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Nagaland Governor releases first comprehensive anthology on Northeastern food culture

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In a major boost to further exploration and debates on the food culture of the different tribes and communities of Northeast India, Nagaland Governor His Excellency Shri Ashwani Kumar today formally released ‘Food Trail: Discovering Food Culture of Northeast India’ – a first-of-its-kind anthology on food culture of Northeast India in the presence of a host of scholars, writers and distinguished personalities from various walks of life. The book, which has been conceived, primarily researched and compiled by writer Aiyushman Dutta, features a host of prominent voices from the region as also from different parts of the world. ‘Food Trail’ has been published by NEZCC, under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

 Releasing the book, Shri Ashwani Kumar said, “This unique book has helped me understand and appreciate the diverse aspects of Northeast Indian culture from a totally new perspective. I urge everyone to buy this book and gift it to your near and dear ones.”

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Distinguished anthropologist and Tagore National Fellow Prof AC Bhagawati, who has written the foreword of the book, termed the book as a novel and path-breaking venture. “Food Trail is a highly unusual book and a first-of-its-kind. Food culture is a huge subject and it is surprising very little has been done in this regard. NEZCC deserves praise for supporting such an innovative endeavour.”

 A first-of-its-kind anthology, Food Trail: Discovering the Food Culture of Northeast India offers a peek into the life and culture of the people here through the prism of their food. Containing perspectives on subjects as varied as anthropology, sociology and literature, this book is a comprehensive database for those seeking to know about the social and symbolic role of food in Northeast India. Besides featuring narratives by some of the most respected voices of the region, the high quality aesthetic photographs provides for a visual delight.

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 Food Trail includes more than 30 insightful narratives by prominent Northeast Indian writers and researchers, including Prof Temsula Ao (Padmashree awardee), Easterine Kire, Kula Saikia, Anjum Hassan, Jahnavi Barua, Janice Pariat, Susan Waten, Dr Rabindra Teron, Dharam Singh Teron, Meenakshi Borkotoki, Cherrie L Changte, Jyoti Das, Karunamay Sinha, Bhaskar Phukan, Lalthansangi Ralte and many more.

 NEZCC director Som Kamei said that the book was published in an effort of the centre to develop the cuisine industry of the region. He said, “Food is an integral part of every human culture. The importance of food in understanding human culture lies in its infinite variability – a variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, people everywhere could eat the same and simple food. But human culture, over the ages, has been experimenting, innovating and developing sophisticated cuisines, which reflect human knowledge, culture, art and which have become an expression of love.”

Congratulating Dutta for his untiring endeavour to popularise the exquisite cuisines of Northeast India, Kamei said that the NEZCC had undertaken the task to not only popularise the cuisines of the region but also to document the various cultural milieu in which these cuisines have developed to become what it is today. “We hope that these rich collections of essays from experts and researchers will generate interest in the cuisine of the region and in the process, spark the potential cuisine industry and help in the overall development of cultural industries in Northeast India.”

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Talking about the genesis of the book, Dutta said, “Most people in the world still relate food with general dietary habits and practices while the fact remains that food touches every facet of human life. The diversity of food as a subject can be gauged from the numerous and varied ways in which it affects people all across the globe – be it through nutrition, environment, economics, society, et al. Although, in recent years, a lot of interest can be noticed in the realm of food studies across the world, very little has been done on this subject in the country, barring of course a few well-documented essays and articles.”

He further said, “Given the huge expanse of food studies as a subject, ‘Food Trail’ can be described as an amateurish effort have a first-of-its-kind birds eye view of the social and symbolic role of food in shaping the life and culture of the people of Northeast and in determining their identity. But nonetheless, it is a beginning and I hope that that the well-researched articles are able to create renewed enthusiasm in the subject. I also hope that the government and agencies concerned realise the potential of the subject and support further documentation and study on the food practices of the region.”

In the open discussion that ensued, Padmashree awardee Prof Temsula Ao said that food is not only an unifier but also a divider. She dwelt on how Northeasterners were not allowed to take up houses on rent for cooking smelly food.

 Also present in the gathering were Assamese cuisine expert Jyoti Das, Padmashree awardee Sentila Yanger, Music Task Force director Gugs Chihsi, Dr Ayangla Longkumer, amongst others. The event was conducted by popular Naga writer and columnist Susan Waten.

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Books on ethnic Assamese cuisine released

Noted foodie Jyoti Das recently started her new series of book, Aaita, Ma aru Mur Akholar Pora with the successful release of three new collections of ethnic Assamese cuisine. The new books are Mangshor Juti, Kharor Juti and Mithar Juti.
The three books were released last week in an august gathering at the Guwahati Press Club by eminent anthropologist Dr. AC Bhagawati, noted poet Nalinidhar Bhattacharya and the author’s mother Bina Saikia.

Releasing the books, Dr. Bhagawati reminisced about his first acquaintance with the author and how she has since then been working steadfastly for the promotion and documentation of our traditional ethnic cuisine. Expressing happiness at the work of the author, the eminent anthropologist wished her the best in her future work.

Mangshor Juti is a collection of meat recipes, Kharor Juti is a collection of Khar recipes and the third book Mithar Juti has some delightful desserts to offer. “The book is the refection of a typical Assamese course. We normally begin our meals with Khar (alkali), meat is an indispensable part of our food, while we follow it up with a dessert.”

Food for thought!

Asom, as the catch line goes, is virtually a paradise unexplored; a land of diverse cultures, traditions and unparalleled beauty and grandeur. The very place, the people and the flora and cuisine combine to make the State an art connoisseur’s paradise in the truest sense of the term. Not only nature has been bountiful to Asom but the people themselves are beautiful. Their natural grace, love for beauty, song and dance is renowned all over the world. And when we are talking about the richness of Asomiya culture, how can we possible leave out the mouth-watering yet nutritious fares that the Asomiyas lay out on their dining tables?

It would not be wrong to say that every cuisine, barring Chinese and Indian that is, in this world has an acquired taste. Asomiya cuisine is different though. The simplicity of Asomiya cuisine and the charming rusticity surrounding its preparation definitely adds to it a primitive charm, which is typical and distinctively Asomiya. Despite its singular traits and manifold benefits which elevate Asomiya cuisine to an altogether different league, it is indeed sad to note that our rich fares have not been properly showcased in front of the global food aficionados, unlike other Indian cuisine which enjoy tremendous popularity all across the world. All this is set to change with Jyoti Das’s latest book on ethnic Asomiya cuisine, Ambrosia…from the Assamese kitchen.

The first comprehensive cookbook on Asomiya cuisine, Ambrosia…from the Assamese kitchen presents an array of delectable dishes that reflects the variegated hues of Asom. Jyoti’s knowledge of Assamese dishes stems from her profound understanding of Asomiya culture and tradition, which come to life in the pages of the book. With this book, Jyoti has compiled the story of her entire life as an Asomiya housewife, a daughter and a mother. The remarkable clarity with which she has listed the different types of food by relating them to events in her life is worth mentioning.

Right from the evergreen Kholoasapori Pithas (Rice pancake) and Posolar Khar (Banana Stem Alkali) to the more discernible Baahor Chungat Khorisa Diya Bhaat (Fermented bamboo shoot rice in a bamboo hollow); from the customary Outengar Machor Tenga to the more exclusive Pithagurir logot gahori manxo (Pork with rice powder), Ambrosia… from the Assamese kitchen has it all. As I said before, this is not just a cook book for one can discern the very flavour of the State in each and every page of this compilation. Besides making important historical references in the evolution of the State’s cuisine, Jyoti has also listed down some highly useful tips which she garnered over her long stint in the Asomiya kitchen.

Jyoti Das is a very familiar name in the field of Northeastern gastronomies. Her culinary skills and efforts at popularising regional fare in the global arena have earned her a place in the list of eminent personalities of Shillong. She recounts, “It was only after my marriage that I took a serious interest in cooking.” It was her husband Ashok Das’s second posting in the oil colony of Moran that prompted Jyoti to take a keener interest in the lives of the people in and around the oil township. It was there that she got acquainted with traditional ethnic cuisine of the various communities of the State which is evident as she says, “Being brought up in urban environs, we seldom got the chance to get acquainted with our rich traditional fare. I still remember learning the method of preparing Poka Mithoi (Rice powder and Jaggery Balls) from a sweeper in the oil colony of Moran. Though his method of preparation was very crude, I still regard him as my teacher.” And therein started Jyoti’s tryst with Asomiya cuisine, learning and relearning, improvising and making value additions, till she was satisfied that she had prepared the real ambrosia.

Besides being a connoisseur of good food, Jyoti also draws a lot of inspiration from her social work. Her social activities took her to different pockets of Assam; sometimes to the interiors of the State. She has been associated with a blind school in Moran for the last nine years apart from running a school for tiny tots there for eight long years. At present she works as a volunteer teacher at Sishu Sarathi, a school for spastic students at Guwahati. It was her forays that gave her the opportunity to experience the varied tastes of the different communities and pick up the finer nuances from each of them. “Living in an oil township helped me to enhance my culinary skills. I got exposed to the culture of various communities and I learnt a lot that way.”

Jyoti’s love for her children is the only thing that overrides her love for cooking though cooking runs a common chord with all the family members. And as her daughter Rakhi says, “Good food is a tradition in our family.” Both her children are avid lovers of their mother’s recipe and it would not be wrong to say that they were primarily responsible for inspiring their mother to write a book on Asomiya cuisine. Her son Ravi who is a professional in Delhi says, “There are a lot of professionals and students like us who are staying out of the State. I’m sure that each and every Asomiya misses the food of their land and I personally felt the need for a book which lists down the method of preparation of our various food items. Also due to the change in the food trends of the people and the preference for simple and nutritional food, Asomiya food is definitely in. This book is bound to project Asomiya cuisine in front of the world in a positive manner.”

Jyoti’s other works on Assamese culinary include Aponar Akhilot Chinese Byanjon (into its second edition) and Manxhar Vividh Byanjon, which have been very well received by the readers of the State. She also regularly writes food-columns, short stories and articles for various newspapers and periodicals. Jyoti is presently working on her website www.assamcuisine.com besides experimenting on a fusion of traditional Asomiya cuisine with the fare of the western world. Ambrosia…from the Assamese kitchen has been published by Rupa publications and the foreward has been written by Victor Banerjee. Besides her family members, the author says that she is indebted to litterateur Dr. Birendra Nath Dutta for his constant guidance and encouragement.