Home is the aroma of Ma adding finishing touches to tenga maas, a fish curry whose flavour is made sour with tomatoes - she knows I absolutely love it. Home is having steaming bora saul (sticky rice) served for breakfast with family and the neighbours joining in.
Home is an idyllic collage of my life back in Assam that begins to breathe with life as the train from Bangalore finally pulls across the mighty Brahmaputra at Saraighat. It's an indescribable moment filled with urgency and excitement. Those 72 -plus hours spent in travelling to Guwahati are always first rewarded with a sumptuous, traditional meal at home, my favourites served in plenty.
It's has been eight years that I have been living in Bangalore, first as a student, then as a journalist. For long Assamese folk like me found refuge in the many Bengali food joints or the lone Oriya one in the city. The cuisines being the closest in taste to ours. So when Axomi (Aho-mi) opened in January at Koramangala, a collective shout of joy went up.
The 20-seater Assamese eatery is modest by all terms. Expectations of extensive and detailed interiors and flourishes of a fancy menu can be kept aside. Axomi intends to be home-like. It does that with playing chartbusters by pop-singer Zubeen in the background and propping colourful japi (straw hats) on the walls. But it’s the full course meals on offer that really make up for the experience.
Rice is a staple diet of the Assamese. All dishes served are accompaniments to it. So also at Axomi. The basic thali has jeera rice, khar (a speciality dish made of raw papayas), channa dal, a cauliflower curry that has peas and potatoes in it, brinjal bada, sour tomato curry, papad, pitika (mashed potato), a wedge of lemon and a green chilli.
Typically, an Assamese meal starts with khar and end with paan. An important ingredient is fish or maas, Rohu, Hilsa, Puthi and Chital being the popular varieties. Imagine my joy then at spotting tenga maas on menu. There’s also the ubiquitous chicken-potato curry.
The chicken, pitika and brinjal bada are cooked to perfection. As for the fish curry and dal, they were missing that is something very Assamese. Axomi could have well tried serving Patotdia fish (fish baked in banana leaf), a dish every Assamese in Bangalore craves for. The dal was too salty and lacked garnishing of any kind.
Just sampling some of these everyday food from Assam makes the palate desirous of other dishes that are unique to Assamese culture and that could have easily made it to Axomi’s menu. Like Xukan masor chutney (dry fish chutney), Kahudi (a pungent mustard chutney), Kharoli (another dish made with mustard seeds), Khorikat diya (fish grilled on bamboo sticks), Tenga sorsoriya (sour mustard sauce) and Posola (a dish that uses the tender part of banana shoots). What was most disappointing is not finding Kaji Nimbu (a kind of lemon) in the thali. It’s this that takes you back to the verdant greenery back home.
Axomi is a lunch-dinner place. It has found favour with the large north-eastern community in Bangalore. As co-owner Dignath says, “On weekends, we tweak our fish and pork curries to suit the north-eastern tongue."
It’s a pity they aren’t serving breakfast yet, since Assamese cuisine has many items for the morning nashta. Like Bora saul (a glutinous type of rice ), komal saul (soft rice), xandoh ( powdered rice), chira (rice flakes) in curd, akhoi (a type of puffed grain), til petha (sweet made of sesame and rice powder) and til laru (sesame seed balls).
Alakesh Sarma has been visiting Axomi regularly and enjoys his meals here. "The food is really awesome. They have nailed the duck curry, smoked pork and pork with bamboo shoots. I am waiting for them to add more variety the menu.”
The Assamese don't have much of a sweet tooth. Axomi serves curd with sweet motichur dana which is a standard dessert from the state.
Sourcing from home
It is not so easy to run an Assamese restaurant in Bangalore. Says Diganth, "We spend about ` 50,000 on just sourcing rice, Kaji Nimbu, elephant apple, bamboo shoots, bhut jolokia (chilly) and khar from Assam."
Assam is known for producing 'Bhut Jolokia', a chilly variety that is said to be 1,000 times more spicy than the common chilly and twice as fiery as the Red Savina, a Mexican variety. You can pick these at Axomi, both fresh and dry.
What a relief it is when Axomi doesn't forget to bring you the paan and betel nut with the bill. Until I can enjoy Ma’s cooking next, Axomi will do.