support of the ban. Similarly in regard to pork, I have often encountered situations when people not having pork are offered other alternatives, be it in personal residences or at public eateries.
I can’t keep on going like this. For four reasons. Firstly, my memory fails me. Second, I don’t have much space to chip in all the thoughts and meta-narratives that might occur. Third, the more I talk about food, the more homesick (read home-food-sick) I become. And last, I have a suspicion that after reading all these rubbish, the food fascists are already having a bad stomach. So it is better to end all these meaningless discourses here. The food fascists, if they visit Assam or any other parts of the land generally termed as ‘North-east’ will surely get thrown out of there and the non-prejudiced foodie within me stealthily hopes that one day, they will be thrown out of the entire country!
(The author is currently pursuing his graduation from Delhi university. He is also actively involved with Pooberun, a socio-cultural initiative of the North-East Indian students in Delhi University)