Gohpur. Where on earth is this place? Well, you won’t find Gohpur on any tourist map, but this serene laidback town in India’s remote North Eastern state of Assam does enthrall visitors with its quintessential charms.
I had been to the town several times piggy riding on my father’s 4x4 Jeep back in the late ’80s whenever he would go on World Bank assignments to monitor agriculture projects. By the way, Gohpur and its hinterland is a biodiversity hotspot, with the world-famous Kaziranga National Park within close proximity (7.5 km). I vividly remember camping at the Circuit House and those exhilarating drives to the borders of India’s virgin and unexplored Arunachal Pradesh.
A couple of months back, with the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of retreating, I called up my childhood boarding school buddy Pratim Hazarika, a hotelier by profession who hails from Gohpur town, with a request to organise a trip to Kaziranga that would offer me with a chance to rejuvenate from the ordeals of the pandemic.
A brief 1 hour 20 minutes flight from Kolkata to Guwahati and thereafter an exhilarating 6.5 hours drive along the National Highway 27, passing through quaint Assamese villages and verdant picturesque panorama brought us to Gohpur.
We spent one week together. One week of exploring the great Assamese outdoors. One week of experimenting with the gastronomic delights of North East, courtesy of the Master Chef - Pratim Hazarika. From the delectable Masor Tenga to Duck with Kumora (Haa) and Omita Khar to Alu Begena Pitika! It was like a veritable Assamese feast for me.
Let me inform you that Assamese cuisine is a gorgeous amalgamation of the hilly, mountainous style that relies heavily on the fermented stuff and of the plains or flatland, wherein the essence is on freshness. The sheer diversity of recipes on offer is bewildering. I was flipping through the pages of renowned gastronomic critic and writer Krishna Poddar’s insightful article on Travel Earth wherein she quotes:
To the quintessential foodie, Assam has to offer an intriguing array of culinary jewels. Assamese food is all about minimizing waste. It constitutes a varied combination of ingredients starting from rustic vegetables and the complex “Khar” to a lot of animal proteins and even insects.
Needless to say, the true foodie in you must now be curious to discover the marvels of this cuisine. If you are experimental and big of heart, Assamese food will wow you with its traditional dishes and techniques.
What an incredible summation of Assam’s culinary heritage.
For a number of years now, Master Chef Pratim has been experimenting and toying with the idea of taking Assamese cuisine globally. A graduate of the renowned IIHM Kolkata, Pratim began with a bang with TGIF way back in the late 90s and ever since then his journey into the heartland of India’s hospitality landscape was every bit eventful, fun and exciting – Madh Island Mumbai, Holiday Inn Nainital and very rewarding stints with some of India’s most renowned Palace hotels of Rajasthan.
I have always believed that culinary champions like Pratim who hails from “Small Town India” honing his skills in some of India’s best hospitality brands and yet rooted to his native land Assam; determined to take on the might of the gigantic hotel empires and spread awareness about the culinary heritage of India’s North East, has proved yet again that if you are looking for raw talent when it comes to promoting “Indegenous Indian Cuisine” – it is “Village India” and not “Metropolitan India” that scores high.
In his solo effort to take Assamese cuisine globally, Pratim has been offering cooking demonstrations outside of his homeland Assam. Already, his authentic brand of North East cuisine has found favours in upscale Kolkata neighbourhoods like Salt Lake, Sector V, Rajarhat Newtown, Kalyani to name just a few.
With the kind of response he is receiving, Master Chef Pratim oozes with confidence:
I have left behind the glitz and glamour of the big hotel chains for a more responsible, ecologically sensitive and back-to-nature living that Assam offers me. The entire gamut of Assamese & North East Cuisine is an epicurean journey, whose magnitude is tremendous; but, in the hindsight, not many have attempted to promote this region’s culinary traditions, due largely to the remoteness. I remain focused on my mission and right now I am networking with enterprising individuals in metropolitan India who are ready to venture with me.
Having been born and raised in India’s North East, the culinary traditions of the region rely a great deal on a bewildering array of plant as well as animal stuff, both of which are found in great quantities. I find the North East cuisine to be a lot similar to Thai cuisines – minimal use of spices, delicate fire and high in terms of flavours.
The fundamental difference between North East cuisines from that of mainland Indian cuisine is the absence of the common Indian practice of frying up the spices before the main ingredients are dipped.
Being a Bengali, I have grown up hearing the adage:
The Bengali and his fish are inseparable.
But, to be honest, I can vouch for the fact that the same is true with the Assamese people as well because fish is much preferred by the Assamese society along with ducks and pigeons.
Historically, the boatmen of Brahmaputra are a unique lot. Their slow, uncluttered and philosophical outlook on life has been the subject of rich Assamese folklore. A lot of films have been produced depicting the strange lifestyle of Assam’s boatmen/fishermen.
According to Master Chef Pratim Hazarika: “In Assam, meals are traditionally served in utensils made of Bell Metal and legend has it that when food is served in Bell Metal utensils, it augurs wellness and serves as an immunity booster. At the end of the meal, “Tamul & Pan” is served which aids in digestion. When it comes to Assamese sweets, nothing compares to the lip-smacking Pithas and Larus made from sesame and coconut. The Til Pitha in particular has been an all-out hit with those with a sweet tooth!
It has been noticed that whenever an unknown or lesser explored cuisine is promoted at the global culinary arena, there are hassles galore and surmounting those challenges can be difficult at times. According to Master Chef Pratim:
For instance Pigeon meat is banned in most states of India but it is a specialty item in Assam. Assamese people have been gorging on this delicacy for centuries together, so much so that Pigeon meat, or “Paro Manxo” as it is popularly referred to has become an integral part of Assamese folklore.
As one venture through the journey along the rather unpredictable food & beverages landscape of India, there are opportunities too. According to Bloomberg Quint food critic Sharleen Dsouza:
For instance, did you know that Food Companies are struggling to find the ideal breakfast recipe for India? So far the demand for ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat packaged meals largely comes from the South Indian community. They taste decent and are convenient.
Master Chef Pratim Hazarika sounds belligerent and is of the opinion that if Idli and Vada can be packaged and bought off-the-shelf from the local supermarket, why not Assam’s famed Doi-Chira? This traditional Doi-Chira recipe has been the staple breakfast of Assamese people for ages together. It is made out of flattened rice and mixed with curd, cream, or jaggery.
It is said that a journey to Assam and the North East is like no other. Stupendous, it is in terms of diversity. And the culinary journey is even more so.
I can’t resist quoting the immortal words of Jaime Lyn Beatty:
It feels good to be lost in the right direction.
That in a nutshell is Assam.