If you are well-acquainted with Kolkata food scenes, you would know that to taste Assamese food, you have to book a flight to Guwahati. Well, no more actually. Jorhat man Sanku Prasad, who had been managing a guest house for the past few years in Kolkata, has now opened his own restaurant in the city. And the best part is, his restaurant JALUK only serves traditional Assamese food.
The Calcutta Porkaddicts (TCP) – a facebook group for pork aficionados had arranged a porky lunch (Bohag Bihu Boraho Bhoj) at Jaluk on last Sunday to celebrate the upcoming Bihu or Assamese New Year. I am quite fond of TCP for it being a small group of sensible people and for the fact that it is run by President’s rules- a welcome break from much-misused democracy everywhere. Coming back to the Assamese feast, the menu was curated by a dear friend, a culinary diva and the resident ‘Ashamee’ (Bengali for Axomiya) of TCP, Pritha Dutta. The location was a bit difficult, but doable if you don’t mind a bit of adventure for good food.
The 16-cover outlet has a non-descript interior, but you wouldn’t go there to appreciate interiors anyway. It is more of an eat ‘n’ scoot place. Without further ado, let me talk about the food that we had that day. Of course, it was an all pork menu. At first, we were served steamed Joha Rice (Zoha Saul) and Gohari pork (barbecued/smoked pork) on a dry-leaf plate. The rice, grown in Assam, was aromatic and had an excellent taste. It was also quite glutinous and grains stuck with one another making it lumpy. People of Assam love it for these very characteristics. Made me remind of our Gobindobhog rice that we bangalees heart as comfort food. Now the Gohari pork was a real treat for the senses. Three pork cubes (with a good measure of fat) had the light crunch and the smokiness of a barbecue done medium. Before Jaluk, I had this only a week back in Assam itself, cooked for me by a tribal family, and I must say I have developed a strong liking for this dish.
While we were eating, Sanku was explaining the dishes to us. He said that the menu was a mix of both Upper and lower Assam. From my little bit of research in Assamese food, I can add that the food of lower Assam is strongly influenced by cuisines of other regions like Bengali and Oriya and even British and Thai, quite possibly because of invaders, traders, and wanderers from surrounding areas. In Upper Assam, the food is mostly tribal and stands apart with its relatively subtle flavours and use of exotic wild herbs. A traditional meal in Assam begins with a khar, a dish made with the alkaline filtrate of ash obtained from burning the dried fiber of a plantain tree or dried banana peels (Kola Khar), and ends with a tenga, a sour curry, using elephant apple or other souring agents.
Following the tradition, the next dish served was Pork Mati Daali Khar (Urad dal or black gram with pork). Using khar in a dish has multiple benefits. It serves as a palate cleanser and an appetizer preparing one for the rest of the tastes to follow – salty, sour and sweet. Also, the alkaline factor helps balance the body’s pH levels. When using khar in a dish, one does not need many spices or ingredients to elevate the taste of the dish. Some mustard oil, salt and may be some green chilies. Needless to say that the soft mushy urad dal punctuated with pork pieces was one of the high points of the meal.
The dishes that followed the daal, were Sukha Pork, Pork with Mocha (Banana Flowers) and Pork with Lai Xaak (Mustard Greens). During my week-long stay in Majuli in Assam, I had gathered that the philosophy behind Assamese cuisine is ‘keep it simple’. They rely on the natural good taste of the ingredients grown on their homeland soil sweetened by the Mightly Brahmaputra and use fewer spices in cooking most of the dishes. While eating any Assamese dish you will get to savour the taste of the major ingredients optimally. My learning got reconfirmed at Jaluk. Sanku tried to procure as many ingredients as possible from Assam including the mustard greens. We all know that taste of the same greens or vegetables or even fish vary from to region to region courtesy natural resources such as soil and water. Sanku also showed preference towards using very fatty pieces of pork. I think the reason was to integrate the pork fat in the broth to enhance the taste. Most of the curries were soupy and not heavy with spices. Assamese cuisine recommends mustard oil and green chilies to add flavours to dishes. Though sukha pork – stir fry pork with onions, tomatoes and some greens and pork with banana flower were quite nice and interesting, I loved pork with lai xaak. The crunchy greens and the pungent smell made the experience quite fascinating.
To end the feast, came pork o’ tenga with Chalta or elephant apple. Chalta was a bit strange to my taste buds. It had a lot of fibre and one needs to suck out the juice – seemed like a bit of work and hence not for a lyadhkhor (lazy being) like moi. Of course, I was full to the brim by then. Though everything was pre-plated, but there were just too many dishes. The dessert was actually a welcome break from pork and tasted lovely. It was sticky rice heavily doused in cream and topped with akher gur or sugarcane jaggery. A north-east version of Bengali doodh-bhat with gur – though sticky rice makes it zero slurpy. The tight rice and the viscous jaggery went well with me, though I neither like doodh-bhat (rice with milk) nor payesh (thickened and sweetened milk with rice and dry fruits).
Since it was a Prokaddicts’ event, the menu had focussed on oink babes. But Jaluk on regular days offers duck, chicken, and fish as well. Food wise, I loved the experience. I have grown fond of Assamese food for its simplicity. Location wise, it’s for brave hearts. But hey, when did that stop any true-blooded food lover! But I do hope Sanku soon gets enabled to move to a bigger place in a better location. After all, everyone deserves good Assamese meals! Big thanks to him for bringing the taste of Assam to Kolkata. I was curious about the name Jaluk and Sanku did enlighten me. Jaluk is black pepper in Assamese language and it happens to be my favourite spice!
JALUK ASSAMESE RESTAURANT
- Address: NP-159, Nayapatti Main Road, Sector- V, Salt Lake, Kolkata 700091
- Air-conditioned: Yes
- Pocket Pinch: Rs 600 for two
- Parking: On the street outside, it’s a narrow stretch however.