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POP-UPS INTRODUCE ASSAMESE FLAVOURS TO DISTANT CITIES By Azera Parveen Rahman
9:41:54 pm 08-February-2018
Mumbai, 8th Feb (IANS): One of the constant irritants coming along Joyee's way was when friends, acquaintances and people she barely knew professed their love for Assamese food like "noodles and momos".

"That's not from Assam!" she would say, not quite convincing them. Until last April. The best response, this 30-year-old Assamese staying in Mumbai realised, was through a plate of food itself. So she decided to throw open her house for a random gathering, or pop-up, where she served a home-cooked Assamese meal, its flavours as authentic as it could get.

Needless to say, people loved it, leading Joyee to host four more such pop-ups.

A rapidly catching-on trend, pop-ups offer the luxury of zero risk vis-a-vis opening a full-fledged restaurant. Depending on the number of people you would like to host in a pop-up, you could set up the tables at home or in a public space, like on the neighbourhood pavement. For the guests, it's a wonderful opportunity to taste new experiences and unusual flavours, while the cover charge ensures that the host retrieves the expenditure on the meal and a margin of profit too.

But, of course, the foremost reason and the fuel behind the concept in itself is love for food. For Joyee and her friend-turned-business partner Priyangi, for instance, it was the longing for Assamese food in Mumbai when they arrived here as students that turned them towards their own kitchen. Every now and then they would rustle up a traditional meal to satiate that homesickness and would sometimes invite their friends over.

"Our friends would always be surprised at the simplicity of the food and the uniqueness of the ingredients that we use. It also made us realise how little people know about the food from the region. But how could we blame them? There were hardly any options in the city to taste authentic Assamese flavours," Joyee said. It was on Bihu, on the occasion of the Assamese New Year in 2016, that the duo decided to do the honours themselves and hosted their first pop-up at their home.

It was the presence of the same absence -- lack of awareness about Assamese cuisine -- that prompted Delhi-based food writer Plavaneeta Borah to do similar pop-ups at her home. Not just her non-Assamese friends and acquaintances, but experts like food critics and chefs too "confessed" their lack of knowledge about food from the northeastern region.

"In recent years we have seen a regional food trend taking a strong hold across the country; yet, there are hardly any restaurants that offer Assamese cuisine. You will barely see any upscale restaurant offering food from the region in the cities."

This, Plavaneeta said, pushed her to think along the lines of hosting pop-ups to familiarise people -- friends, experts, strangers -- with Assamese cuisine. She has hosted 10 pop-ups till date, all at her home in south Delhi. "I try to do at least one or two pop-ups a month," she said.

It was again the same line of thought that prompted well-known stylist Meher Ahmed to put on the chef's hat and host her first pop-up, serving some rare flavours in a city like Mumbai last December.

On her plate were items like Manipuri sticky rice, bambooshoot pork, Assamese-style chicken curry, rohu maas tenga (tangy carp curry), and smoked fish chutney, among others. Needless to say, her Xeet Kalor Bhuj (Winter Food Festival) was a big hit among her 21 guests.

Food is a great mirror to a community and its culture. So not only are these pop-ups introducing a particular cuisine, but also creating awareness about the region that it originated from. Some of these hosts make it a point to dress in their traditional attire and serve the food on bell metal (Kaahor) utensils.

It's an opportunity to clear some misconceptions too. For instance, Plavaneeta said that Assamese food is often confused with Bengali cuisine. "Assamese and Bengali food share a number of common ingredients, but their flavours are different," she said, adding that she often gets, "Do you eat ants and silk worms" kind of questions as well. "Through these pop-ups I have attempted to remove some misconceptions," she said.

Getting the right ingredients is crucial to creating authentic flavours and so Joyee in Mumbai and Plavaneeta in Delhi source most of their raw materials from Assam itself. C.R. Park and INA Market in Delhi, however, offer some good choice of ingredients to cook northeastern cuisine, like khorisa (bambooshoot), bhoot jolokia (king chilli), and Ou'Tenga (elephant apple).

A typical Assamese menu constitutes khar (water filtered through ash of plantain leaves) -- usually omita (papaya) khar -- dal (lentil soup), tenga (a tangy curry) and pitika (mashed potatoes or brinjal). The vegetarian fare includes boror (fritters) tenga, xaak (greens), and koldil (banana flower) preparation, and non-vegetarian includes fish, mutton, chicken and pork, cooked in different styles. Dessert usually consists of payash (rice kheer) and curd with jaggery.

The concept of a pop-up restaurant is said to have originated a decade back in Los Angeles with Ludobites, a mobile restaurant by chef Ludo Lefebvre. Pop-ups can be used as fund-raisers and, apart from giving home chefs an opportunity to exhibit their skills, it is also considered a safe means to test menus, gauge public response and invite investors in case they are keen on getting into the food industry full-time.

Soon after the success of their first pop-up, Joyee and Priyangi, for instance, launched their Assamese food delivery kitchen, O'Tenga. With an exhaustive menu and a request for advance bookings, they deliver food across Mumbai and are featured on popular food apps. Both women have now quit their jobs -- Priyangi was in the advertising industry for eight years and Joyee worked in an MNC -- to fully concentrate on their food venture.

Another Mumbai-based Assamese, Kasturi Barua, also started her food delivery kitchen, Kasos Kitchen, in November last year. Her Uruka (on Magh Bihu or Makar Sankranti) dinner menu which was priced at Rs 1,000, was a big hit. For advertising, Instagram, she said, is her main tool. "I also use Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to spread the word," Kasturi added.

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