A seat at this table requires much more than just an empty stomach - it needs an open mind. Unfathomable flavour combinations, the most surprising of heroes and a whole lot of comfort - the Bombay Canteen invites you straight into an Assamese dining room, and the party has just begun. The walls are replete with dhaan or dried rice bundles with traditional farmer’s hats, while we go course after course, eating off banana leaves - recreating the experience of harvest.
Spring is in the air, albeit metaphorically, and with it comes the wind of celebration blowing swiftly across the country as communities in every state of India celebrate the harvest in one way or another. There are a few, however, that go by unnoticed, and it was about time that changed. The north eastern states of India have been forgotten in our history books, but it’s no longer easy to ignore them today. In an attempt to democratize our palates and lend regional cuisine a new lease, the collaboration of The Bombay Canteen’s Chef Thomas Zacharias and Assamese gastronome, Gitika Saikia, is nothing short of a culinary delight - just in time for Assamese new year, Rongali Bihu.
Thomas, who has travelled across India in pursuit of its rich culinary history, was blown away by Gitika’s cuisine - transporting him right back into the folds of the North-East. With each bite a portal in itself, he felt an instant synergy in both their efforts to bring regional food to the forefront. For both him and Gitika, the journey has been largely guided by going back to their own roots, and looking at food through the lens of their unique heritage. When Gitika suggested collaborating for Rongali Bihu, Thomas got on board right away. The Bombay Canteen has consistently pushed regional cuisine, engaging the city in a culinary love affair, with a different lover every time. In the months that followed their decision, ingredients were sourced, recipes were tested, and the vision all but executed. Starting out with around 25-30 recipes, they narrowed it down to best 10 and are now ready to share the wonder with the world.
Assamese cuisine consists of food from ‘mainland’ Assam as well as food from over 15 Assamese tribes. While the mainland food resembles bengali food with the use of certain spices and mustard oil, tribal cuisine is completely different, Gitika tells us. “It’s a month long festival, starting around the 13th of April and goes on until the 15th of May. For this entire month, you can wave goodbye to any calorie counting. It’s a feast everyday, at every meal - right from breakfast to dinner” she explains.
Staying true to the nature of the feast, the meal will be served in four flights and it’s a combination of the mainland and tribal cuisine. One would expect a contemporary turn, but Chef Thomas rightly says, “when something is great in its original form, you don’t want to mess around with it too much.” With a choice between Chai Chai Chai a cocktail with vodka, Assam tea, lime juice & egg white, and the Canteen Ajong with rice wine, kumquat infused vodka, orange & pineapple juice your meal kicks off, and each course brings you a little closer to happiness like you can’t imagine.
The first flight consists of Ghila Pitha, or rice and jaggery cakes served with black tea. The second flight is made of Rongalau Ful’ or pumpkin flower fritters, followed by Rongalau Aag Kothal Guti (tender pumpkin leaves curry with jackfruit seeds), Bengena Til Pitika, (brinjal and black sesame mash) and Jolphai Asar (Indian olives) served with rice. The last flights is made up of Bora Saul (sticky rice), with Guti Alu Tita Phool (Assamese baby potatoes with bitter flowers), Koldil Sana Bhaj (banana blossom with black Chana) and finally Lau Dail Khar (masur daal with bottle gourd). Our hearts were sold on the baby (read nano) potatoes and the pumpkin leaves with jackfruit seeds - both these dishes are complete marvels in themselves, highlighting tribal cuisine like no other.
“It’s a frequent misconception that we eat only non-veg food. We have a huge array of veg dishes, so when people ask we actually have a lot to offer,” Gitika clarifies. If you are in fact a meat eater, fear not - they’ve got a Jika Maas (fish with ridge gourd) and Kothal Gabori (pork with jackfruit) on the menu at an additional charge. It must be noted that the main ingredients of this feast have been sourced straight from Assam, such as the baby potatoes, Burmese coriander, black sesame, bitter flowers, alkali, indian olive pickle and sticky rice, showcasing Assamese cuisine in the most authentic manner.
Cognisant of people’s natural tendency, Thomas says “ I think a lot of people, for some reason, are intimidated by it and you have to be conscious and wary of that. That’s what we’ve kept in mind - we want it to be as accessible and as easy to accept as possible. Part of that is also people who maybe don’t want to come into the whole experience bit of it, so we have some options on our a la carte menu as well. Maybe they might try one of those and come back and have the whole experience.” He is encouraged to add a few north-eastern dishes to the standard Bombay Canteen menu so as to open people up to the idea of experimenting with regional cuisine, setting a culinary trail ablaze.
The food festival spans two weeks, from April 3rd to the 16th, giving people enough time to explore the cuisine, and revisit as the food shall compel them to do so. The meal is designed for 2 people, and a 24 hour pre-booking is mandatory for the thaal, which is available only at dinner. A la carte Assamese specials are available for lunch and dinner.
The cost for the whole meal is INR 1800 for two, excluding tax.