Back in 2015, when I was in Mumbai for about 8 months, I craved for Northeastern food immensely, a rarity there unlike Delhi. Delhi over the years has had quite a few places serving Northeastern cuisine. Mumbai is yet to explore and experiment with that. However, Gitika Saikia who hails from Assam and is currently based in Mumbai is trying to break the mold. An ex marketing person turned home cook, she holds many pop up dinners and events introducing the foodies of Mumbai to the regional varieties of the Northeast.
‘People here in Mumbai don’t know much about northeastern cuisine let alone explaining 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. Some would even ask me if our food is more or less similar to Bengali food. So shifting that mindset is a big challenge,’ says Gitika. She stresses on the fact that when one comes for a northeastern food pop up, they should be open minded about facts such as most of the dishes have less oil, not as much masalas, no curd. ‘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),’ she adds.
Food can’t be clubbed as ‘northeastern food.’ Each state has its own style and it will take more books than one to explain people the complexities of food from each and every state of northeast India. There is a variety in food and vegetables of the area that is unheard of in the rest of the country. Gitika says, ‘Northeastern cuisine does not even have a personality here. I am trying my best to educate people through my pop ups.’
How It All Began?
Gitika was so passionate about popularizing the cuisine that in 2014 she quit her regular marketing job and decided to take this hobby of hers to a new level. During her early days, she started off by marketing bamboo and pork pickles and later moved into supplying full-fledged north eastern 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. ‘I felt so good, people liked the food and still write to me about holding more pop ups,’ she says with a chuckle.
She travelled to various parts of the northeast and tried to pick up as much as she could 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. So much so that at times, I even fly in the vessels in which these meals are to be cooked,’ Gitika says.
In her later pop ups, Gitika 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 a diseases. It makes a perfect appetizer when stir fried.’
Gitika now divides her pop ups as mainland and tribal northeastern. According to her mainland northeastern is more acceptable for people in Mumbai where she prepares dishes such as khar, indigenous soda or alkali and dhekiya (fiddlehead fern) cooked with guti aloo (small potatoes) or as main course when prepared with pork. She says, ‘Tribal cuisine has less oil, less masalas and different kinds of meat, if people are skeptical then they can skip it.’
Even in today’s day and age, when everything can be available by booking online or by going to a fancy department store, Gitika prefers to get all her meat and vegetables from Assam. ‘My mother-in-law is a great cook, she excels in tribal cooking. Can you imagine; she sends me smoked port 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. People might say my pop ups are expensive but I have never compromised on the quality. For example, when I cook pork with black sesame, the pork and the black sesame are both from Assam.’
Gitika who harbors a dream of owning her own café wants to have customized meals every day in her menu so she could do justice to the diversity that exists in the northeastern cuisine. She says, ‘I still feel better when I think about the fact that at least I have done something to promote my culture. It’s a big challenge but one can always try.’
By Sanskrita Bharadwaj
Photo: Gitika Saikia