If there’s one thing you can be sure of while in any part of Northeast India, it is that your taste palate will be treated with many new and exciting menus and flavours that will simply blow your mind. You should expect nothing less from a place so big on cuisines, so much so that it forms a huge part of the diverse cultures. This is as a result of the work of many curators in Northeast India, passionate about promoting the local cuisines and exporting them to other parts of India and the rest of the world.
However, not many do it quite as well as Geeta Dutta. Her resume is a rather lengthy one, as she currently serves in various capacities, touching lives in so many ways. Geeta, professionally a doctor, serves as a recipe creator, food influencer, and curator of food in festivals such as the North East Festival 2021. An ardent promoter of tribal cuisines and rustic food presentation, Geeta has also done two series of ‘State on a Plate’ at Chandubi Eco Camp.
Geeta’s childhood had a lot of influence on her passion for cooking, especially local delicacies. “As my mother worked a lot, most of my childhood was spent with my Aaita (grandma) who moulded me into the person I am today. Aaita was my first guru in cooking, too. She used to cook in a fireplace, and I remember she had magic hands. I acquired almost all my knowledge of Assamese cuisine by observing my Aaita cook. From Khulaat Diya Puthi Maas to simple Pura Jolfai Pitika, my Aaita was indeed the best.
“Also, my ability to observe was a great thing. I always watched how our neighbours cooked Khichri in Kali Puja, Patishapta in Lakshmi Puja, and not to mention, the extensive Punjabi meals. Those were like culinary masterclasses for a young mind. I have cherished this knowledge since then and even until now,” she says.
Recalling the first dish she ever cooked, Geeta gets nostalgic. She shares, “After two years of hostel life during higher secondary studies in Cotton College, which gave me wings to fly, I joined Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh. During my stay at Ladies Hostel 1, Room no 7, I did most of my experiments with flavours for the first time. We had an electric plate in our room, which we would hide from the warden. I made all possible variants of Chowmein, Dal, and Chicken with whatever ingredients we could manage. On Sundays, we were served chicken, wherein each bowl had 2 – 3 pieces and the gravy would be very watery. I used to collect the pieces from my friends and cooked my version of chicken.”
“Everybody started loving my food. Gradually seniors would ask me to prepare meals for room parties. After completing MBBS, I joined Refinery Hospital in Digboi as a trainee. It was then I explored several cuisines; from rural Singpho villages like Ingthong and Bordumsa. I also learnt Nepali cuisine from our housekeeper Savitri Didi. She was just like a mother to me. Our journeys and medical camps in the nearby villages gave me the actual insight into rustic cuisine, she adds.”
On her cooking style and how warmly it has been received by all across the state, she says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what her style is. But when it comes to traditional food, she simply loves to stick to 100% originality. “No adulteration to authenticity is my mantra; no matter what cuisine it is. Secondly, I love the rustic, simple ways of cooking. All my personally curated recipes are very easy to cook and don’t need much time. I never cheat with food colours and flavours. Also, the health element is a very important aspect of my recipes”, she says.
As someone closely attached to her roots, Geeta ensures her cooking includes 100% natural ingredients. Herbs, edible flowers and several other medicinal plants are some of her regular ingredients to use. Even roots are a special part of the indigenous cuisine of the Northeast and she takes good advantage of that. On what other things she considers, she takes us a bit into what you’ll find in her kitchen. “Bamboo shoot, black pepper, different spices, balsamic vinegar, herbs, axone, salad seasonings, khaar, and mustard seeds are like family; always present in my kitchen,” she laughs.
“Potatoes are not native to this place, instead roots and various tubers like wild ginger and garlic (ponoru) are. Edible flowers like Tita Phool, Moringa (sojina phool), and Sewali Phool (night jasmine flowers) are traditionally cooked, and each of these has its unique medicinal values. Northeast India itself can boast of most of the medicinal herbs, many are already used in Ayurveda for ages. Being a doctor, I extensively promote the benefits of our traditional food, recipes, and cooking method through my writings. For example, the ritualistic ‘Jaal Bota’ – a mix of various herbs like bhedailota (shunkvine) , gonchona, posotia, black pepper etc – when cooked with fish and served to the mother after childbirth, has definitive antiseptic properties, which helps in healing and promotes lactation,” Geeta says.
Some of her favourite dishes from the many she has cooked over the years include; Pork with Bamboo shoot, Khulat Diya Maas (dry roasted fish), Outenga Diya Dail (lentil with elephant apple), Poita Bhat (fermented rice), Pan-Fried Pork Chops with Roasted Kordoi (starfruit) Dip (own recipe), Pan Grilled Fish with Caramelized Orange (own recipe), Haah joha kumura (duck with ash gourd), Champaran Mutton, Bhapa Ilish (steamed hilsa), Braised Pork belly with King Chilli and Pomegranate juice served with Salsa (Christmas-special recipe).
When asked to share her thoughts, as a food enthusiast and influencer, on the current food scene in Guwahati, Geeta feels cafes are very in these days however the menus are quite monotonous, and most fail to maintain consistency. “Just investing a good amount may look fancy but at the end of the day, it doesn’t bring a turnover. Doing in-depth market research and coming up with out-of-the-box ideas will attract more people. A good change I have noticed is the increasing trend of roadside tea stalls, offering snacks and different types of teas. For instance: Bhuruka and Saah Sinaki are two places doing quite well. Lots of pubs, lounges are coming up with great interiors and themes. Then the cloud kitchens and ethnic cuisine restaurants, both old and new, are seeing great responses; say Raja Mircha, Michinga, and Tai Singpho among others. That’s a very positive sign. People no longer hesitate to step into the food business. It has both money and glamour.”
As a doctor, Geeta has a great understanding of what the body needs to function properly, but she also doesn’t compromise taste. Coupled with her passion to explore her culture and traditions in whatever capacity she can, she isn’t slowing down anytime soon as she plans to execute even bigger projects than she has done already. “I am completely focused on developing my very own recipe line. And do a few pop-ups – such as farm-to-table, food and traditional rice beer pairing, Also, food photography and heritage food tales are two areas I’ll work on in the coming days,” she adds.