In guwahati, a small band of visionary restaurateurs are giving new form to ethnic cuisines of the northeast
In 2009, when British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay visited the Northeast as part of his “Gordon’s Great Escape” television series, Atul Lahkar, 40, a celebrity chef known in his native Assam, was approached to help out. He deliberated how to best represent his cuisine.
So he decided to organise a chilli eating competition to showcase some local talent.
In a busy hall, Ramsay watched gob-smacked as Anandita Dutta Tamuly, a buxom woman in her 20s, downed 49 Assamese bhut jolokia chillies in two minutes. Immediately after, Tamuly dissolved into tears of disappointment; previously, she’d eaten 60 in two minutes, making her a serious contender for a Guinness World Record. Doubling over in excruciating pain may have been a more understandable reaction. The bhut jolokia, a vermillion-coloured chilli pepper, similar in size and form to the jalapeño, of which it’s 200 times hotter, weighs in as the second hottest chilli in the world. Most people can’t even handle a nibble.
But it wasn’t the unusual endurance of Tamuly that Lahkar wanted to convey. Rather, in capitalising on one of the more memorable aspects of his food culture, Lahkar says he wanted to communicate that Assamese (and by extension Northeastern) cuisine has a unique identity. Lahkar comprises a small Guwahati-based culinary brigade actively working to popularise ethnic Northeastern food.
In the river port city of Guwahati, the gateway to the Northeast and the region’s trading hub, crumbling bungalows with verandas and overgrown gardens are increasingly becoming overshadowed by modern office complexes which have sprung up in the last decade.
A traditional culture of eating Assamese food at home meant that Assamese dhabas, while sometimes very good, were eclipsed by the city’s myriad Chinese and North Indian eateries. According to many, only one establishment was known to serve Assamese food in a restaurant setting. But even then, Paradise, which opened in 1984, also has Chinese and Indian dishes on its menu. More recently, the KFCs and fast-food chains have muscled their way in, absorbing young diners or what Lahkar refers to as “the pizza generation.”
Across the Northeast, Lahkar observed too that people would present their dinner guests with Indian and Chinese dishes. When it came to serving ethnic food, Lahkar says people were “suffering some kind of inferiority,” therefore, they'd avoid serving it at home, let alone in a commercial setting. “This is a problem,” he says. In being dominated by other cuisines, he says, “slowly my people forgot about their own cuisines.”
So fifteen years ago, intent on starting a restaurant to project ethnic cuisine into the limelight, Lahkar took up a cooking hobby in a big way. After learning the basics of cooking in Chennai, back in Guwahati, he worked as a restaurant manager and from 1995, spent seven years visiting all the Northeastern states. He says he “roamed from door to door” collecting the largely unrecorded, oral recipes from different tribal villages. This was no small task as the region is hugely diverse and has over 200 ethnic groups. He amassed more than 1 000 recipes during this time.
In 2005, the eatery, Gam’s Delicacy, opened in Ganeshguri in the heart of Guwahati’s commercial district.
Its opening heralded a new phase in the city’s food culture. With a drive to promote ethnic Northeastern cuisine, a handful of restaurateurs, and as many restaurants began to emerge. And the timing was right. The boomtown, which receives more visitors that any other Northeastern destination, had given rise to a growing market. Today, it’s a well known few that are in operation – Gam’s Delicacy, Khorikaa (which Lahkar opened in 2007) and Maihang. Signifying a newfound confidence, these establishments offered authentic bigger menus in stylish digs – the décor pulling from a heritage of bamboo widely used in the region. Other eateries, serving up Manipuri, Naga and pan-Northeastern food have also cropped up in recent years.
Lahkar helped conceptualise the menu at Gam’s Delicacy, and while he says it’s the “first time a complete Assamese menu was introduced,” as evidenced in the main Assamese dishes – khar (an alkaline dish) tenga (a sour dish), khorika (barbequed meat) and pitika (a mashed dish) – and the retention of mustard-oil flavoured recipes, he’s given the food an edge. Drawing from his recipe-collecting days, Lahkar has introduced ethnic elements into mainstream eating which were once sidelined by what dictated the hallmark of Assamese cuisine, Brahmin food.