Gitika Saikia On Her Assamese Culinary Heritage & Preserving It

When we first approached Gitika Saikia – the home chef who was single-handedly responsible for spotlighting Assamese food and bringing it to oblivious city-slickers, she attracted all kinds of attention when she started back in 2014. Nine years since, through the course of our conversation, while North Eastern food has begun getting its due, she believes that it’s not quite where it’s meant to be – finding a place among other mainstream cuisines of the country. In the span of the hour-long conversation, she speaks to Slurrp about how being in sync with nature is important, the challenges involved in delivering an authentic experience and being the ‘evangelist that made Assamese food as cool as any other.’

On Climate Change & Sourcing Ingredients

The authenticity of the food is still intact but availability of a few ingredients are getting a little challenging despite other vegetables still being available. For example, different types of ferns are still present but ingredients like red ants and silkworms are seasonal – so I fly down there myself during season to source it. Even tomatoes or coriander leaves which are easily available here, are not available there throughout the year but people are pretty happy; that's how nature is. I think it's all about not going against nature; we do not miss cauliflower or carrots or spinach, because there are other vegetables that the seasons have to offer. If everything is available throughout the year, then you're trying to go against nature to cultivate it inorganically.

I remember in my last menu I had this skunk vine, which is a creeper that has high medicinal properties and especially given to people who have had surgery because it heals internal wounds faster. Since villages are fast-disappearing, ingredients like this or the Asian pennywort aren’t available easily. But all these will need serious strategic planning from the government; if the farmers do not have demand and the supply chain is not good, they will not be motivated to grow this produce.

I remember eating this fruit called coffee plums in my childhood and when went home during the summer-monsoon months this year, I was lucky enough to find some in the market. Although it is highly expensive and not available easily anymore, I still purchased some so that I could savour it. The beauty of this fruit is that it must be pressed from all sides using your thumb because if it is eaten as it is, it does not taste good. The small fruit, once pressed, becomes instantly edible. But all of these ingredients are making the disappearing act!

On Logistical Challenges & Authenticity

All Image Credits: Gitika Saikia

Basically, to present the food authentically, those vegetables need to be available and because many of them are not available here locally, I work with various farmers. Earlier, I would draw up plans with my mother-in-law about what to grow if there was an upcoming event or large gathering but that isn’t possible now as she is no longer with us. When COVID happened, I was unable to bring a lot of produce from there; she used to take care of the farms and I would sponsor the upkeep of it. The second challenge is something that has been there right from the beginning – is one of wastage; because the ingredients are so perishable, there is a lot of it that gets thrown away by the time it reaches the destination, which means huge losses are incurred.

When I have to arrange for dhekia (fiddlehead ferns) to be brought down, more than half of it gets thrown away. If it doesn’t get used within a couple of days since, chances are that all of it might go to waste. Educating people that these are highly precious ingredients is necessary because even wild ingredients like silkworms or red ants require sourcing from villages and thankfully, because my house is in one of them, surrounded by forests, I manage to get it; even from my own field and garden. These ingredients are also not the sort that can be sent across by courier. Yes, it is challenging to do but what is a little fun without some challenges right?

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On Giving Assamese Food A Platform

When I quit my corporate job to follow my passion in 2014 and look back now, I’m pretty happy to do what I could, to contribute to the cuisine and I’m being called a pioneer. Today I see so many people that are trying to explore the cuisine without being scared wondering what other people will say or think. The cuisine is also being accepted as part of a larger culture with movies like Axone – which might not contribute directly but it shows confidence. I belong to a tribe (Sonawal Kachari) and there was a lot of presumption surrounding tribes and tribal food.

There was fear about what people might say if this was common knowledge since I’m bringing food that doesn’t have high regard in the mainstream culinary landscape. It's like I'm going to be trashed and bullied. When I did by Rongali Bihu pop-up in April 2015 with Rushina (Munshaw Ghildiyal) at APB Cook Studio, it was the time when red insects were in season and I thought it was a very bold step from my end to have introduced it at the event. People wrote to me asking why it was necessary to showcase this as opposed to the 10,000 ingredients I could’ve talked about instead, this early on. I responded to them saying why should I be embarrassed of what I grew up with? Even after some people watched my Netflix show (Menu Please) or the videos I shot for TLC channel, I received a lot of messages that questioned the authenticity and accused me of disregarding and disrespecting the cuisine.

When COVID happened and I happened to share one of these videos, someone asked me to take down the video. I was asked if I was embarrassed and if I wanted to make the country like China. But again, I’m so proud of my tribe and the entire cuisine of the North East. Yes, we do eat vegetables and meat, but we also have various kinds of protein sources like silkworms and water beetles that the North East has been gifted.

On Dispelling The Stigma Surrounding North Eastern Food

Entomophagy is not only picking up in India but also studies are being conducted across the world about how the usual sources of protein will not be sufficient so how the issue can be fixed. So I guess, I still have a lot to do as a teacher, where I should still continue telling people what the benefits are; the reasons why some geographies in parts of the world consume locally found arthropods. There is still a long way to go and I cannot be discouraged or demotivated. I think for me, self-motivation would still be key. Sometimes when I see trolls I’m temporarily let down but then it's fine; and I think to myself that they probably don't know since there is not much spoken or written about it. All the research works are still not available easily. They don't know much about that culture. I see this as a plus point. Because they don't know, a lot more information can be fed to them.

On Non-Negotiable Principles About Work

The first thing is that if we're talking about something there cannot be a time gap, it has to be followed by a practical event. Because the moment we talk about something, there needs to be a consistent supply of information or knowledge as well as the product needs to be there. Like, you read in books but you may not see someone may not eat it, but then when people share the experience with those who have been eating it or tried it recently, it becomes easier to express how they feel about it.

Events have to be designed in such a way that you start building up to talking about something, it has to be made available as an experience. Vegetables like the nettle leaf are very seasonal, rarely available and even in Assam, the people don’t eat it anymore because of how much work goes into cultivating it, cleaning it – people get bad scratches, but produce like this is disappearing from our palettes. Even while I lived there, I have eaten nettle maybe once or twice during the time. Whether it is vegetables or protein, it has to be made accessible and grown more during the season.