Assamese Rivaayat: Lahey Lahey Slipping Into Nostalgia With Each Bite

Having spent a part of my childhood in the state, Assam has always been close to my heart. We lived in the small town of Nazira, on the bed of Dikhow river in an ONGC township, which formed 60% of that town’s population. The township was self sufficient with offices, schools, dispensary, club house and a small market square , rightly called “apna bazaar” and even a small cemetery (the thrill for all children who wanted to test their bravado!). Outside the township was where the locals stayed and operated their business’ — 3-4 grocery stores, PCO, bakeries selling cakes with the grainiest cake icings, cycle shops, and few more shops. There were no restaurants in the town of Nazira and neither did it have any hotels – there were lodges, though. The “lack” of these luxuries gave way to stronger community bonds and socialising, where every day was a party at someone or the other’s home. No, seriously, we grew up in times where not meeting your family friends on one day felt like weeks. It was all for one and one for all. No wonder I didn’t like Mumbai and it’s fast paced life and lack of meeting options much, when we shifted here.

That’s not even half my friend group from Assam!
Summer afternoons spent at the golf course with potluck lunches

The years spent in Assam till date remain to be the most beautiful ones of my life. The friends I made there still remain to be as close to me, as they were then. Special mention for my friend Anubhav here, whose family and mine were in the same flight from Delhi to Diburgarh when we shifted to Assam and then the same guest house (a room apart) in Nazira, before we were allotted our houses. He became my closest friend, adventure buddy and dance partner, and still is. We don’t meet as often, but whenever a song from those days plays up, we remember each other and pick up our conversation from where we left off!

My brother and I during one of our vacations, while in Assam

So beautiful are those memories that till date if anything related to Assam comes up, I feel an instant warmth and happiness inside me. Recently, Trident BKC, a luxury hotel in Mumbai invited me for Assamese Rivaayat, an Assam food festival for which they’ve collaborated with Chef Kashmiri Barkakati Nath from Guwahati. A woman par excellence whose hold and knowledge of native Assamese food is such that she leaves you spellbound with her stories accompanied with each dish.  I was really looking forward to this lunch, because it was a way for more me to discover the food of the state I am so fond of, because as a kid who was so fussy about her food, I didn’t have many memories of the food from Assam, apart from the “peetha” and the vegetables that grew there. On seeing the menu and words like “jolpai“, “bogudi, “peetha“, “khar” and more, there was a tingling feeling of familiarity already.

Chef Nath welcomed us with thekera sherbet, which is made of elephant’s apple, a sour fruit found in Assam and apparently a favourite of the wild elephants in the region, hence the name. This was refreshing sour drink that left a earthy aftertaste. There was also the luci, badami aloo and bilahi ambol – a dish which consisted of a maida poori/lucchi, potatoes that could be mistaken for chickpeas because of their size and tomato chutney.  This was my favourite dish. Who doesn’t love fried flatbread with potatoes! Delicious, is the word for this. On hearing chef call the flatbread luci (pronounced as lucey) instead of luchhi, reminded me of how Assamese people do not pronounce the sound “ch!”, so something like a chunni, becomes sunni etc.

There was also anguli pitha, which was steamed rice flour fritters mixed in a tomato and capsicum mixture – very similar to how you’d make a namkeen sevai. The concept is very similar too, except that the anguli pitha is rolled thicker than a sevai. This was a dish I’d love to make at home too for the sheer simplicity of it.

Anguli pitha

The main course once again had the delicious badami aloo (Thank God!), maahor khar, bengena pitika and non-vegetarian dishes like kukura kurma, maas patot diya, haahn kumura and rangalou mangxo. The khaar is served first with rice as it cleanses the palate and prepares it for the meal that’s to come. The food was so simple in it’s preparation and the flavours of the vegetables and the meats stood out due to minimum usage of masalas. Assamese are evidently people who value and respect the natural bounty.

The Assamese food thaali by Chef Kashmiri Nath Barkakaty

Towards the end Chef Kashmiri Nath served us what I was eagerly waiting for, the pani pitha with narikol aru gur, which are rice flour pancakes filled with sweet coconut and jaggery. The perfect climax to the meal that was. And if this wasn’t it, she served us Singpho Tea, to drive our drowsiness induced by the meal away.

Singpho tea

What is Singpho Tea? 

Here’s what Sarita Santoshini in her article for NatGeo Traveller tells us:

The Singphos, a tribal community residing in parts of Northeast India, Myanmar, and China, are believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers. To this day, they continue to process tea by first heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-drying them for a few days. To make the more flavourful, smoked tea, the sun-dried leaves are tightly packed in bamboo tubes and smoked over a fire. After a week of storing these bamboos, the processed tea hardens to take the shape of the tube. It can then be preserved for up to 10 years, with small portions sliced off with a knife to brew a fresh cup of tea.

Read the full article here.

This meal was not just another meal for me, but a a throwback to my childhood days spent in the most beautiful riverside town where lahey lahey were not just words, but a philosophy to live by. Where we grew away from technology and social media, where personal relations and friendships were nurtured. Where family meant not only your blood relations, but everyone who made you feel at home. Assam was missed, but relived on that summer afternoon.

Thank you Chef Ashish Bhasin and Chef Kashmiri Barkakaty Nath for making me a part of the Assamese Rivaayat.

With Nikhil Merchant, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal and Ruchi Srivastava at Trident BKC

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