It isn’t hard to find an Assamese in Delhi – the joke went that if you pelted a stone at random in Vijay Nagar, it would be flung back at you with a couple of well-chosen insults in Assamese. Finding halfway decent Assamese food used to be a bit more of a challenge, though. You had to depend on the kharkhowa network for a Bihu meal at someone’s home, or to mooch off some recent returnee’s stash of kazi nemu, joha sawul, duck, khorisa or bhoot jolokiya. (Kharkhowa: it’s what non-resident Assamese mockingly call their own kind, eaters of “khar” – not the Mumbai suburb, but an alkali made of things as diverse as raw papayas, bananas, mustard leaves or even fish. Khar and tenga, alkali and acid, form the two ends of an Assamese meal; one of the reasons why we don’t usually eat curd after a meal, unlike many of you, is that the acidity of the tenga suffices.)
When the folks from Guwahati’s venerable Paradise Hotel launched Jakoi at Assam Bhavan a few years ago, many of us made a beeline (or two), and were sorry to see it go. Although several new Assamese joints have sprung up in the last year or so since Jakoi shut shop, we’re very glad to hear that the bureaucrats at Assam Bhavan didn’t give up on the space.
Ahom Is Where the <3 Is
Gone are the frosted glass panes and dark, faux-bamboo-grove laminates on the walls. Baankahi has an airier and more welcoming vibe than Jakoi’s gloomy interiors, although some things carry over: there is still folk art on the walls and Bhupen Hazarika classics on the speakers, along with warm red table linen and pickles for sale in a pretty wooden cupboard. A lovely seating area outside is filled with lush greens and terracotta planters, but lunchtime in end-March is already too hot for the outdoors.
The menu, similarly, presents familiar items with some new touches. As the charming Mrs Hazarika, Baankahi’s owner, is quick to emphasise, her restaurant wants to extend the impression of Assamese food beyond caste Hindu Brahmaputra valley cuisine- or what most people outside Assam think of as the region’s definitive food. Quite fitting, we think, in a time when the state is conducting its massive, divisive Registration programme.
Back in the homeland we might still be debating who an Assamese really is, but here, Baankahi tips its japi to more than one ethnicity. A cursory glance at the menu reveals a variety of food from districts not commonly represented in Delhi cuisine; there’s also an entire section of tea garden fare such as fish & chips, roast chicken, caramel custards and other Burra Sahib bungalow favourites.
A bora platter includes a mix of different fritters: mogu dail bora, tilor bora and aaphuguti bora (respectively, green moong dal, black sesame, poppy seeds) all soaked, crushed and deep fried in mustard oil , and narsingha bora or curry leaves coated in gram flour and fried. The black sesame fritter is a little bora-ng, but the curry leaves and green moong fritters are crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside: just the right hit of deep-fried satisfaction.
Muwa maas bhaji isn’t available, as the tiny, delicious fish aren’t in stock, nor is Singpho pithaguri chicken, or chicken cooked in rice flour, a dish from the Singpho people from the north easternmost districts of Assam. A sizzling plate of maas khorika, fish marinated in lemon, turmeric and herbs before roasting, swims around in good time. We could do very well without its bed of cabbage, for we are not kings; but these are so good that even our faux-vegetarian friend can’t help sneaking two of these tender, smoky skewers.
Karbi mutton and black sesame curry arrives with joha sawul, Assam’s scented, stubby rice that a Kannadiga friend is curious about. The rich, dark undertones of the curry’s black sesame is customarily eaten with the less polished ukhura sawul, but here the meat is cooked to a falling-off-the-bone softness that complements the delicate rice.
Xaak Me Out
Our vegetarian thali has an array of deceptively tiny bowls. The omita khar is pitch perfect, and muted hints of mustard and ginger blend smoothly with alkalised papaya. Bilahi pitika, or smoked tomato chutney, is a little too salty, and the sharp hit of mustard oil in the aloo pitika – potato mash – might not be to everyone’s taste. But mixed with the smooth khar and the otherwise nondescript dail (channa dal cooked with gourd), both are balanced out.
Balance, an easy hand with spices and oil, and a heavy dose of greens are some of the hallmarks of Assamese food, even if there might be slight variations across geographies and communities: my mother’s family from lower-central Assam cooks curries and vegetables the slightest bit differently from my father’s in Upper Assam. Mrs Hazarika uses her mother’s recipes from Dergaon in south-central Assam and her paleng xaak bhaji (palak sabzi) is cooked with water, making it a softer green, pulpier variant than I’m used to. My companion quite loves it, because the taste of the greens shines throughout, having avoided their usual death by spice and over-steaming endemic to most North Indian cooking.
She’s also impressed by baby Pahadi pumpkin cooked Assam-style in onions, ginger and garlic. Mrs Hazarika explains that including seasonal vegetables not typically considered Assamese is a conscious choice. She has a trusted supplier in Guwahati but she would rather not disappoint eager diners by relying too heavily on ingredients that may not be readily available. It is the sort of practical choice that explains the local round lemon instead of the longer, bright green kazi nemu on the plate, next to the kharoli, mustard-smoked banana-leaf chutney: but better a substitute that doesn’t compromise the balance too much than to go entirely without.
The masoor dail bora tenga is perhaps the best thing on this thali: the palate-cleansing, sharp tang of this light tomato-based curry makes even this dedicated carnivore excuse the mushiness of the masoor dail bora drenched in the curry. A sweet potato cake, on the other hand, doesn’t impress much, more like slightly grainy gulab jamun than anything else.
For dessert, we opt for koni dhan kheer: the tiniest grains of rice slow cooked in milk and sugar into a creamy, if slightly too sweet kheer. A trip to the Burra Memsaab’s tea table with caramel custard is similarly too saccharine for those of us who like their caramels and chocolates just this side of bitter. We end with a pot of Assam tea-calm down, it’s Twinings, not garden-fresh-and meetha saunf, instead of paan tamul.
For someone who has lived away from home as long as this writer, Baankahi is a reminder of biannual trips home. Some things are always familiar and comforting; others have been tweaked around a little to make room for changes in the present; and still others remind her of parts of her state that a sheltered upper caste Hindu upbringing often forgot to acknowledge. We leave, well-fed and content, with barely a dent in our pockets. The most difficult part of the entire meal is finding cabs and autos willing to leave leafy Chanakyapuri on a dozy Thursday afternoon.
The article was first published in Brown Paper Bag written by Anannya Baruah, a writer based in Delhi.