A Vicarious Trip to Assam

In a small town called Barpeta in western Assam, 90km northwest of Guwahati every morning a 'Maasela' comes along on his bicycle shouting "Maas Laagbo naki SSS". He is wearing a blue and white checkered lungi around his waist. Mounted on his carrier is a metallic 'handi', a large pot, which contains freshly caught fish - alive and swimming in water. Maina's mother is waiting for the Maasela since morning and she runs out after the Maasela as soon as she hears him.

She takes her pick from the fish in the pot and asks the fish seller to weigh it for her. The Maasela then picks the fish out of the water and weighs it on his weighing scale. The fish is still alive when it is weighed and sold. It is then cut alive in all Barpeta homes and cooked in various traditional recipes. Maina has also cut a live fish herself. It's a routine task for her back home!

Sitting in our ornately furnished shared four bedroom apartment in Delhi, Maina recounts her normal day in her home town to us. "There are hundreds of recipes that we make out of fish", she says. "If you are interested I will cook a fish meal today." So we set out to buy fish. Now, I first started eating and cooking fish when I was in the UK for my masters. There you only find frozen sea fish fillets of Salmon, Cod, Haddock sold in grocery marts and stores. I had never particularly learnt how to buy fish from a fish market before. As we walked into the market I saw a store selling frozen meat and started walking towards it assuming we would buy frozen. Maina tugged at my arm and said, "That is frozen fish. That's not fresh."

"But I have always bought frozen! It's quite nice you know. It tastes good.", I was confused why neatly washed and cut, non-smelling frozen fish is not a preference over whole fish sold in the open market. But she dragged me along to the market nevertheless. Knowing that she knew better I followed silently wondering how we would ensure that the fish sold in the open market was not stale. She walked to one stall and quickly took a look at the variety that he had. "Rahu (Cod) is a really good fish to eat", she said "but the one he has kept is already half cut. I don't think it would be fresh. Let's try this smaller one. Looks like a new breed to me. Bhaiyya iska price kya hai?".

He quoted all his prices and Maina chose one fish. Then she asked "Fresh hai na bhaiyya?" and he habitually opened the fish gill and showed the insides to her. She approved it immediately. She then turned to us and said "I'll buy some eggs as well. You guys will eat eggs right?". I looked around to see what eggs she was talking about. I was about to say 'He doesn't sell eggs here. He only sells fish' . Just then Pooja retracted "No no no.... I'm not having eggs. No no no no ..." It was then that I realised that Maina was talking about 'fish eggs'! "I'll taste some", I said apprehensively. I had never had fish eggs before. 

Back in our apartment, I washed the fish clean and marinated it while Maina supervised the whole process as she geared up to cook. She got some onions, tomatos, garlic and green chillies cut by our cook. She asked her to make some rice and rotis and then took over the kitchen herself. That's when I curiously asked her "How did you know the fish was fresh? What did you check under its gills?".

"Ohh, the gills of a freshly caught fish are still red. That' the sign that it is not stale."

An hour and a half later the meal was ready. Fish curry, Fish egg fry, and murighanta (fish heads boiled and cooked with Dal). "Why did you remove the fish eyes while washing?!" she questioned me. "We normally eat fish eyes. Do you not eat them back home."

"Umm... No not really." I smiled to myself. It couldn't get more exotic than this! Then as she served the murighanta to us she said "The bones in the fish head are not bones. It's cartilage. So you should chew it and eat it. Okay?". I nodded. 

I loved the fish egg fry and the fish curry was absolutely delicious! As we sat at the dinner table she told us how they eat tortoise meat and deer meat as well in Barpeta. "Our cows don't milch. So a six month old baby is not fed milk in bottles. We feed them chicken soup, fish soup and all kinds of meat extracts. The Catfish (Singhada) is very good for baby health." By now I had been transported to some other world altogether. This had been one of my most unique experiences with cuisines so far. I felt like I was sitting in Barpeta in the midst of the beautiful natural landscape of Assam enjoying this meal in a local household - perhaps Maina's home! 


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