The name Assam is derived from the word ‘asama’. Which means ‘peerless’ in the (now extinct) Ahom language – a word you’ll find extremely apt have you ever enjoyed a cup of tea from this north-eastern Indian state!
In terms of production, Assam is the world’s largest tea-producing region: a place in which the high precipitation and warm temperatures make for the perfect growing conditions. And while the state also produces smaller quantities of green and white teas, it’s the black tea – from the indigenous Camellia sinensis var. assamica – which is most famous.
Of course there’s a lot more to this state than its tea. Assam has long been lauded for its silk; and it was also the first site in Asia in which oil drilling took place and, on a more natural note, contains one of the richest biodiversity zones, consisting of tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, riverine grasslands, bamboo orchards and numerous wetland ecosystems.
The plant-life is also pretty wonderful, which leads us to mango, the state fruit, and from there to Assamese cuisine: a confluence of cultural influences that features a staggering variety of flavours.
In the hills, its fermentation and drying which are the prevalent styles. On the plains, there’s an abundance of fresh vegetables, fish and meat. Which means Assamese cuisine, unlike that of other states, is not characterised by the use of spice.
Rice is, of course, a staple. But here in Assam it’s not just a fall-back but the base of almost every meal. Roasted and ground, boiled in its husk and flattened, puffed, or precooked, dried and husked, it appears at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Usually served with vegetables, fish or meat, Assam rice is legendary, and the perfect accompaniment to dishes such as khaar (both an ingredient – made from the ashes of burnt dried banana peels – and a dish that comes in many variations, most commonly as a curried mix of raw papaya, taro, and pulses), maasor tenga (a tangy fish curry, cooked slowly with tomato and lemon), and aloo pitika (potatoes mashed with mustard oil, coriander, and onion).