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Into the pantry with Gitika Saikia, chef and owner of Gitika’s Pakghor

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-09-2017 Diya Kohli

Gitika Saikia sings a song to explain the significance of one of the many wonderful ingredients in her pantry of the North-East. It is a song about cooking with the oddly shaped otenga. “The song describes the joy of cooking the elephant apple. It releases such beautiful aromas that everyone for miles around starts salivating uncontrollably.” She tells me the legends and stories of age-old recipes that have been created around such ingredients.

Her pantry is a reflection of the history and culture of her people and it teaches me things about how flowers, roots and ferns are foraged, dried, smoked and preserved—their essence transforming ordinary dishes into extraordinary feasts.

She educates me about khar, an alkaline liquid which is made by passing water through the ashes of dried peels of the bhim kola, a banana indigenous to Assam used to smoothen gravies, and holds forth on the titaphool which grows only in February, a flower with the right amount of bitterness and an essential element for every Bihu feast. She tears off a black frond from the tip of the curly dhekia xaak, a delicate fern that is absolutely delightful in pork curries and wilts rapidly in the merciless Mumbai sun.

Everything in Saikia’s pantry has a purpose, like the kanh (bell-metal) dishes which are used as serving dishes and are indicative of the importance of a guest. The status of VIPs is reaffirmed at community feasts by the fact that they are served in these kanh plates, and offered rarer meats like those of duck or goose.

She takes me through the delicious chutneys that this smorgasbord yields—there are myriad permutations and combinations, like the dried fish and bhut jolokia. She offers tips along the way—“The pippali is perfect to infuse aromas into a country chicken curry. But remember only to use country chicken, for the broiler bird will never taste the same even if you use the same spices.”

Each of Saikia’s ingredients opens a window into Assamese culture, straddling rural, tribal and urban flavours.

1.Fried silkworms; 2. Dried pond fish; 3. Dried jasmine; 4. ‘Khar’; 5. Manipuri black rice; 6 ‘Titaphool’ (dried bitter flowers); 7. Assorted greens: wild coriander, rattan shoot, Fiddlehead fern; 8 Glutinous rice; 9 Dried bamboo shoots; 10. Smoked ‘bhut jolokia’; 11. Fermented soy bean; 12. Elephant apple; 13. Whole wrapped bamboo shoot. Photos: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

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