Ossum Assam

Yes, as on this Independence Day, I have to go back home, back to routine and to my work, which eagerly awaits me, and since the lounge was closed at Guwahati airport (the folks took freedom from work I guess), I picked up a coffee and sat down to pour my wrath on paper once again.

Let me start backwards this time. The lows followed by the highs. Maybe the irritation of seeing people misuse freedom still persists. Came to Assam for a flying visit.

Yesterday I was in the mood for some fine wine and dine. But since the other half was a little under the weather, we thought maybe we could just get something delivered. Between us, finding a choice that we both enjoy equally is anyway tough. After some discussion,  (read fight) we zeroed on pizza, that he relishes, and I find blemishes in. Over the course of the next hour, I figured why Guwahati is not Pune. Because things we consider normal just don’t work here. Full of matriotism (why does it have to be patriarchal), also having told the cook also to take a break, 8.00 pm when the hunger pangs started, we thought let us order (Domino’s, half hour, you see where this is going). For some reason could not find the 1800 number for Domino’s, that is fine, let me order online. Went to their site and was trying to specify the location, and then the system went crazy, it refused to recognise my location, whatever way we tried, it refused to deliver at our location. Disappointed, forget dominos’, we will try pizza hut. Fifteen minutes later, we are looking at each other. Pizza hut does not deliver at our location as well. Is there a conspiracy? True nationalism surfaced, I will try KFC. Luck had a day off too, they did not deliver either. How can that be, how is it possible that all these food joints had a special aversion against my location, would deliver 1 km away, but not where I was, in the heart of the city. By this time, I was ready to climb the wall. And I was hungry.

With the hubby’s pressure already high, I took few deep breaths to control mine. Let us order some local stuff from some local shop and drown the sorrow with the Glen. Looked at Zomato, Swiggy , ubereats and the likes of it for food delivery options. After eliminating the clowns mentioned above, very few choices remained, mostly places that looked quite dubious. Ok, let me order some Chinese north eastern variety, being the unpatriotic I was. I chose the first restaurant on the list (was too tired to really care), now where is the order button and the selection button for items, after a microscopic search, could not find anything using which I could order online. Sigh, so decided to fall back to the prehistoric method of calling the restaurant. First number, nobody picked up the phone. Second number, the line was down. All our options gone, I declared tearfully that I did not want dinner any more. (My language being a trifle more powerful like- I won’t die if I don’t eat today)

Thankfully I was convinced otherwise, and we walked to the nearest restaurant and got home something to eat, drowned it in with the aforementioned glen. Solace is, we did not go hungry.

Just two days earlier we went to a very interesting place in the heart of the tea estates- a place called Wild Mahseer. A pre-independence tea estate established in 1875, today converted to a luxurious boutique hotel. A few kilometers off Tezpur, the city with very colourful houses, and too much construction. As a side note, Assam houses are a variety of colour, you can find pinks and blues and purples and greens and various shades of yellow and brown, pretty interesting to see.  Driving through the city, which looked completely under construction with bamboo stuck all around, we reached just around lunchtime.

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our home

Our room was massive with a huge bed, that could tolerate 4 people easily and colonial furniture thrown all around. With a quaint washroom which was large enough to serve as a small bedroom. Feeling quite upbeat, we went down the narrow lane shrouded with greenery to the glasshouse where piping hot lunch was served. The spice just about right, food was not typical oily “hotely” stuff, more like home cooked but with the nice aromas and a solid variety.

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The glasshouse and lunch area

After a nap, the estate manager took us for a tour and showed us the place where “Aamir Khan” had spent a week, we Indians are star struck, we had to go sit where Amir did, take the selfie with the bungalow just to show off. But the place was big and beautiful and spotless clean, with a small golf course outside. it was like we were in a large country manor, somewhere in the highlands. Picturesque!

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The Amir bungalow, literally

Took a walk amidst the sprawling hectares of tea bagaans behind the estate, learnt all the art of how tea is made from the over-zealous manager, who was giving us a crash course in “Tea estate primer for dummies”. After a couple of hours of this, all I needed was a finished product, a cup of hot tea, which was served (yes, believe me) complete with a vintage tea cozy.

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The sprawling tea gardens

Couple of days of being spoilt rotten with the good food and drinks, long walks, with extra doses of sight-seeing, no TV and a backdrop of cheerful green, whichever direction you turn. The weather was far from perfect, humid and sultry. It was not a “doing” holiday, where we had to be constantly on the move, just a “chill” time.

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miles to go

But good times have to come to an end and we had to come back and face the pizza crisis in the noisy city of Guwahati. As luck would have it, the weather was hot and we could not spend too much time in the exploring the history of Tezpur, the bloodied city with its own story of war of Gods and a beautiful princess at the centre of it all.

Since the story is being completed a few days later, all is well that ended well, and I did get a something that looked like a pizza on the flight back.

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Food Food

My relationship with food started when I was very young. Even as a kid, I loved the warmth of the place, the aromas and the dishes my parents cooked up. I vaguely remember sitting on the kitchen floor (our kitchen was huge, you could put a double bed and sleep), my mom making hot chapatis and my bro and I would hog like anything on simple  रोटी and भिंडी की सब्ज़ी. My dad also loved to cook, so when it was a question of specialty dishes, he would shoo mom out of the kitchen, turn his lungi into lambda/2, curse everyone around, and get going. Every couple of weeks, we would have family friends over, my parents would spend the day cooking and those coming would also bring some variety, and we would have a feast. I never knew how eating all that food never fattened me up (in contrast to even water being fattening these days).

So, was it surprising that I wanted to cook too? And my mom would not let me. See, in very early days, we had a kerosene stove, and she was not comfortable with me going close to it. When I was in about class VII, we got our first gas stove and suddenly I had access.. Still she would not let me. “You worry about your studies, you have your whole life ahead, ज़िन्दगी भर खाना तो बनाना ही है”. So what would a persistent brat like me do? I would wait for her to leave home and then I would do whatever the hell I wanted. The first vegetable I ever made was आलू की सब्ज़ी, when my parents were not at home. And it turned out to be somewhat edible, my parents ate it, with complaints, but finished it. And then there was no more stopping me.

Unlike a lot of educated girls in my generation, I knew the basic art and science of Indian cooking, all my spices and oils and what goes with what, several years before marriage. Yet, when I got married, my first kitchen experience with traditional “पापड़ सेकना आता है?”, was as tough as it goes. I passed, but barely. See, the papad turned out, not 100% flat, a little too much burnt in a few places, some pieces chipped off as I used a चिमटा and held it too tight. (I still do that, I can’t hold a papad with my bare fingers near the flames). Even after 20 odd years, I have only marginally improved. My bong food experience of yesteryear’s did not teach me “how to  सेकोfy a papad perfectly and impress your mil”.

Cooking after a full work day was not something to look forward to, but early days, I had the enthusiasm. And with practice, the daily bread churned out in one hr flat, with one curry, daal, rice and chapatis, thanks to the great invention called the pressure cooker and its separators. And once in awhile, we had friends over and I figured out quite a few things to cook, that wasn’t time consuming and went well with folks, including reusing leftovers.

These days, the biggest bottleneck with cooking is, the fellow who eats it. He will not have anything to do with pastas, but he loves Pizza; any kind of noodles is completely no, no. So most non-indian cuisines are ruled out. And he has a hate hate relationship with the most coveted spices like cloves and cinnamon. Any whiff of that and.. You end up hearing remarks like “ दाल में आज कुछ problem है” ,“सब्ज़ी hostel वाली लग रही है”, “इसमें गरम मसाला डाला है”. Talk of paranoia. The spice is not there in the house, and he can smell it. So, working with such restrictions, it is best to let the maid handle it and pass on the comments to her. In my home, you eat what the maid cooks up, or starve. Maybe he will be happy the day he can download food.

The interesting fact about cooking, my cooking, is that when I put a lot of effort into this art, the dish is typically a flop and I have had the pleasure to throw away stone cakes (cakes as hard as the adjective) which even insects refused to touch, creating food that people could barely eat and I had to finish it across three days.

The day I know my maid is going to be missing in action for the next seven (unbelievable) days, my temper starts soaring higher at the thought of being made to cook by maid. It doesn’t matter that I love cooking and it hardly takes me an hour to cook up an interesting meal from scratch (or a story like this one). My husband is content with खिचड़ी also, but when I decide to get worked up, I really work at it.

So day 1 is really, oh well, just दाल चावल. Excuse me, it does qualify as meal. And I have excuses, several of them eg, coming home tired after a hard day’s work (can you hear the dripping पसीना), followed by multiple calls and a long 3 ½ km brisk walk. Day 2 is more normal (the undying guilt of feeding दाल चावल to hubby) with रोटी and my special culinary delight called पत्तागोभी मटर (ugh, even I could barely ingest it).

Third day I decide to go experimental with अचारी दही वाली भिण्डी and when I hopefully look at my dear husband for an encouraging feedback, all I get was “ये कड़वी क्यों है?” How do I know, ask Sanjeev Kapoor. Embittered but emboldened, relentless search on the internet for the next designer dish from my exclusive boutique results in पनीर पुदीने काली मिर्च the next day (except that I forget the kalimirch part of it), but it is still a hit. Again my hopeful look (why don’t husbands get it, you are supposed to say it is awesome, to get something edible next day), and this time I got “अच्छी है”. Mere 2 words for an hours work! Wonder what I’ll try the next day? With all the encouragement I get, I would probably stick to safe खिचडी.