Takeaway

Big little bites

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on March 23, 2018

Keep it simple: Fish thali at Mising Kitchen. It is the most specialised mess in Guwahati, serving the cuisine of the half-a-million strong Mising tribe   -  Zac O' Yeah

Starting point: Pickle platter at Khorikaa, a restaurant that serves Upper Assam specialities

Rolling joint: Beatles moment at Café Hendrix, a rock club on Guwahati’s GS Road

Guwahati is an original Garden of Eden when it comes to local eating

“Is it original or duplicate?” asks a tourist in Hindi. We’re both staring at the lonesome rhinoceros in Guwahati’s Zoo and Botanical Gardens. I glance briefly at the man. He may have a point. The rhino doesn’t look authentic. It is brooding, walking in rectangles, grunting like a German philosopher or cartoon character — one of those shape-shifters stuck in mid-transformation, somewhere in between a big pig and an army tank.

The zoo is a thought-provoking place. Half the animals roam outside the cages: I bump into monkeys, antelopes, deer and pelicans. Luckily the tiger, lion and leopard remain incarcerated. Just the other day, says my taxi driver, a reporter tried to photograph a tiger and stuck his camera inside the bars, whereupon the tiger leaped and ate up the camera as well as the hand holding it.

After the zoo, I head to the Upper Assam speciality restaurant Khorikaa in GS Road, a short ride away. The main differences between Upper (or eastern) and Lower (western) Assamese cuisine appears to be that the Upper has a hint of Southeast Asian influences, while the Lower shares certain Bengali flavours. There’s no rhino, antelope, monkey or pelican on the menu, but plenty of other unusual non-veg items such as duck and pigeon, not to forget fish in many sizes and shapes including some cooked with medicinal herbs. And a whole range of original — not duplicate — vegetarian options such as banana flower fry, leafy veg boil and lip-smacking pitikas or mashed mushy vegetable (potato or eggplant) flavoured with mustard oil. The menu also contains interesting health advice: “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison”.

While waiting for my lunch to be served, I explore the pickle platter, which includes something called kharoli, a thick paste of fermented mustard seeds mashed with mustard oil. A quintessential Assamese side, it turns out to be utterly delicious — a more raw and robust version of mustard sold in shops. The name of the restaurant itself refers to the wooden skewer on which dishes are barbecued, such as the smoked pork fat skewer (₹120). I also sample a dish in which ginger-garlic marinated pork chunks are slow-cooked in a hollow tube of tender bamboo known as sunga, which flavours the dish beautifully (₹230), tiny mowa fish steamed in a banana leaf or so-called patotdiya (₹170) eaten with bones, eyes and all, not to forget a plate of fried lean duck (₹210) which I’m told is festive food in Upper Assam’s district of Lakhimpur where everybody, apparently, rears ducks.

To go with this, I order an akhaj platter (₹110) that comes with samplings of vegetarian items such as leafy greens and a delicately sweetish mashed pumpkin with dal. The Assamese don’t eat roti, except a few times in a year I’m told, but rice is eaten thrice a day.

“Let me guess,” I tell the waiter: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner?”

“Yes, you guessed correctly,” he says.

Rice overdose apart, it’s a feast to die for. The piggy lard content gives me at least one extra spare wheel around my waist but on the whole the grub isn’t as unhealthy as one might assume: much of it is steamed, boiled or grilled, low on oil and not over-spiced, yet highly flavoursome.

After lunch, I stroll down GS Road which was, when I last spent time here two decades ago, the world’s most unhappening main street; the only thing that caught my notice was the badly mad traffic. I saw a pedestrian crossing the street get hit by a car outside the Tea Auction Centre and break his neck against the divider, and since there was no mention in the following day’s newspapers about his untimely demise, I presumed it to be something that happened too often to be taken notice of.

Rolling joint: Beatles moment at Café Hendrix, a rock club on Guwahati’s GS Road

 

Fast forward to 2018 and I’m staying on GS Road at a fancy Novotel which is so brand new that the bathroom fittings fall off the walls because the screws haven’t been tightened, and the swimming pool promoted on the website exists in the distant future. The street sports several elegant hotels including a Vivanta which signifies the pinnacle of sophistication, as well as foot-over-bridges making it less lethal to cross the traffic-jammed thoroughfare.

Along with this development, GS Road has become something of a high-street area featuring shopping malls, speciality restaurants, even discos, which is a change I couldn’t have imagined if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. But in hindsight it makes perfect sense, as this is the route that connects old Guwahati with Assam’s modern capital Dispur seven kilometres away. I spend a weekend just drifting up and down the street which is lined with momo stalls and snack carts, veg and non-veg. The average rate for a plate of pork momos is ₹60 and in the simple roadside joints one may also sample fresh catch of fish and prawns from the Brahmaputra.

I peek into its many side streets — in one of which, Panjabari Road, I find a large farmers’ market in a barn, Bhipanan Khetra, of the kind that is becoming increasingly popular around the world but is rare in India. Counters stock fresh local produce such as organic vegetables and interesting varieties of rice, there’s also a food court and a supermarket that sells exotic ingredients. I carry home packets of dried oyster mushrooms at ₹50 per bag.

Starting point: Pickle platter at Khorikaa, a restaurant that serves Upper Assam specialities

 

Late that night, I fall in love with the town’s rock club Café Hendrix. I could almost imagine myself being on the Lower Eastside, except that the band showcased isn’t some fledgling New York underground newcomer. It is a four-month-old Assamese hard rock outfit that plays an intriguing version of Beatles’s ‘Come Together’ while I eat pork roast and sample the latest fad beer Simba, which, with its slogan ‘Roar for More’, has invaded all bars along the street, giving the older brands a run for the fun. The lager is potable if a bit fruity and not bitter enough for my taste, while the strong variety tastes like gunk that’s already been drunk and puked up by somebody else. This may explain why so many men openly irrigate walls, bushes and lamp posts along GS Road in full public view.

Nevertheless, the GS Road bars are civilised and welcoming. Even the seediest of the seedy, which I initially thought was called Slime of Lice (seeing the board again, in daylight, I understood it is Slice of Lime), has friendly staff and serves sublime smoked pork (₹220). With its rich smokiness, it’s the best pork I’ve tasted — though again, its fattiness makes me calculate potential cardiac hazards.

Another restaurant, which, like Khorikaa, is frequently mentioned when the discussion is about where to have the best food in town, is Mising Kitchen on Hengrabari Road, just off GS Road. It’s the most specialised mess in town, serving the cuisine of the half-a-million strong Mising tribe. Like most other local canteens, it is bright and furnished cafeteria style, and popular with youngsters who fill most of the tables when I step in at lunch.

The Mising being a largely riverside tribe of (according to Wikipedia) possibly northern Chinese riverine ancient origin, their menu tempts with a full page of fishy delicacies. Confused about what to order, especially as I see youngsters tuck into hearty mutton and pork thalis with gusto, I ultimately explore the Mising fish thali (₹380) which, apart from many kinds of dal and other vegetables, comes with three types of Brahmaputra fish: a catfish known as ari in a tangy (tenga) curry with sour elephant apple, a mashed fish dish or pitika, and a fish that seems to have been fried in a banana leaf.

While I cool my tongue with a simple dessert made of rice, words escape me as I try to describe to myself the concert of flavours I’ve encountered — the symphonic curries, the bluesy fried fish, the grungy chutneys, the rocking smoky pork. Returning to the initial question, about duplicate or original, I think Guwahati is without doubt an original Garden of Eden when it comes to local eating.

 

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His recent books include the novel Tropical Detective and the travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on March 23, 2018

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