Even before we’d piled into our new Volvo XC60 from Kolkata, to begin our food-themed road trip to Northeast India, I was already imagining the aromas wafting through the air. I had been fantasizing about this corner of India for a long time now, curious about its pristine landscapes and indigenous tribes, and their different and unique cuisines. My fantasy had finally become reality.
My friends and I arrived in Guwahati after an 11-hour drive from Siliguri, the gateway to the Northeast. Though long, the journey wasn’t particularly taxing, thanks to the Volvo XC60’s cushy interiors, smooth handling, and high ground clearance, which made it easy to negotiate the mountainous terrain.
I couldn’t wait to begin our culinary adventure. And before long I discovered that despite influences from West Bengal and Southeast Asia, Assamese cuisine has its own distinct style and flavours. Our first meal was at Khorikaa, touted to be the most authentic destination in Guwahati for Assamese fare. We ordered the komora diya hanhor mangkho, duck meat cooked with ash gourd; a dish that uses lots of spices unlike most Assamese cuisine and is usually served during special occasions. Smothered in a thick, rich gravy infused with red chillies, black peppercorns, garlic and ginger, the tender meat and ash gourd or komora, as it is known in Assamese, made for a delectable blend of flavours. Next came patot diya maas, fish steamed in banana leaves a dish as fragrant as it is delicious. The heady scent of lemon, garlic and mustard, which enveloped us when we unwrapped the parcels of fish, was enough to get our mouths watering. The flavour was unlike anything I had tasted before and I shamelessly licked the banana leaf clean. We ended the meal with sticky rice with cream, and only then did we look around and realize that we were the only ones left in the restaurant.
Over the next few days, we sampled as much Assamese food as we could. At Paradise, famed for its local dishes, we had both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis. There, we were introduced to Assamese mainstays like khar, made with the ash of burnt dried banana peels cooked with papaya or lentils, a smoked fish preparation called goroi maas chutney, the humble aloo pitika, and tangy fish in tomato gravy. We also got slightly adventurous and decided to try the pigeon meat or paro mangsho served with banana flower—a flavour that was new to us but frequently consumed in these parts. I was very excited to try this new kind of meat and the dish did not disappoint. The textural combination of the silky pigeon meat and the almost meaty, mushroom-like banana flower blew me away. This stand-out meal was capped by rice pudding, locally called payokh.
On our last day in Guwahati, we opted for a vegetarian lunch of kochu—a combination of colocasia (or arbi) mixed with lentils and vegetables. Before starting our journey to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, we also sampled pitha, a concoction of ground rice mixed with sugar or salt, steamed in bamboo stem.
The drive to Shillong, with its winding roads, stunning valley views and ethereal cloudscapes was the most beautiful drive I had ever been on. The comfort factor of the Volvo XC60 made the trip even more magical, like I was gliding over the clouds. En route we stopped at Nongpoh for tea and snacks. That’s where we learnt about bamboo shoot pickle, a speciality of the Khasis. Interestingly, Khasi cuisine doesn’t normally use too much bamboo shoot, but the bamboo pickle is an absolute must-have!
A few kilometres outside Shillong we stopped at the breathtaking Umiam Lake with the sprawling Ri Kynjai resort nearby. The serenity of the lake and the possibility of eating traditional food at Sao Aiom, the resort’s outstanding restaurant, was enough to convince us to spend the night here instead of rushing to Shillong.
That night we treated ourselves to Meghalaya fare. First up was a light, fluffy hill preparation of rice cooked in meat stock (usually pork) called jastem, infused with turmeric and herbs. The flavourful rice was paired with a dish of smoked pork and bamboo shoots: a match made in heaven. It tasted divine and I relished every last morsel on my plate.
Up at dawn the next day we piled into our Volvo XC60, our luxurious home on the road, and before long we’d rolled into Shillong. The city was everything the pictures had promised: a cloud-covered paradise that still retains its colonial charm. That afternoon we headed to Police Bazaar, the central market place, and literally ate our way through it! From chaat and sweets at Delhi Mishtan Bhandar to the mutton keema samosas at the historical Eee Cee bakery, we tried everything. As if that wasn’t enough, lunch was at Trattoria, a local favourite where the menu and pictures of the dishes are hung up on the walls. We ordered the pork-based jadoh or Khasi pulao with doh kleh, which is a pork lover’s delight, made from pork fat, intestines, and brain with the simple yet bold flavours of ginger, garlic, and onions.
What I loved about Northeast cuisine is the simplicity of its recipes. The meat and vegetables I tasted weren’t blasted with spices like they often are in north India. Instead, the ingredients shine through. The meals we had were a refreshing change from the flavours I eat back home, and the stunning landscapes of the Northeast were a welcome break from the urban jungle.
When it was time to leave, we got back into the Volvo XC60 for our drive back home, a little sad to be leaving, but content in the knowledge that we would return to drive these roads again.
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