Understanding The Assamese Thali, 7 Unique Elements To Explore

Indian thalis are a delightful representation of the diverse and rich culinary heritage of the country. These elaborate meals served on large platters offer the chance to taste many elements of a cuisine in one sitting and every state has its special thali to explore. In the northeast state of Assam, the thali is a wonderful opportunity to explore the culture on a plate.

Assam is made up of many tribes, each with its languages, traditions and culinary customs but each has its additions to contribute to its local thali. From the staple rice to the flavourful fish curries, the Assamese thali celebrates locally sourced ingredients and traditional cooking techniques.  

Video Credits: Chanakya Bhuyan Vlogs/YouTube

There are no hard and fast rules about how to eat the thali, but there are some cultural guidelines that will serve to make your meal a better one. Here are a few details that will help you understand an Assamese thali better

1. Bell Metal Utensils

The traditions begin with the serving dishes themselves. Assamese thalis are usually presented on utensils crafted from bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin. These bell metal utensils hold significant importance within the Assamese communities, serving both domestic and religious purposes. It’s believed the practice was brought to Assam by artisans travelling with Mughal general Turbaka in 1532 AD, who tried to invade but was defeated by Ahom King Chuhungmung. The artisans were then settled in Hajo, and despite some fleeing during 19th-century Burmese invasions, their craft endured, now a vital facet of Assamese culture. In traditional Assamese weddings, brides carry brass and bell metal utensils to their in-laws, a symbol of enduring tradition.

2. Khar Served First

One of the most unique additions to Assamese cuisine, Khar is an alkaline dish which contains the liquid of sun-dried, filtered banana skin ash. The banana skins are dried out and then stored until needed. When khar dishes are needed, the skins are burnt and water is filtered through the ashes overnight to produce an astringent liquid called kolkhar. This liquid is preserved in bottles and then added to a variety of dishes which are then known as kharis which are usually vegetable-based and made from things like raw papaya, gourds or local greens. It’s believed that khar cleanses the stomach and is always eaten first in the Assamese thali

3. Resplendent Rice

Like many cultures around India, rice is a staple feature of an Assamese thali. A serving of rice will be found in the centre of the thali, but unlike in many places, the rice is just as much of a star in the meal as any of the other dishes. Rice is the backbone of Assam’s agriculture and appears in almost every meal from the breakfast Jolpan dishes to the sweet rice and pitha desserts. There are many favoured varieties which each serve a different purpose such as the fragrant joha, the sticky bora saul or the ‘magic rice’ chowhua. 

4. No Skipping Pitika

Another essential part of the thali is a pitika dish. The word pitika itself just means mashed so this dish is usually a mashed mixture of vegetables and some mild seasoning like mustard oil which is drizzled over for flavour. One of the most common pitika varieties is aloo pitika, made with potatoes, onions (either raw or fried) and some fried chilli. Pitika could also include eggs, mashed fish, roots, locally foraged greens and much more, it’s a dish that varies as per location and seasonality, but will always find its way onto the thali.

5. Enjoy Tenga Last

If you’re sitting down for an Assamese thali, there’s sure to be a tenga dish to enjoy along the way, usually towards the end of the meal. Tenga means sour and in a similar way to pitika, there are many different ways to make a ‘tenga’ dish. Assam has its own unique category of souring agents that are usually native fruits and vegetables such as Ou Tenga (elephant apple), Kaji Nemu (Assam limes), or a variety of local tomatoes to name just a few. The base of the dish could be anything from lentils to meat, although the fish dish Masor Tenga is the most popular.

6. Don’t Expect Dessert

If you have a sweet tooth, then you might not be too pleased with the fact that Assamese thalis don’t generally account for any dessert at the end. Usually, fresh doi (yoghurt) is served as a palate cleanser and to aid digestion however, some have adapted traditions a bit to add a sweetened payokh at the end of the meal, made from bora saul rice or barnyard millet soaked in milk which is more commonly a festive dessert

7. End With Paan

In place of a dessert, most homes serve a type of paan called Tamul Paan. This is usually a combo of raw betel nut and betel leaves served in a bell metal vessel known as bota. It’s accompanied by edible limestone and tobacco and chewing tamul paan after a meal is a practice aimed at refreshing the breath and aiding the digestion process.

While this is a broad generalisation of the many very individual food customs that exist within Assam, it should help you understand what to expect from an Assamese thali and maybe even provide some fun facts to share with your friends.