Korma Pulao: The Kernels of Axomiya History

Made during Eid or as a celebratory dish for special occasion, the Korma Pulao is a hark back to a time when Assam wasn’t just a rich diverse kingdom of the Ahom kings, but also the potpourri to a variety of cultures and religion both old and new.

By Madhulika Dash; Image courtesy: A Foodie’s Diary

It is a wet monsoon afternoon. The sun has been spotted by the clouds in their game of peek a boo has come to an end. The little sunshine and Dr Geeta Dutta’s (founder, A Foodies’ Diary) kitchen is wafting with the aroma of whole spices in ghee. A known Assamese culinary custodian and fastidious researcher of Ahom History, she is in the midst of making the third most beloved dish of the Axomiyas today: the Korma Pulao with Chicken. Not to be confused with the Kampuri Biryani, which many believe would have arrived/developed at a later stage courtesy the use of yellow peppers and other spices, the pulao was developed by the earlier Muslim settlers in Assam. And follows the same pattern, says Dutta, “as the other pulao that were in existence between the 11-13th century when the Ahom Kings were not only known for their riches, shrewdness, art & culture but also for their benevolent nature.

This perhaps explains why that in spite the number of times Assam especially western Assam was attacked by Afghani, other pre- Mughals, and Mughal kings – who were readily defeated in some format or the other, including the famous Battle of Saraighat that made Lachit Borphukan, a war legend – the kings and denizens remained warm and welcoming to those who wanted to make this kingdom, theirs. In fact, many soldiers who decide to stay back in Kampura and the regions around after each attack was foiled by the resourceful rulers, not only took up position in the Douls (palace), a few important as well but were also instrumental in setting up great trade-based markets and industries, that of bell metal included.

When it came to food however, many of the early settlers decided to adopt the existing culinary fabric instead of creating a brand new one for themselves. Thus, it is easy to find the same dishes of tenga masor and mangxo in their tables too, and other dishes where meat is cooked along with vegetables. However, there were a few dishes that was added into the culinary landscape of Assam by these new settlers too – not to change it but because of the few inherent food habits. Like the Rizzala that is influenced by the cooks of Dhaka came to Assam, especially Guwahati during the Aurangzeb’s rule – and brought their style of cooking as well. The Assamese Rizzala made of mutton instead of lamb has a rich, off white hue to it. Dhaka, which by then was this intellectual and culinary capital of Mughal Bengal played a key role in not only developing Guwahati into a trading hub but also one with a more cosmopolitan culinary capital.

The Brahmaputra Market here is a glimpse of that era when trading and resettling of communities played a decisive role in the rise of Assam – the tea capital of the British. It was also around this time, says Dutta, “that the biryani culture began steeping into our culinary matrix too. And the makers and sellers of this fascinating one pot dish were often Muslims who made the state/city their home.”

The most prominent and oldest in fact was the Korma Pulao that was made using the local ingredients and norms of making a pulaos around the time. Unlike the Biryani and later pulao versions that use long grain rice, says Geeta, “the korma pulao is made of Joha Rice and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove and black pepper. And gets most of its aroma and taste from the short grain fragrant rice and the use of good quality ghee.”

In fact, continues Geeta, “the pilaf is not as much about the spices as it is about the ghee, rice and the quality of chicken used in making the dish. Traditionally, the recipe called for any desi breed to be used for the pulao but with tea gardens coming up during the Colonial era, Busra and its kinds became the meat choice as these birds are small, tender and have less gamey aroma and taste to Aseel. And eventually with the white revolution, the now trusted broiler became the obvious choice.”

Interestingly, the pulao gets most of its taste from the way the white meat is cooked in the ghee and then with the short rice. Even in its original format that used mutton or chicken as per availability, says Geeta, “was a pleasant addition for a pork-and fish-eating kingdom and its denizens. And the reason for this was the amazing composition of the dish that in taste had the robustness of lower Assam, which has known for its vibrant food, and the sophistication and subtlety of Upper Assam that was home to the kings, queens, and other royalty. And thus was a dish that was enjoyed by both the Assam and became an integral part of our tables, especially during Eid when it is made and distributed in bulk.

Such is the love for this dish that it is synonymous to Eid in Assam, and is often the most requested dish at any Eid get together. Fascinatingly, for a dish that is so much loved and eaten, little is known as to when or who created the dish – although folklore credit the Gorias, the first Muslim settlers to have made Assam their home – there are other schools of thoughts that call the “Korma Pulao” the Mughal years affect on Assam as it rose in importance as a trading centre and the gateway to Tibet for many of the rulers and invaders. What however is commonly agreed on is how the pulao has evolved over the years, says Geeta, “which is not so much in terms of an elaborate recipe – in fact the ingredients used remain unchanged – but in types. There are two different versions of the pulao that is made in most Muslim homes during Eid.”

“One is the sada pulao or white in colour and the other is rongo pulao that has this attractive reddish hue partly because of the meat used. But in either way, what the pulao is an ode to Assam – not just in terms of the ingredients especially the fragrant Joha Rice but also to its tradition of benevolence that made this Axomiya Kingdom one of the most progressive with an evolved culture and cuisine back in time as well,” ends the culinary custodian, who today often uses Korma Pulao as an introduction to the history of the once undefeated Kingdom of Assam. And quite rightly too.