Bohag Bihu is a celebration to mark a successful harvest, and feasting on Assamese delicacies. Read on to find out about these special preparations. Happy Bihu!
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In the month of April, kitchens in Assam will churn out Laru-pitha (assamese pancakes and ladoos) by the kilo to celebrate the Assamese New Year and welcome the season of sowing. Also known as Rongali Bihu, aka a festival of colours, it is marked by joyous singing and dancing. The week-long festivities are dedicated to bringing in more abundance and expressing gratitude to the year that has gone by.

It all begins in the kitchen where men, women and eager children come together to hand-grind fresh turmeric, soaked black gram, sesame and sticky rice. In the age of electronic mixers and grinders, the sticky rice of Assam would become a dry and lifeless powder unless lovingly hand-pounded to make the perfect base for pitha.

Fresh coconuts are scraped, milk is readied to make wholesome thick curd and a final dash to the market is made for jaggery and mustard oil without which no Assamese dish can be cooked. This enthusiastic preparation for the festival starts on the night of Uruka, the eve of Bohag Bihu.

Day 1: Goru Bihu
The first day of this four-day-long festival is known as Goru (cow) Bihu and it begins at the crack of dawn with families bathing the cattle. Needless to say, most modern families don’t have cattle but that doesn’t make the celebration any less authentic. Those who do, scrub the animals with a paste of fresh turmeric and black gram, before bathing them. Once done, each family member uses the turmeric as a body scrub and black gram to wash their hair. Known for its potent antibacterial and antifungal properties, turmeric is also brimming with anti-ageing nutrients and is a treat for the skin.

Breakfast of Poita Bhaat (leftover cooked rice that has been soaked in water overnight) is traditionally served with salt, onion and chilli and believed to have more micronutrients than fresh rice. Interestingly, according to an Assam Agricultural University study, 100 g of poita bhaat, fermented for 12 hours, contains up to 73.91 mg of iron, while the same quantity of fresh rice contains only 3.4 mg.

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“The overnight soaking leads to slight fermentation imparting it with probiotic properties,” says Jyoti Das, author of the popular Assamese cookbook Ambrosia—From the Assamese Kitchen and winner of e-North East Award 2014 for Culture and Heritage. If it’s eaten for lunch, Poita Bhaat can be paired with vegetable curry or aloo pitika (mashed potato), bengena bhorta (brinjal bharta) or curd (doi). Also, it can be eaten any other time of the day and year and is also served when recovering from an illness.

Day 2: Manuh Bihu
This is the day to come together as a family, visit ancestral homes to meet grandparents, and the extended family. It’s also the day to wear new clothes and gift new weaves to kith and kin. Women drape the traditional Mekhela Chadors and the elders are gifted handwoven gamuchas (tranditional Assamese stole) with intricate floral designs.

A cornucopia of mouthwatering homemade pithas is laid out on ban kaahis (bell metal plates). These include the Ghila pitha (sticky rice pancakes flavoured with jaggery and fried in mustard oil), Tekeli pitha (rice pancake steamed on the mouth of a kettle), til pitha (roasted sticky rice rolls stuffed with sesame and jaggery), narikol pitha (sticky rice roll stuffed with coconut and jaggery), til ladoos, coconut ladoos, bhap pitha (steamed rice pancakes stuffed with coconut). Each pitha pairs deliciously well with a fresh cup of tea.

Lunch is almost always doi-seera (curd with jaggery and flattened rice) and is served in glistening bell metal bowls. Known as jolpan, the lip-smacking blend of curd and flattened rice sweetened with jaggery naturally cools the body. The entire day is about guilt-free feasting with family.

Day 3: Guxain Bihu
Day three is dedicated to the Gods and is known as Guxain Bihu. Farmers and families visit the namghor (traditional Assamese temples) to pray for a fresh start with the beginning of the sowing season. Food is almost always a vegetarian fare with light options and bingeing on Doi-seera and laru-pitha continues.

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Day 4: Sera Bihu
Sera Bihu is day four which is all about detoxifying after days of feasting. In spring, the Brahmaputra valley turns green with a wide variety of tender green leafy veggies or Xaak.

“Assam was known as the land of 707 varieties of Xaak. Many are extinct today and we are left with 101 types, such as Manimuni, Khutura, Lai, Paleng, Morissa, Mula, Jilmil, Dhekia, Mosur, Kola Kosu, Methi, Nohoru, Babori, Brahmi, Laijabori, Maan Dhania, Masundari, Pirali Paleng, Sajina Paat, Tengesi among others,” informs Das. “Growing up, we would go and handpick these greens from my mum’s kitchen garden or in the wild (many varieties of Xaak grow in the wild). It can be eaten individually, or a sabji of an odd number of xaaks is prepared,” she adds. Delectable meat and fish preparations with xaaks and green chillies is also common during this harvest season.

Xaak is an indispensable part of Assamese cuisine, and they are rich in fibre and micronutrients and have immense medicinal value, the primary being that it boosts your immune system. This is especially helpful in this season as the air is ridden with dust and pollen and allergies are common.

Eating something bitter on day four of Bohag Bihu is a commonly followed custom. It could be tita kerela (bitter gourd), neem paat (neem leaves), tulsi paat (Holy basil leaves), methi paat (fenugreek leaves) —all of which are gut healthy, and some families make a concoction of these greens and drink it as a detox juice.

If it were to be incorporated in a meal, something bitter would be paired with Masoor daal and Kathalor musi (jackfruit curry) and the fragrant joha rice. Research now indicates that jackfruit is one of the most nutrient-dense foods, but for farmers in Assam, this is a staple in this season. Panitenga and Kharoli are signature Assamese pickles made from ground mustard seeds and accompany any meal, as does a jolokia (chilli) pickle.

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Sharing an interesting anecdote of a spicy chicken curry (Jhaal Murgi) cooked in Lower Assam on this day, Das says that the farming community believes that the fieriness of this curry rids the body of aches from all the heavy lifting during sowing and ploughing season.

Fruits of the Season

Jackfruit and mango are in abundance, and plucked just before they are ripe. That’s because the local mango, known as Jaati Aam, is susceptible to insects and birds, so people prefer to pluck them raw and turn them into chutney. At this time of the year, jackfruits are just the right size to be cooked into a sabji, pickle and cutlets.

Another popular item relished in this season is Koldil or banana flower, that’s turned into a sabji or cutlets. Raw banana and Kaat aloo (wood-like potato) chips and fritters are a popular savoury snack items along with xoru aloo (baby potatoes) cooked with fenugreek, salt and haldi.

While a lot of new items appear on the plate to celebrate this agrarian festival, so are regulars like Fish tenga (sour fish curry) and khar (alkali prepared with raw papaya and burning banana stem), though not always together.

It’s a festival that's all about making the most of the season’s freshest produce — power-packed foods that will provide wholesome nutrition for the hot and humid summer ahead.

Images courtesy: Shutterstock
Illustrations: Vartika Pahuja

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