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The myth of ‘Assamese Muslim’ cuisine

Rini Barman | Updated on January 16, 2018
Elite delights: Shami kebabs made by Shabnam Borah; although delicious, they do not reflect what a low-income Muslim household in Assam would typically eat. Photo: Sarwar Borah

Elite delights: Shami kebabs made by Shabnam Borah; although delicious, they do not reflect what a low-income Muslim household in Assam would typically eat. Photo: Sarwar Borah

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Sweet nothings: Til diya pitha (sweet sesame rice cakes)

Sweet nothings: Til diya pitha (sweet sesame rice cakes)

The politics of taste means that certain foods are obscured from view, while certain categories are made for purposes that are more political than anything else

The gastronomical idealisation of any cuisine forms an integral part of their identity. Historically, Muslims in Assam have been a composite category, about one-thirds of the State’s 30 million people (source: Outlook) with diverse origins and culinary techniques. The 1661-1662 Mughal invasion saw the Ahoms and Muslims crossing paths. But even before that, there was Islamic contact in the 13th century which changed the landscape of Kamrup, a district in Assam. The Tai-Ahoms and their legacy may have been moulded by these meetings. They have a long standing interest in banana leaf fish/meat preparations. People from various tribes have contributed to the rich Assamese tradition of local dried fish and meat preparations. As we move towards the lower parts of the State, we find that another line of influences, relatively recent — from certain districts in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Bengal) — merges with other existing flavours. Multiple migrations from neighbouring States, the gradual shift from the rural to the urban, and colonial interference have been responsible for the making of what can colloquially be called a ‘khichdi’ (mish-mash) culinary style. This word is profound in its scope, ranging from connotations of hybridity to a sense of synthesis. Its derivative khesera is a much more interesting word, used as an abuse for one who has no sense of roots, of origins. If food is the coming together of all our senses — khesera must actually be an advantage. The more a dish accommodates, after all, the more it reflects on a community’s ability to make space for all senses, all kinds of tastes.

Due to the lack of effective documentation, the process of cultural mix-and-match — whether it’s food, music or attire — often receives inadequate attention. But sometimes, mix-and-match is imagined where there is none to be found. In a Better India piece about different kinds of biryanis (a quintessential ‘Muslim’ dish according to Indian pop culture), it was mentioned that “Kampuri biryani” is home to Assam, where the chicken is cooked with yellow bell peppers and other spices. Since I grew up in parts of Lower Assam and had never tasted biryani before leaving home, I was baffled.





I confirmed after consulting many residents that biryani is not native to Assam at all. We have different kinds of pulao instead, cooked with gusto on the eve of Eid, on birthdays, weddings and other occasions. Errors such as this one are responsible for a lot of concocted notions about food from places that are distant from the Indian ‘mainland’. However, if you have been to university spaces in Guwahati in recent years, you might have encountered small street vendors selling colourful pulao or fried rice and calling it “Hyderabadi biryani”. The students relish the unfortunately named dish and it sells well, especially during exam season. This is the closest one can get to using ‘Assam’ and ‘biryani’ in the same sentence. One might add that this misnomer caters to a new metropolitan taste, a younger, aspirational crowd brought up on old tunes but grooving to new ones.

But first, let us pause and consider the nomenclature dilemma in front of us: what do people (and publications) mean when they use a phrase like ‘Assamese Muslim cuisine’? Prima facie, the rezala, pilao and mangxo (literally, ‘meat’) preparations we’re talking about should be considered very much a part of ‘Assamese cuisine’. If ‘Axomiya’ can be defined as an amalgamation of several ethnic and religious communities over years of cultural confluence, so should Assamese cuisine. But in practice, this is seldom the case: cook-books, online forums, Facebook pages that claim to represent Assamese cuisine seldom talk about the aforementioned dishes. And why? Because these dishes are not a part of the dominant (in this case, upper-caste Hindu households) community’s everyday life. Contrast this with the discourses around ‘Lucknow cuisine’ or ‘Awadh cuisine’ — both terms that are far more inclusive than their Assamese counterpart.

The invention of this misnomer is problematic. For starters, in most articles on the topic published by the mainstream media, only dishes from urban elite houses are taken into consideration. For example, the use of ghee and the layers of marination are alien to rural households. Ghee is used by those who have plenty (the affluent classes) and marination by those who have the time and luxury to wait. In fact, marinating the meat has to do more with the politics of understanding animal flesh. I recently read ‘Hindus and Offal’, a graphic narrative by Ambarish Satwik and Pia Alize Hazarika. It aptly argued how the obsession with marinating meat has to do with the desire to get rid of its ‘animalistic’ nature — of its smell, primarily, and of all that’s meaty and reminds humans of their own status as sentient meat-bags.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, in his essay ‘Incensed: Food Smells and Ethnic Tension’, tells us how hierarchies in cuisine are established through smell. He says: “Smell reminds us that sensation and physical experience are not simply about taste and pleasure but also about distaste. It summons up our prejudices and mocks our proposals to conquer them once and for all”. It holds particularly true for Brahminical households, and other castes that uphold the status quo; in my case, the Kalitas. As a result of this, several smells that are unpalatable to the upper castes were eliminated, denigrated and marked off as food only fit for consumption by the lower castes/sections. People who consume more meat are inevitably seen as especially ‘hot-blooded’, ‘wild’ or difficult to ‘tame’. In Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan, the author asked the Pakistani ex-cricketer Aaqib Javed why bowling fast did not come as naturally to Indians as it did to Pakistanis. The first thing Javed pointed out was the beef factor: most Pakistanis, being Muslims, regularly consumed both beef and mutton.

The Brahminical hegemony looms large over the politics of taste, and it exists alongside the more culturally inclusive strands of Sufism and Bhakti. For example, in public feasts like weddings or funerals, the cook’s caste is a big deal — mainly among the Brahmins. In terms of food consumed by widows, elderly women and girls who have just attained puberty, the strict rules are borrowed from the Brahmins. Cook books about Assam (even the most recent ones) mention pork but steadfastly refuse to acknowledge consumption of beef, indicating a silent dominant consensus over food, as it were. The rapidly growing cosmopolitan taste in Assam does not overthrow these existing prejudices. Instead, it packages them in newer labels, and with more palatable names; hence the transmogrification of the humble home-grown pilao into ‘Hyderabadi biryani’.

This trend of clubbing food under catchy categories is an attempt to convey ethnic plurality. Shabnam Borah, a home chef for 34 years, presented some delicious dishes earlier this year in Delhi’s Cafe Heights. She attempted to show how Mughlai flavours have healthily fused with local tastes in order to become what is called ‘Assamese Muslim cuisine’. Her version of rezala differed from the Bengal style in three major ways. First, it contained no cashew, resulting in a dish that’s not white in colour. Second, only whole masalas were used. And thirdly, she used kaji nemu (lime) instead of poshto (poppy seeds). Her experimentation has my applause. However, this should not be understood as a community marker — it does not stand for the ‘Assamese Muslim’ community as a whole. She also makes delicious kebabs and koftas, which are once again common in urban houses, but as far as Eid preparations in rural areas go, these Mughlai starters are, inevitably, not even close to commonplace. Some of her other dishes, like bora saulor pitha (sticky-rice cakes) and saulor guri bhaja pitha (fried ground-rice cakes) are cooked both in Upper Assam and Lower Assam households, irrespective of their religious affinity. Regional variations are more a by-product of economy, climate and availability instead of religion. Dishes like masor tenga (fish in tangy curry), maati dailor mangxo (meat in urad dal gravy) and lai xakor khar (a green vegetable called lai saag, made with alkali) are consumed by both rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim alike. So the quest for clear-cut distinction has political motivations that must be questioned.

Beef delicacies, especially the sweeter ones, are a favourite of mine during Eid feasts (along with kheer and sewai). In the book Folk Literature of Assam, Prafulla Dutta Goswami mentions that all kinds of cattle were consumed by the inhabitants of Assam much before the caste system and the colonial order had taken over. One of the colonial-era District Gazetteers by BC Allen also mentions that Ahoms feasted on pork, beef and buffalo meat showing that their beliefs did not adhere to the restrictions of new religious orders. Preserving meat through pickles is another area where a lot of home chefs put in a lot of patience, effort and innovation. Visible among the tribals, this tradition is now prevalent among other communities too.

Bonojit Hussain, researcher and culinary enthusiast, opines that the invention of ‘Assamese Muslim cuisine’ is an ongoing discursive practise, an imaginary term serving the anxieties of self-identification and otherisation. He says "Guided by geographical proximity, a healthy Dhaka influence is very clear in the meat recipes in the State, across religions. Back in the 19th century, when Dhaka was a centre of intellectual power, a lot of cultural exchanges would take place. In this context, it is possible that the interaction of the landed elites of Assam with Dhaka led to many additions into cuisines in Muslim households in Assam. They ( (i.e. the landed classes) possibly carried back with them spices which entered traditional Assamese cuisine, hitherto known for a relatively low content of spices and masalas."

Hussain’s commentary is significant, considering Assam’s recent shift towards a more conservative brand of politics. It is always tempting to form culinary opinions and practises based only on visibility. However, taken to its extreme form, this methodology becomes complicit in a process of social control and cultural conditioning. Therefore, it is imperative that we examine and question our choices. Perhaps we can try to keep the khesera-ness of Assam alive. “Food is just the start of these discussions, because the issues are much larger than our plates,” Hussain says. I agree.

Korma Pulao

1 cup rice

600g mutton or chicken

1tablespoon garlic / 18g garlic paste

1 tablespoon ginger / 18g ginger paste

2 bay leaves

100ml refined oil

90g sliced onions

100g yoghurt

Sugar

Salt to taste

Method

Marinate the meat with salt, ginger-garlic paste and curd. Keep it aside for one hour. Heat a pan and add sugar till it turns golden brown. Put the onions and fry for a while with the whole garam masalas. Now add the marinated meat and fry for some time till the oil from the meat is released. Add a little water and let it cook. After this, add rice, sauté for a while, add some water and pressure cook it. Serve hot.

Rini Barman is a freelance writer and researcher

Published on October 28, 2016

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