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Pork dishes from Assam

Culinary custodian and recipe chronicler, Dr Geeta Dutta lays out a feast of iconic pork dishes that lay the foundation of the medieval Assamese cuisine – each a study into the beauty of the meat, and the many delicious virtues

By Madhulika Dash; Photographs courtesy: Dr Geeta Dutta/A Foodie’s Diary

When famous author Charles Dickens (Great Expectations) had said, “if you want a subject, look at pork”, little had anyone fathom the depth of the statement. Dickens had in that one sentence not only paid ode to one of the world’s richest source of nourishment that was outrageously cheap, but also anchored one of the most profound observation on how ancient cultures developed.

Let’s face it; when it comes to meat love, few slabs of protein take the cake like the pork – it is cooked worldwide, has its own fan base that is growing and is at the foundation of many of the ancient cultures including that of Assam. Or, adds Dr Geeta Dutta, sounding authority on Assamese food culture, that of upper Assam.

Much to the commonness of today, adds Geeta, “pork for a good part of the Assam history was a privy of the much colder Upper Assam, where it wasn’t just considered a fine source of nourishment but also an ingredient that was available through the year. Such was the reverence of this single natural flavourant that Gahori – Assamese for Pork – was part of many rituals. In fact, the gift of pork meat (fresh that is) was considered one of the finest during the Ahom dynasty – and a meal that had more than one pork dish, a celebratory feast.”

But what really gave pork this unquenchable fascination? First, says the culinary custodian, “pig was one of the first animals that were domesticated. And given that they grew on natural vegetation, it became quite a popular too. But the one thing, I suspect, gave pig it’s invincible place on the food table was the meat. Given that Assam, especially the upper side of it is kind of colder than the rest, pigs feasted on vegetations that grew and rested. This allowed for a certain kind of marbling of the meat that made it flavoursome. One could just throw in a handful of ferns, few herbs and the charred meat and voila, you had a scrumptious dish was ready.”

The fact that it was nourishing, balmy and filling gave it that easy edge to percolate into the tribal cultures. By the medieval period, adds Geeta, “almost all major tribes of Assam (and even those migrating to the land from the hills) like the Bodo, Mishing, Rabha, Karbi, Dimasa, Deuri Ahom, Sonowal Kacharis, Rajbongshis, Singphos not only took to the charms of pork and made it a staple food, but also made it a part of their many rituals where pork played a significant role.” One such ritual that helped cement the position of pork in Assamese cuisine was the 'Me Dam Me Phi' where the Ahom kings offered pork to their ancestors.

Another of course were the harvest festivals like the "Ali aye ligang" celebrated by Mishing tribe and 'Uruka' celebrations of Magh Bihu where pork is roasted on open fire to a fine caramelisation and chewiness.

Being a part of rituals while turned pork into an important aspect of the Assamese culture, it wasn’t till about the late 80s that the meat made a dent into the lower part of the state, especially Guwahati. The reason for this, says Geeta, “ was the wide array of meat choices that lower Assam had vis a vis its upper cousin. Since agriculture, seafood and trade was a big part of lower Assam, there was always plenty of food, even meat available to play around. And hence our thali here had pigeon, fish, fowl, even wild chicken and boar. There was pork but very limited. In fact, it was somewhere around the 1980s that pork meat seller set shop in Guwahati thanks to the rise of Bengali population settled around the Brahmaputra river banks.”

The other reason was also the arrival of such unique dishes that could eventually be tweaked to the rather ‘spoilt’ palate of the lower Assam. In fact, most experts zero it down to a few dishes that not only made pork a beloved meat across Assam, but also gave it that stately coronation that now when one thinks of pork, they think this once Ahom stronghold.”

PORK WITH MUSTARD GREENS

If there is one dish that gave Assam, its pork haven title, this is the dish. Hugely popular and extremely loved, this winter speciality uses the contrasting flavours of fresh mustard greens to give pork its interesting flavour. The recipe calls for pork with a good amount of fat that would help get the char on the meat and also cook the crunchy greens that are seasoned with freshly ground ginger garlic and chillies.

PORK ROASTED IN SKEWERS (KHORIKAT DIYA GAHORI)

One of the celebratory dishes, here the pork is marinated with ginger-garlic-chillies and then arranged in skewers . They are slowly roasted over fire and served with either bamboo shoots or a bit of lemon juice that cranks up the taste. Found mostly around the early part of January, this is the treat that is often served with traditional rice beer.

PORK COOKED IN BAMBOO TUBES (SUNGA GAHORI)

If you are looking for a dish with ancestry, this is the dish you should try. Dating to the early half of the first century, this method of cooking pork is common among most tribes in Assam. Here the meat is just marinated with ginger ,garlic ,chillies and herbs and cooked in these bamboo tubes . The inside layer of bamboo gives a beautiful aroma to the pork too. To add more zest, Geeta suggests adding mejenga leaves, tender lemon leaves  to the mix. It keeps it fragrant and moist.”

PORK WITH BAMBOO SHOOTS AND KING CHILLY (BAAH GAAZ, BHOOT JOLOKIA GAHORI)

When we say pork is an emotion, says Geeta, “this is the dish we are referring to. Not only is this dish one of the oldest written recipe of Pork found in the Ahom journals, it is the first gahori dish that most of us learn to make. But don’t be fooled by its simplicity as it is as much a bachelor’s fish as it is a must-have in family get together.” Made by boiling chunks of pork pieces – more meat than fat parts – with king chilly and fermented  bamboo shoots, it is this dish that perhaps is most recognised amongst all. Subtle yet extremely versatile as it can take as many vegetables as locally available, this was one of the first pork dishes to penetrate the culinary fabric of lower Assam. And also the first to make its way to the mainland – and get popular.

PORK WITH BLACK SESAME (TIL) AND BAMBOO SHOOTS COOKED IN KARBI STYLE

When we speak about exotic varieties of pork, we speak of a culinary culture that was brought to Assam by its immigrant tribes like the Karbis, a sect of the Mongoloid group hailing from the Tibeto-Burma region, this tribe represent the five, iconic fighting clan of the state – namely, Terang, Teron, Enghee. Ingti and Timung. With a legendary history and an equally fascinating culture, the Kabri tribe is known for its food – and voracious use the black sesame seeds. And the finest dish to sample their love for pork and black til is this dish.

Made using pork fat mostly and black sesame seeds which effectively negates the need of any oil, this rich pork dish is perhaps the finest example of how one base dish can be adapted to seasonal produce to create newer versions. An exotic, foraging-based pork dish, it uses the belts best offerings like the wild ginger, wild garlic called 'jirlang', wild turmeric called 'tihaso',fresh herbs like 'lopong' leaves ( a type of basil) and a variety of tubers to give pork its distinct taste and aroma. It is cooked in the ancient kalangdang method where the meat is slowly braised in earthen pot first before the ingredients are added based on the flavour profile you want.

PORK SALAD

The one dish that stands testimony to the brilliant quality of meat that the state produces is the pork salad. While the method of making it is simple – roasted chunks of pork tossed with onions, chillies and coriander - it is perhaps the finest way to sample the meat, given that the pork used for the salad is often the tender pieces, lightly seasoned and then charred to perfection. It is Assam’s version of the escabeche, only the meat is quick roasted.