Monday, October 25, 2010

Dinner at the Assam Bhavan, Notes on our Assamese Pals

The Assam Bhavan in Delhi is Assam's official point of representation in the city - sort of like the state's official embassy within the capital. It is of interest to me primarily because it has a restaurant, specializing in Assamese specialities difficult to find outside of the homeland. Jakoi is a restaurant that has gained some popularity among the capital's foodie class. Unlike most Bhavan canteens, it's decorated in a reasonably upscale fashion, and has a rather extensive menu with some pretensions of grandeur. Most people go for the special thali, which provides a reasonably extensive overview of Assamese food for a reasonably low price.

You'll be out 350 rupees for the Paranpara special thali as pictured above, which includes fried fish, fish (hilsa) cooked in banana leaf, a choice of pigeon or duck curry, a couple of vegetable dishes, some Assamese style condiments, and a dessert. Well, in theory.

I sat outside, braving the inevitable depredations of doubtlessly malaria-carrying mosquitos. It's nice out there. Cushions, ambient lighting, and some pleasant decorative accents.

The fried fish in tangy curry (fish tenga) was pretty good, albeit exceedingly bony. The crust was crispy and not too heavy, and it didn't seem to suffer from over-frying as some other reviewers have reported.

The fish in banana leaf with coconut milk and spices might theoretically have been good, but was so filled with tiny bones that I about a nibble or two of edible meat off the sucker. I gave in after a minor but disquieting choking incident. The duck was also a bit tough, though I liked the rich ground spice flavored gravy. Plenty of bones, as is typical with Indian curries. I happen to adore poultry bones, so no complaints from me.

I really enjoyed the pitika, or mashed vegetable, which tasted like an Assamese riff on America's bland and beloved mashed potatoes. The daal and the interesting, semi-powdered Assamese condiments were quite good. I've certainly never tasted anything like some of these Assamese chutneys, which included two variations on kahudi or mustard paste (one with sodium bicarbonate?!), a kind of grated, fermented bamboo shoot (kharisa), and mahor guri, made with powdered gram lentils and chili. Unusual little nuggets, and quite tasty. I'd like to try these again in different contexts. The fried vegetable d'jour was a kind of stir-fried Indian melon whose name escapes me, which I am very fond of. It has a delightfully squashy texture, that crunches with seeds when you bite into it.

I was a bit peeved as I did not actually receive the promised "gooseberry welcome drink" or the dessert as listed on the menu. There was an awkward moment after the main thali plate was removed where I anticipated the arrival of some exotic dessert - and got the check instead. Not so pleasing. If you list a food item on your thali, sirs, you'd best bring it out.

Verdict? Jakoi is worth a visit if you are, like myself, a commited food adventurer who is always up for sampling something entirely new to the ol' palate. However, it's a restaurant with some considerable kinks to work out vis a vis service and food prepration. According to some other online reviews, the kitchen has an unfortunate tendancy to flake out some nights and be fine and dandy on others. If I return, I might give the forgettable meat dishes a pass and go with the vegetarian thali - the kitchen seems to know their way around a legume and a bitter melon a spot better then they do a cut of innocent waterfowl or fish. And ask them point-blank to bring out the dang dessert.

Many of the state Bhavan's have canteens, specializing in foods particular to the state. Not all of them allow outsiders in, but some do. Check before you amble in. If they're amiable, you'll get a cheap and undeniably authentic meal at a very reasonable price.

You may now be asking a fairly simple question. Where in the hell is Assam? And what is it?

Assam is a state in India's Northeast, occupied mostly by the Assamese people, who have their own language and a culture distinct from that of the rest of India. It was a contested region for most of its history - occupied by the Tai people, the Moghuls (briefly) and the Burmese - until the First Bengal War of 1824 to 1826, when the Indians occupied the territory and claimed it as their own. The people of Assam share Tai origins with the peoples of Southeast Asia, and are not related ethnically to the people of peninsular India. (Ever wonder where the word "Thailand" came from?)

Like many of India's northeastern states, it's been the scene of separatist violence in recent years, as groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom attempt to secure some margin of self-determination for their land. And nice land it is. Assam's a lush and heavily forested state, with a monsoon climate, incredibly biodiversity, and one of the last remnant populations of the one horned rhinoceros. You may also have hear of Assam before because of its justifiably famous variety of tea. I had hoped to visit one of Assam's superior national parks on this trip, but it was not to be. They were closed for this year's Eternal Monsoon. And as Assam is one of the world's wetter areas, I wasn't eager to test their resolve on the matter. Not interested in swimming to see equally aquatic rhinos. Not really.


  1. I didn't manage to eat at the Assamese Bhavan. I will go there the next time. Anyways, I am not that keen on exploring fish cuisine, you know :) So I thought I rather wait till the moment I actually go to Assam.

    By the way, Assamese language is an Indo-Aryan language, it is extremely close to Bengali (as is the food, you would notice, with its fishes and mustard). Assamese people are also ethnically related to the Bengalis. The Tai people who established the Ahom kingdom were only part of the ethnic map that makes up Assam. And Assam is only a part that makes up India. It is difficult to tell who is mainstream and who is not, everybody is a minority in India.

    - Kiran

  2. Thanks for edifying me. I should read up on them Assamese. Interesting group of people.

    also read that there is a plan to construct a highway from china to india via burma and assam....that would be pretty cool. and will probably never happen, but...

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