Jakoi (Delhi, January 2014)

You will be pleased to learn that unlike my Chaat opus this Delhi food report will not require you to set a few hours aside to read it. This is largely because this is a review of an Assamese restaurant and I know almost nothing about Assamese food. In this I am not very different from the vast majority of Indians who live west of Bangladesh. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a satisfactory alibi. The general indifference/ignorance of Indians from the rest of India to/of the peoples and cultures east of West Bengal is somewhat deplorable. Though it must be said that Assam is not as badly off in this regard as its neighbours even further to the east, who in addition to ignorance have to contend with flat-out racism and discrimination when they venture into the rest of India, and a fair bit of political and military repression when the central government ventures into their territory.

However, while the foods of the far north eastern states are beginning to gain at least some exotic currency in Delhi—there is a popular Naga restaurant in Green Park, for example—Assam continues to lag behind. Jakoi, the restaurant, I am writing up here is a fairly nondescript establishment in the basement of the Assam Bhavan in Delhi—the Assam state government’s “embassy” in Delhi— and not a lot of people even seem to know of its existence (though it must be said that compared to the canteens in most of the other state bhavans the ambience is almost luxurious). In the more general neglect of which this is a symptom Assam has something in common with Orissa, Bihar and Tripura, the other neighbouring states caught in the tremendous cultural gravitational field (or cultural-imperialist embrace) of Bengal: Assamese culture more broadly tends to get either elided with or eclipsed by Bengal. Some of Bengal’s most iconic cultural treasures are in fact from elsewhere: S.D Burman was from Tripura; the langra mango is probably from Bihar; and, worst of all, the roshogulla may in fact have originated in Orissa. Don’t tell my parents.

For those who are familiar with Bengali foodways there are some overlaps with Assamese foodways (which are quite diverse)–a lot of fish and rice and mustard oil, for example. However, there are a lot of differences too—from ingredients not used as much or at all in Bengali cooking (bamboo shoots, pork, lemongrass and other souring agents) to methods of preparation (Assamese food has a far lighter touch with oil, there’s a lot more simple boiling/steaming). Anyway, I am at risk of suggesting that I know far more about this stuff than I do, so I’ll stop. Suffice it to say that my experience with Assamese food is quite limited: before this meal I had only ever eaten it a handful of times in my teens at the homes of my parents’ friends—this is one of the perks of growing up a military brat in India: you encounter people from far more parts of India (and live in more parts of India) than most anyone else (there’s far less inter-region/state movement in India than in the US, though between migrant labour and executives at multi-national corporations this is changing some).

At Jakoi the staff urged us to just order one of the thalis (there are three options on offer) and we all opted to get the “Parampara” (“Tradition”) thali, which offered the largest selection of foods. I suspect this pressure was due to most of the other stuff on the menu not being available. It’s a very dark space at lunch and so the pictures are not very good but hopefully will still give you a sense of the ways in which this food is both like and unlike foods from more familiar parts of India. Alas, my efforts to get the staff to explain some of the dishes were not very successful—if you do know more about some of these things, please do shed some light in the comments.

Click on an image below to launch a larger slideshow with captions.

On the whole, I’d say this was more interesting than good (and it’s very reasonably priced). It may be that at dinner and/or on the weekends it’s a lot better. Based on what we ate, I’d say that it’s mostly worth going to because, unless you have Assamese friends, you’re not going to get too many other opportunities to eat this food.

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