Indigenous ingredients, simple recipes, delectable smoked meats, steamed fish — the cuisine of North East India has its own specialities. Chef, food consultant, recipe developer, blogger founder and president of North East Food Forum, Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, who was in Pune recently to be a part of North East Pop Up Festival at The Café, Hyatt Regency Pune, Viman Nagar, introduced Puneites to North East cuisine.
Bringing the best from the seven sister states, including Bhut Jolokia — one of the spiciest chillies, the famous Assamese black rice and a lot more, she shared her experiences and a lot more. Born in Guwahati and an alumi of ISB Hyderabad, Nath has always had a knack for food and cooking, and graduated from being a home chef to hosting a food festival at the Marriott, Hyderabad. Here’s, chatting her up:
Assam is inhabited by different tribes. How does each tribe contribute to the cuisine?
Cuisines are a reflection of who we are and where we come from. Assam is made of many indigenous tribes and our cuisine is a melting pot of all this. If the food from Upper Assam has many similarities with South Asian Cuisine, it is because Ahoms ruled Assam for 600 years and they can be traced back to Thailand. Our cuisine is rice based and all that our verdant forests and the mighty Brahmaputra have to offer us.
What are some of the most commonly used ingredients and cooking techniques in Assamese cooking? What comprises a simple meal?
The most common techniques used in our cooking are stir-frying, fermentation and minimal use of spices. It is mostly produce based and flavours are enhanced by the use of herbs and souring fruits. Drying and fermentation is the traditional way of preserving food. Rice and fish form our staple diet.
A regular meal would include steamed rice, lentil, a khar (an alkaline dish), fish Tenga and a seasonal vegetable stir-fry, some greens and various chutney. Tenga is present in every meal. It can be made with fish or can be vegetarian, made with lentils.
People living in other parts of the country have certain misconceptions about the eating habits of North East people. What is your take on that and how can that be changed?
That is common to everyone, not just North Eastern cuisine! We rarely delve deep enough to know and understand other cuisines. In the North East, we don’t only eat pork and Momo is not our local food. We eat fish at every meal. Meat used to feature during festivals and occasions but that also has changed with time and ready availability. Our cuisine is light, flavoursome and definitely healthy. The use of condiments and spices enhance the flavours of our dishes, and fresh food and simplicity is the hallmark of our cuisine.
With regional cuisines becoming a trend, and more and more chefs trying to revive local food, where do you see the awareness or popularity of North Eastern cuisine?
It is coming a full circle. We travelled the world looking for interesting flavours and tastes and then we realised that India itself has so much to offer! Even if we ate a new dish everyday, there will still be so much to discover. Our culinary tradition is so vast and so healthy. Our ancestors knew what to eat and how to eat and when to eat! There is a growing consciousness amongst people to be eating right and getting closer to nature. North Eastern cuisine is very healthy and the use of rice and local millet makes it one of the healthiest diets. The minimal use of oil and spices and also the cooking process which mostly involves stir-frying and steaming is a great way of eating well.
Tell us about your vision behind starting North East Food Forum. How does the platform help make the cuisine get popular?
Our tagline is self-expressive — it says ‘Conscious Eating Preserving Traditions’. Our vision is to create an awareness of eating healthy and connecting with local food, and reviving forgotten dishes and making the new generation know about local food. But food must adapt and evolve with times. We do a lot of workshops in the North East and already in touch with schools to do fun cooking workshops, thereby creating a healthy relationship with food from a young age.Food sustains and nurtures us and yet there is so much mindless eating. The Forum is focused on creating an awareness and also sustain local produce.