With Chef Gitika Saikia From PakGhor | Knife’s Edge
Gitika Saikia has been cooking Assamese food since 2013, when she quit a corporate job and the secure life that comes with it. Since then, she has become quite the trailblazer, whose steady rise in popularity has resulted in frequent press, collaborative meals with restaurants and hotels, and more recently, even a talk at the University of Mumbai.
We caught up with her to chat about Gitika’s PakGhor, the name under which she has fed every curious eater in the city Assamese-style pork at least once!
Gitika, you’re a home-cook, an ambassador for Assamese food, and an entrepreneur. Which of these do you consider yourself most?
On the lines of North East food curator and storyteller.
Take us through your recent collaborations?
What are your favourite Assamese dishes?
Dhekia haak (fiddlehead fern) and teasel gourd – both are my favourite summer vegetables. They can be cooked, boiled, paired with almost everything or eaten on its own. In winters, lai haak (broad mustard greens) remains my favourite and is best paired with fatty pork. My all-time favourites are bhedai lota (skunk vine) with mud eel or catfish and papaya flowers with hen eggs and banana stem.
What are the most interesting dishes you’ve introduced diners in Mumbai to?
The most noteworthy dishes would have to be silkworms and red ant eggs. Also, not to forget fiddlehead ferns, mud eel and lai haak.
You source your ingredients from Assam. What is that process like?
I work backwards. Basically, it starts from planning the events calendar almost four months in advance, sometimes as early as six months. To introduce dishes at a large scale, vegetables for it are planted in our garden. Regular calls and conversations regarding its growth take place to check on the status and if any climate change factors are having an impact on the growth. This has become quite frequent today in Assam.
Are all your recipes from family? Are there other sources?
Most of the recipes are from both side of my family and my extended family. However, the learning doesn’t stop here. Every time I visit home, I visit other peoples’ homes (communities) to learn, find out similarities and also the stories behind the way they make their food. For instance, the Nepali community meals during Dashain (Durga Puja) or Eid Feast (Ramzan) are a few examples in which you’ll see a stark difference in the flavours from my ode to tribal cuisine.
You recently gave a talk on Assamese food at a Mumbai University event. Can you take us through what it was about?
The crux of the talk was to give an overview of the culture and cuisine of Assam and why the cuisine goes beyond momos, maas tenga (fish in sour gravy) and khar.
What is the strangest or weirdest request you’ve received from a customer?
We’ve been asked to make Jain NE dishes which is something I don’t think has been done before. Never one to back down from a challenge, my team accepted and we were met with great reviews! I really love this part of my job and the fact that people constantly keep me on my toes.
How much of Assamese food can be adapted to vegetarian and how do you feel about it?
Assamese people are proud of vegetarian dishes, thanks to the innumerable availability of flora and fauna. It’s just unfortunate that people know or perceive us as mostly meat-eaters. For instance, spinach and amaranth are only a few leafy greens that grow in Assam and interestingly, these two are consumed in winters only.
How do you feel about the food landscape in Mumbai? Does this reflect in your customers?
People are welcoming different cuisines – regional and world and its getting more exciting day-by-day. Yes, people are becoming adventurous and want to taste unique, unfamiliar flavours. In my experience however, the first-timers don’t experiment much while my loyal customers are always looking for something more exciting.
Dishes she thinks define Gitika’s PakGhor: Pork Dishes, Rice Beer, Red Ant Eggs and Silkworm Pupae.
Bestselling Gitika’s PakGhor dish?
Smoked Pork with Lai Haak and Jute Leaves with Pork and Rice Beer.