By Nishiraj A. Baruah
Once considered a taboo food meant for lower castes, pork (gahori in Assamese) has elbowed out mainstream dishes like masor tenga to become almost a state dish of Assam.
Sixteen years ago on a wintry December, I and my wife were on our honeymoon in Tawang, the high altitude hill town in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. As we were driving around, I wanted my brand new Delhi-bred wife to try out some typical north-eastern style pork. Pork is a daily diet among the tribal communities.
“Got pork?” I asked, stopping by at a roadside dhaba. Of course, the owner cum waiter cum cook had. “Fresh?” “Yes, very fresh!” he said. Little did we know then that he would carry the idea of ‘fresh’ to an extreme.
He disappeared behind his dhaba and in a minute or so emerged with a big fat pig. Displaying it to us like a waiter in a fine diner displays the label of a wine bottle before pouring, the guy then proceeds to drag it to a corner about 50 metres away and before we could figure out what he was upto, he held the pig between his legs and sliced its head off with a machete to the horrible, agonizing cries of the dying animal. With blood sputtering out, scattering everywhere, the severed head now on the ground, he then went on to chop-chop the butchered animal into bloody little red pieces.
My wife almost threw up seeing the ghastly sight. Needless to say both of us lost all appetite for pork. Fresh we wanted, and this was as fresh as one could get. So much for north-eastern delicacy.
The memory was playing on my head when I landed at Shankardev Kalashetra, Guwahati, to cover a cultural festival called Rongali last month. The food stalls were full of gahori (pork) specialties: Roasted pork, Naga style pork, pork with bamboo shoot, and pork with bhoot jolokia (second hottest chilly on earth) and so on. Journalists from Mumbai and Delhi were delightfully surprised by the sheer variety and taste. My friends in the city were also tossing around restaurant names like Raja Mircha, a must visit in Guwahati for an outstanding pork meal. Great!
Further down at Dibrugarh, my hometown some 500 km away from Guwahati, pork has become the operative buzzword when it comes to eating. At an international agro festival there attended by no less than the Assam CM, it’s the same culinary story: Pork, pork and more pork in all the food stalls there. Without pork there can be no picnics by the Brahmaputra; eating out means pork again in one of the cool motels along the highway such as Mayflower or Bambooz, and if you are a special guest at someone’s house, pork would be the main dish. A Bihu community feast is never complete without pork and ‘nokhua’ (when villagers gather to feast on the paddy fields with the first crop) is all about new rice and pork. In fact, you need nothing else if you have pork and rice. The other dishes – chicken, mutton, fish – largely remain untouched.
It was never like this before. Like beef for Hindus, pork has always been a taboo, a meat for the lower class, tribal folks or labourers, snootily avoided by the upper castes. Only sold in dinghy, hidden outlets in downmarket areas, or labour class neighbourhoods, my mom would be absolutely disgusted if she gets to know I eat pork. We are Brahmins, you see, and we aren’t supposed to have meat that’s eaten by ‘lower’ castes. Even my sister refuses to cook pork in her kitchen, leave alone eating.
So why this bias? “The taboo is mainly on account of hygiene. Pigs are often reared on municipal waste, hospital waste and even hotel waste. That’s not healthy,” says my friend Manoj Kumar Bosumatary, a Stephanian who left a managerial role in SBI to start a co-operative piggery in Assam.
He is right, of course. Isn’t that a common sight, even in Delhi – where there is garbage, there are pigs. The danger of getting tape worms from pork is all too real. I know of a pork lover who used to faint frequently. The tape worm that he got from the meat had grown into a metre and has completely taken over his brain. “If the pigs are not regularly dewormed, it can be unhealthy,” says Bosumatary.
Thankfully, the new gen is conscious of the hazards making sure they buy it from villages (which are cleaner) rather than from town shops. And yes, they have taken on to pork like how! And guys like Bosumatary, now the CEO of Symbiotic Foods, is making sure pigs are reared using scientific breeding techniques. “Slowly the stigma of pig rearing is going away. Earlier, it was mainly done by Dalits and tribals like Mising. But now educated youths are looking at it as a self-employment generation activity. In our trainings sessions we have had people passing out from Assam Valley School, SRCC Delhi, as also an architect and a retired Lt. Col,” he says.
In fact, pigs and pork have become so lucrative a business in Assam that two of my friends – one Muslim and the other a Brahmin – have entered this area. Nozoom Rehman, one of the top real estate developers of Guwahati, is thinking of starting a piggery himself, while the later named Vedanta Bhagawati runs two restaurants in Guwahati called Raja Mircha where he serves nine varieties of pork – all his own recipes. “Though my mom would never eat or cook pork at home, she had no objections when I opened my restaurants serving pork specialities,” says Bhagawati. With a menu that includes the bestseller pork with sesame seeds, served in traditional Assamese brass plates, the restaurants have a no-nonsense décor offering a very affordable pork thali.
Bhagawati had travelled all across Northeast – Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, etc – to pick up pork recipes, which he tweaked to add his own unique flavour. For two years he was cooking by himself and it is only now that he has four cooks. His pork dishes have become so popular that within months of opening his first outlet in Dispur, Guwahati, he has opened another one at Rukmini Gaon. And now he plans on a third one in Chandmari, an upscale Guwahati neighbourhood, and one in North Campus, Delhi University.
Needless to say, there are many repeat customers and one such die-hard Raja Mircha fan happens to be a professor of Delhi University who would come straight from Guwahati airport to his outlet for a meal before he heads to his hometown. And while returning, he will make it a point to have his last meal there before flying off to Delhi.
We loved what we ate at Raja Mircha, each melt-in-the-mouth dish throwing us into a gastronomical orgasm. Reviews in Zomato are full of compliments. “The one with ghost pepper, bhoot jolokia, was the ultimate if you like it hot,” one reviewer says. “Pork with Lai Xaak, Pork with Bamboo Shoot in Naga Style and lastly Pork with Seasame Seeds. Lai Xaak was average, so was the Bamboo Shoot. But man the sesame seeds, damn! It was THE tastiest. You people need to try it,” that’s another reviewer for you. Indeed, give me pork any day and I will ditch my mutton rogan josh.
Besides taste, pork comes with some other advantages. You don’t have to try too hard to cook it. Not elaborate like North Indians cuisine, the beauty of pork comes from its simplicity of cooking. Forget spices, you don’t even need oil. It gets cooked on its own fat. Just put the meat, some tomatoes, garlic and ginger, and maybe bamboo shoot in a pressure cooker and bingo, in minutes you have something really really out of the world! “It doesn’t take too much effort and too many ingredients to cook,” says Hoihnu Hauzel, author of the Penguin published The Essential North-East Cookbook.
Pork is also relatively cheaper than mutton. “It’s a cheap source of protein. It’s one of the meats which is antibiotic free. The fat is not as harmful as other red meat,” says Bosumatary.
But, he warns, one should be very careful where you buy your pork from. In Delhi, for instance, I would buy it only from Khubchand in Hauz Khas. In Noida, I would buy it only from Debon – though at Rs 900 per kg as compared to Khubchand’s Rs 280/kg, it’s bloody expensive there. As for eating out, I go to The Naga Kitchen in Uphaar complex or various state Bhawans of North East in Chanakyapuri or the north-eastern outlets in Dilli Haat. At least I know I won’t get tape worms there.
“Just remember, pigs grown on concentrates will always taste better than those reared on waste,” says Bosumatary.
But not every Assamese is amused by the big fat story. “There is just too much pork! Any north-eastern festival (including the annual North East fest in Delhi) has stalls that sell only pork. Now come on, north-eastern food and particularly Assamese food is not just about pork, it is also about masor tenga (sour fish curry), joha rice, herbal curries and jolpan. But now people from outside the state must be thinking Assamese people eat only pork and nothing else. We need to showcase our other dishes too,” says Kundal Hazarika, a travel professional with TUI India.
Well, well, now that’s some pork for thought.