Assam – Memories of a beautiful village life

Assam - Culture, Food and People - Bhogali Bihu

Unadulterated Assamese culture and living

Mera beta ko apse moh ho gaya hai, isko Dilli leke jayeyi (my son really likes you, please take him with you to Delhi), said the mother of a 7 years old boy, Mumon, who I had met in Assam. We were visiting my friend Ankur Saikia’s beautiful village called Haw Faw (near Tinsukia district). Mumon was Ankur’s cousin and even though he didn’t have a vast Hindi vocabulary he still followed me around. Pikshi (his sister) also joined us and together, we ran after chickens in their garden, performed Bihu Dance and munched on homemade Nimkis and Peethas.

The night before Magh Bihu (aka Bhogali Bihu), we had reached the village after a long arduous journey, that started from Delhi. In Assam, I travelled from Guwahati to Tinsukia and finally to Sapekhati and then eventually reached Haw Faw. Though these were long (and sometimes tiring) train journeys, not for a minute, Gurjas and I felt bored. As it was Gurjas’s first trip to North East, he was busy looking at Google Maps and understanding the geography of the various states we were crossing. And as for me, I was busy looking outside at the freshly harvested golden paddy fields and gorgeous tea gardens.

Little did I know, that in Haw Faw, every house would have its own Paddy field and Tea Gardens and I would get to walk around in the beautiful open fields. Not just that, I woke up with beautiful rays of sun, beaming through the window of my room, while roosters cock-a-doodle-dooed outside.

Momon, Arunachal Pradesh and Ou Tenga – Notes from Day 1

As, I went out, Mumon’s mother (Ankur’s Chachi) was feeding hay to their baby calf (who was wearing a cute sweater) and the ducks were freely strutting around. Mumon and Pikshi’s garden was unimaginably beautiful. I have been to my village in Punjab many a times, but I have never seen a life like this, where people were so much in touch with nature and lived a breezy uncomplicated life.

Haw Faw village was close to the border of Arunachal Pradesh. So, Ankur and his parents drove for about 10 minutes and reached a village in Arunachal. We drove through the luscious green tea gardens and witnessed the most gorgeous sunset. Gurjas and I felt overwhelmed as this was nothing like what we had imagined our trip to be. It was as if God was rewarding us for braving through the long train trips.

In fact, for dinner Ankur’s Chachi prepared an awesome meal of Duck Fry, Daal, Fish Fry and Rice for us. Daal was simply Moong Daal prepared with local favourite, Ou Tenga (Elephant Apple). It didn’t have amchoor or tomatoes, but due to this locally grown fruit hailing from the family of lime, the daal tasted sour. I loved the intense flavours of the Duck and deep fried Fish. This homemade meal was scrumptious and a perfect end to a fun day.

I went to sleep thanking god for starting my North East trip on such a memorable note. But little did I know that the next day was going to be even more glorious!

Peetha, Sunga Pork & Bamboo Tube Cooking – Notes from Day 2

Next Morning, Gurjas and I got ready and went for breakfast, which comprised of a variety of dishes made from rice. There were sticky rice, black rice, puffed rice served with milk, curd and jaggery and also peethas (sweet rice cakes). The sweet spread was a celebration of rice in every sense. Right from puffing the rice to soaking it in water overnight and then grinding it (manually) into a powdered form, to make peethas, each of these tasks were done by the ladies of the house. Madhumita Aunty (Ankur’s Mother) and all his Chachis got together and prepared the entire meal. The rice was also from the rice fields in their backyards.

I was amazed by the sheer hard work they had put into making this food and yet they looked unfazed. I learnt that they work for days to prepare meals like these. By making larus (coconut laddus), different peethas, picking the right rice, frying some of the peethas, making their own peetha fillings – sesame, jaggery, coconut etc. (shunga peetha and til peetha)       

This hearty breakfast was just a teaser for what was to come. Madhumita Aunty took me around for a walk in the village, whilst explaining the rituals of Bihu celebrations. Ankur, on the other hand, was working on a super special meal. Anupam Uncle (Ankur’s Chacha) after changing from his pant-shirt to Lungi and Gamosa (the traditional attire) and overlooked by Ankur’s loving grandparents (in their late 80’s), started cooking an epic Pork Meal.

The entire extended family gathered at the open garden at Mumon’s place, where right in the center (of the garden), Anupam Uncle set up a Barbeque and began cooking.

Fresh pieces of Pork were marinated in salt, onion, ginger, garlic, Mag Dhaniya (Fresh Coriander from Myanmar) and Ou Tenga. Once marinated for long enough, we stuffed the pork inside Green Bamboo Sticks and covered it before putting it onto the heat. He steamed both Red Rice and Black Rice the same way as Pork, inside the Green Bamboo Sticks. While the food was being slow cooked, all of us danced, chatted and made merry while drinking whiskey.

Once done, the fatty, tangy and refreshing pork meat tasted heavenly with the sticky rice. Ou Tenga, lent a nice tangy flavour to the pork. Mag Dhaniya was different from our usual coriander, as it was big in size and was uniquely much more flavoursome and fragrant. This meal was certainly a celebration of Pork and reinforced my belief that ‘with just few simple ingredients one could do magic’.

I had never had so much fun in a completely new place, that I had never visited earlier, with people that I had never met before. However, this again, was just a teaser.

Laupani, Bhogali Bhoj, Bihu Dance and Meji Juwalua

Ankur and his Uncle took us to a nearby village named Rohaan (famous for making homemade Laupani or Haaj), a local alcoholic beverage made out of Rice. Although it’s a long process, but locals (who were already exhilarated in the celebrations) showed me few quick steps on how to make this fermented drink. They also fed me fried fish and pork with their own hands. Saying, they were affectionate towards me would be an understatement. I got hugs and pecks from stranger ladies and kids. Men, women and kids all got together and started dancing. I do luckily pick dance steps quickly, so was able to perform a few famous Bihu steps along with them, as my way of showing gratitude to such lovely people. They held my hand while we danced, till the sun came down. I had never experienced this kind of impromptu euphoria ever in my life. None of them knew my name, yet having spent only few hours with them, I felt safe, welcomed and loved.

However, the celebrations weren’t over as yet. Back at Haw Faw, another party was brewing.

Right behind Ankur’s Grandparents house, in an open field, Ashim and Aditya (Ankur’s cousins) created a Belaghar (a traditional makeshift hut made with Bamboo, Leaves and Thatch) which was spruced up lights like Diwali. Cooking was on, for a massive celebratory meal comprising of Daal, Rice, Pork, Fish, Duck and Sabzi. These were slow cooked on a wood fired chulah in an open field. As the food was being prepared, Kashyapi, Pikshi and other girls (Ankur’s cousins) got together and Barbequed some Pork and gobbled them down with Breezers and Whiskey (my cousins and I didn’t grow up around such liberal surroundings. Hence, I was delighted to witness such a fair and non-judgmental reaction to something, which in my personal opinion, is quite a normal thing to do.   In the Belaghar, Catchy Bihu Songs were blaring out from giant speakers on and all of us (cousins, Aunts, Uncles, Ankur’s parents) danced to our heart’s content. Selfie Lele Re, Seleng and Taxi Gaadi, were the favourites and were repeatedly played. We just danced. I have vivid memories of Mumon, Pikshi, Amlaan, Aditya, Kashyapi and even the elders engrossed in mad happy non-stop dancing.

We were literally forced to sit down for the meal. The food was fantastic. I loved the Daal Rice and Fish Fry (made with the fish they’d picked from the pond in their own backyard). The freshly cut salad had a pungent mustard flavour and it complemented the subtle flavours of the rest of the food. I would have liked to remember the flavours with more clarity, but I do remember the strong mustard flavour in the duck and the juicy meaty pork.

Soon after the food, we were back on the dance floor. We danced, till dawn. That’s when we performed the final ritual of the ceremony called Meji Juwalua. A bonfire, just like those during Lohri and Baisakhi in North India, was lit up and prayers were offered.

Even though our party had come to an end, but I could still hear music from Belaghars in nearby fields. Somewhere the party was still alive and so was my heart.

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