Momo Is NOT the National Dish of North-east, Says This Home Chef
Wanna try red ant eggs and stir-fried silkworm pupae? Reach out to this Mumbai-based Assamese home chef.
"People here in Mumbai don’t know much about North-east cuisine, let alone explaining to them that each state has a diverse culinary history. I used to be taken aback when people would ask me if momos were a staple for us,” says Gitika Saikia, who quit her marketing job to become a home chef.
Saikia hails from Assam and is based in Mumbai. She holds many pop-up dinners and lunches introducing the foodies of Mumbai to the regional varieties of the North-east.
North-East Is NOT a State
Saikia insists that her food can’t be clubbed as “North-east food”. Each state has its own style and it will take more books than one to explain the complexities of food from each state. When one goes for a North-east pop-up, she suggests, one should be open about the facts... like that most of the dishes would have less oil and not a lot of masala.
We don’t always use tomatoes in all our curry-based dishes. Instead, we like to use elephant apple (ou tenga) or garcinia (thekera tenga). So shifting that mindset is a big challenge.Gitika Saikia, Home Chef
Prepping the Fare
Saikia was so passionate about popularising the cuisine that back in 2014 she quit her regular marketing job and decided to take her hobby to the next level. During her early days, she started off by marketing bamboo and pork pickles, and later moved into supplying full-fledged meals.
With the help of a friend, she has even held a pop-up in New York, which was attended by a completely non-Indian crowd. "People liked the food and still write to me about holding more pop-ups there."
Preparing the Palate
In her later pop-ups, Saikia started introducing more "exotic" vegetables and meat, that were unique for the palate and "would require getting used to". She says, "Some people might have un-followed me on social media but I don’t care. This is a part of my growing up and I don’t want to shy away from it.”
I introduced red ant eggs (amlori tup), which is a delicacy in Assam during Bihu, and silkworm pupae (polu leta) which is full of nutrients and used to cure many diseases. It makes a perfect appetiser when stir fried.Gitika Saikia, Home Chef
She now divides the culinary fare of her pop-ups between "mainland" and "tribal” cooking. She feels, “mainland” North-east is more acceptable to people in Mumbai where she prepares dishes such as khar (indigenous soda or alkali), and dhekiya (fiddlehead fern) cooked with guti aloo (small potatoes) and pork. "Tribal cooking has less oil, less masalas and different kinds of meat, if people are skeptical then they can skip it."
- 01/05Traditional Assamese Til (sesame) pitha, a sweet dish prepared during BihuPicture Courtesy: Gitika Saikia
- 02/05Gahori Dhekia Bhaaji (Fiddle head fern with pork) Picture Courtesy: Gitika Saikia
- 03/05Jadoh, a Khasi dish cooked in Pork blood and broth using pork intestines and black sesamePicture Courtesy: Gitika Saikia
- 04/05Pork being cooked with leafy vegetables in a traditional veselPicture Courtesy: Gitika Saikia
- 05/05A chutney from Arunachal PradeshPicture Courtesy: Gitika Saikia
The Devil is in the Detail
Saikia travels to various parts of the North-east and tries to pick up as much as she can from every state.
My meals are well researched. I also travel to these parts to collect ingredients and make sure I sit with the locals to learn the intricacies of home cooking. Sometimes, I get the vessels in which these meals are to be cooked specially flown in.Gitika Saikia, Home Chef
Even in today’s day and age, when everything is available by booking online or by going to a fancy department store, Saikia prefers to get all her meat and vegetables from Assam. "My mother-in-law is a great cook, she excels in indigenous cooking. Can you imagine; she sends me smoked pork via Blue Dart! I have to bear the cost of it. But that’s okay because everything I am using is fresh and from our farms and kitchen garden back home. When I cook pork with black sesame, the pork and the black sesame are both from Assam."
Saikia, who harbors a dream of owning her own café, wants to have customised meals every day in her menu so she could do justice to the diversity that exists in North-east cuisine. "It will be a big challenge but one can always try."
(Sanskrita Bharadwaj is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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