For the past 28 years and counting, Chef Atul Lahkar has been on a mission to put the limelight on the 23 tribal cuisines of the North Eastern state of Assam.
The strong scent of petrichor rose from the ground, after a nightlong orchestra by the infamous Mumbai downpour. On this day last month, an overcast sky threatens another round of shower as we get off the cab at Parel. We walk into Hornby’s at The Grand ITC, Lower Parel where the buffet restaurant is in full swing for breakfast. We find a quiet corner by the window, and wait for Chef Atul Lahkar to join us.
Lahkar, who has flown down from Guwahati, has been spearheading the mission to document the tribal cuisine of Assamese for the past 28 years. He walks in, flaunting a crisp white chef’s coat and a Nikon camera dangling from his right shoulder.
He was in the city to host the Flavours of North East India festival at the five-star. The menu included chicken in broken rice flour, pork in bamboo shoot, boiled chicken stew with veggies, sesame chicken and smoked pork and pork ribs for which he has carried roselle leaves, bamboo shoot, bhut jolokia chillies, dried fish, local herbs and rice.
“I don’t like the city, it is not for me; buildings irritate me,” he quips. Apart from the stash he has carried along, ginger-garlic and green chillies are all he needs to work his magic, he admits. “I tweak the regional recipes to make them palatable to audiences, but I never compromise on the chutneys, which are on the spicier side,” says Lahkar, who runs restaurant Heritage Khorika in Guwahati.
A chef, he says, is an artist. “Working with five-star chefs makes me learn a lot too. They are so organised. They know their cooking, and are eager to learn new recipes and cooking techniques. The attitude of a good chef should be that of a student,” says Lahkar.
Sous Chef Sameer Gupta at the hotel says, “When a chef comes from another part of the country, they carry indigenous ingredients that are exciting to experiment with. Each region has its own way of cooking. The chicken recipe that the chef made with chicken with broken rice flour, no spice, was so delicious, using only ginger, garlic, green chillies and black pepper. It was beautiful. Rich and enhanced. It has enhanced our repertoire, and was a nice training exercise. We get to observe and learn. We will do a pop-up at our brunch.”
A chef’s journey
Lahkar came to Guwahati from his home in Tezpur in 1998. Hailing from a humble background, he missed out on enrolling in a cooking school but nurtured the passion to study food. He became an on-ground student, and started travelling the length and breadth of Assam’s remote tribal villages.
“The state has 23 communities — Rabhas, Tiwas, Karbis, Khamtis, Tai Phakes, Sonowal Kacharis, Bodos, Garos, Misings, Tai Ahom, Moran, Deuri, Dimasa, etc — and all their food has nuances based on their cultural, religious and geographical settings. You cannot ignore a single tribe,” says Lahkar, who learnt many things from the different aspects of Assamese culture which people celebrated with food, and almost every ritual involves food made from seasonal herbs.
The only important technique Lahkar relies on for his cooking is to control the fire, and work with a slow flame. “From villagers, who have 1,000 years of cooking in their DNA, I learnt that controlling the fire is the trick, and to know what ingredient goes in at what stage of cooking. It is important to know the ingredients, how they will react to cooking, and collecting wild produce that is edible. A recipe carries sentiments, if one connects with it, they can deliver an authentic dish,” explains Lahkar.
In 1999, Lahkar opened a cookery school and in 2001, he began conducting workshops, teaching batches of 15 students at a time. This led to a cookery show and contributing recipes for magazines. By 2004, Lahkar was a celebrity, and chefs from all over came to spend time with him in the kitchen.
Without tribal food, Lahkar says, Assamese food is not complete. Assam’s tribal food is uncomplicated, where people cook for their loved ones and from nature’s bounty.
Recently, Lahkar travelled to Tinsukia district near Dum Duma, around 600 kilometres from Guwahati. Another 56 kilometres on, his destination was Khamti village on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Here he spent time with a community of Khamtis.
“I learnt the pasa, a seasonal soup made of river fish, minced meat and makat leaves. In this tribe the men cook, and the process is strenuous. It is almost like using the entire fish, nose to tail.”
Will travel for food experiences
As a traveller, Lahkar relies on locals to direct him to the best foods and spice markets, and prefers the mountains and forests for foraging as compared to cities.
“My last trip was Bangkok where I lived in rice paddy fields with villagers. They spoke in Thai, I spoke in Assamese, but we conversed in one language: the language of good food. I am not smart enough to grasp languages, but I know how to cook for a good stomach,” he says.
When Maharashtra met Assam
After the interview, we take Chef Lahkar around the hotel, which has the famous Lal Baug spice market a stone’s throw away. Before that, we make a pit stop at Ladoo Samrat, known for its Maharashtrian farali foods, missal and sabudana vadas. As we line up, we get chatting with Karuna, a local who has come for the farali missal. “It is Ekadashi, and their fasting missal is white in colour, full of potatoes, potato chivda, peanuts and coconut,” she tells us. On the table, she writes out a Malvani fish curry recipe, as Lahkar shoots questions on ingredients and flavour profiles. “The love of food takes one on a different journey, and to me, food is communication, it is a language, a bridge that helps communicate with other communities,” says Lahkar, as we bid the good lady goodbye and stroll towards the spice market. We stop at Khodat, where the electrical masala pounders are working on a batch of red chillies, the smell blocking our noses and making us sneeze. Lahkar gets a pack of Malvani masala to try with local fish back home. On the way, we stop by at the fish market, from where he buys local dried shrimps to make a chutney. “Local ingredients and Assamese flavours,” he signs off.