Last week, the Mumbai-based home chef Gitika Saikia sent me a WhatsApp text about her Ramzan menu, featuring Assamese Muslim specialities like pulao with cashews and raisins, minced mutton pakodas and chicken curry with potatoes flavoured with a squeeze of kaji nemu—consider it the sourer, juicier cousin of gondhoraj lime. The menu, titled Meera Pehi’s Ramadan Menu, piqued my interest.
Meera Rahman was Saikia’s neighbour about 40 years ago, when she was growing up in the small town of Namrup in Upper Assam. “Meera pehi (aunt) would make food for me when my parents were out of town. We waited for Eid to be invited to her place. My mother wasn’t a good cook and Meera pehi’s utmost love for cooking left a lasting impression on me as a child. This menu is an ode to her,” says Saikia, whose Ramzan menu is available till Sunday.
It is believed Islam was introduced to Assam by Sufi saints, with Azan Fakir being a notable name. He came from Baghdad in the 17th century and settled in Sivasagar, the capital of the Ahom kingdom. As it happens, most of the people interviewed for this story trace their roots to Sivasagar, though they are settled in different parts of Assam and India and have adopted the food practices of the places they now call home.
Regional cuisine is a product of the intermingling of indigenous ingredients and local cooking practices. This is evident in the dishes of the Assamese Muslim community. The alkaline khar (an ash filtrate that acts like cooking soda) is used to tenderise meat, the local rice variety, kunkuni joha, goes into pulaos, and pani pitha (rice flour crepes) are eaten with jaggery for breakfast.
Nagaon-based homemaker Jharna Ali says pani pitha with aloo sabzi is distributed among the poor who come to pray at the neighbourhood mosque. She packs boxes of fruit, prepares lightly fried brown chana (a staple iftar food item) and cooks semolina halwa for them too. On the day we speak, she says, “Today I have soaked half a kilo of chickpeas that will be prepared like a salad with ginger and coriander for the devotees.”
All this is served to the family too, along with masoor or besan pakodas, red meat bhuna (roasted) with rice, and a rotating variety of halwa, from refined flour and semolina to besan (gram flour). For sehri, the menu is lighter, with fish or chicken torkari (curry) or egg curry infused with ground poppy seeds and served with steamed rice replacing red meat.
“I can categorically say that biryani is not part of our food repertoire,” says Delhi-based media professional Sarwar Borah. Korma pulao, where rice and meat are cooked separately and then mixed, is the quintessential main dish. The rice, caramelised with a little sugar, spiced with whole cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaf, is flecked with onions, cashews and raisins. It is bhuno-ed continuously with a ladle till it acquires a light brown colour. The korma has minced-meat balls simmered in a curd-based gravy with whole garam masala. Borah says he has seen some cooks adding a paste of melon seeds for a creamy texture.
Chillies are used sparingly and the food is not laden with spices. Salma Rahman, a homemaker from Dibrugarh, lists onions, garlic, ginger, whole garam masala, whole black pepper, zeera (cumin) and dhania (coriander) powder as the main spices in her kitchen cabinet. She uses these in varying proportions and combinations to make korma, simple chicken or fish curries and roast.
The Assamese Muslim roast is not baked, it’s slow-cooked in a pan. Large pieces of chicken are marinated for more than two hours in vinegar and ginger-garlic paste, then cooked with onion, and, just before the dish is taken off the flame, a bit of ketchup is added. It is paired with parathas. Served during Ramzan, this is a must-have at weddings too, says Rahman.
The use of vinegar to cook meats is unique to Assamese Muslims. Jharna Ali needs it to cook her popular red meat gravy dish. Meat pie, baked minced meat coated with biscuit or bread crumbs, is another speciality. Perhaps ingredients like vinegar and dishes such as pies and puddings were introduced by the British, who set up tea estates in Assam, settled there for more than 150 years and worked closely with the Assamese Muslim community. Borah points out that there is even a koni pudding, the localised version of caramel custard.
Ali’s iftar and Eid spreads have a remarkable variety of baked treats, from cakes and cookies to puddings. She makes moon-shaped naankhatai for the Eid feast and distributes khejuri (a cookie made with refined flour, sugar and eggs) among neighbours and family.
For Eid, kebabs and kormas are placed on the table. Usually, there are two types—shami kebab and Nargisi kofta stuffed with boiled eggs. There’s also a vegetarian kebab made with kas kol, or raw banana. With YouTube making recipes accessible, one can also find the occasional galouti, seekh kebab and batter-fried KFC-style chicken.
Jolpaan, Assamese for a small meal or breakfast, includes bora saul (sticky rice), mixed with egg mildly spiced with onion and green chillies. It’s eaten by some during sehri too.
Borah notes, “Simply put, Assamese Muslim food, like most regional dishes of east India, is laden with rice, meat and potatoes.” One could say it has imbibed the best of culinary influences and regional flavours.