An academic friend who frequents Guwahati never fails to point out how, and how quickly, food taboos have changed among the Assamese. However, like many of us who live on the edges of the culinary empire of butter chicken and sad versions of Chinese food, his enthusiasm wears thin when it comes to locating a restaurant in Guwahati that actually reflects these radical changes.
Paradise Restaurant in Chandmari is the most popular place to take visitors wanting a taste of Assam. Truth be told, though, it was always a bit embarrassing to explain the various bowls that would be placed before the guest, as the Paradise serves a very watered-down version of upper-caste food. Furthermore, one receives reactions along the lines of, “This is a lot like Bengali/Oriya/mild North Indian food.” Still, one did not give up on the restaurant. Perhaps its beer licence has had something to do with that.
An inquisitive eater needs to leave Guwahati to realise that there is hope for regional food. South of the Paradise on Highway 37, which links Assam to its gastronomic hinterland, a perfect example of the reassertion of regional identity can be found in a restaurant called GAM Delicacy. The décor here is distinctly Southeast Asian, though we call it northeastern. The waiters have all the confidence in the world as they serve up anja, or curry, of smoked pork and bamboo shoot; duck with black pepper and gourd; indigenous bao rice (at least it says so on the menu), and other food that is common in the kitchens of non-Brahmanical households in both the west and east of the Brahmaputra Valley and its adjoining hills.
The self-assurance with which all this is wheeled up on sturdy bamboo trolleys at the GAM Delicacy is reminiscent of the unmatched pride with which Chinese waiters serve their delicate dim-sums in the upmarket eateries of Hong Kong. There is a certain pride one feels in ordering food served with such elegant buoyancy. This is why the place is always full of people elbowing each other for a seat at the table, even though they might have cooked the same meal at home the night before.
It only gets better as one moves east on Highway 37. Barely an hour from Guwahati is Sonapur’s The Wild East (House of Ethnic and Indigenous Food). This is the place mobile people head for over the weekend, to have their share of pork and bamboo shoots, dried fish with chilly paste, and fried silkworm with clams (the last only served on Sundays).
My colleague would have a fit if I did not take this opportunity to mention a couple of other dining finds. The Bamboo Shoot, a Lotha Naga eatery on the Dimapur-Kohima highway in Nagaland, and the Rooftop Restaurant in Diphu in Assam’s Karbi Anglong District are two little places that ought to be institutionalised. The former serves pork in variations that would put Spanish connoisseurs to shame, while the latter does a mean version of chicken with sesame, Karbi style.
Butter chicken is slowly losing out to local cuisine in Northeast India, and this is good for the region’s soul.