The year was 2003. We are visiting our grandmother’s place in Pathshala (almost 110 kilometres from Guwahati) during Bhogali Bihu (one of the three Bihus celebrated in Assam) in January. And as usual, there was paaro mangxor jhol – pigeon curry, aaita’s (the Assamese term for grandmother) speciality in the lunch menu along with a variety of other dishes. Our every visit to Pathshala is marked by eating the pigeon curry that aaita makes. It is a traditional Assamese dish – pigeon meat cooked with potatoes, onion, and spices like garlic, ginger, pepper and chillies. The gravy is neither so thick nor runny.
The challenging part of making this dish is in the preparation phase – it is very tedious and time consuming to clean and cut the pigeons. Since most of the pigeons are reared at home, one has to kill the pigeons that they are rearing and then do the cleaning and cutting themselves. The younger ones are preferred since their meat is softer. Hence, pigeon meat curry is seen as a delicacy that is prepared on special occasions, like when children and grandchildren visit. It is also cooked when someone in the house is sick with a cold or fever.
It is not that we did not have pigeon meat curry in Guwahati, in our own home. I vividly remember deuta (the Assamese term for father) buying pigeons from the market and then both mother and him doing the cleaning and cutting process at home. But we, too, would have it only on special and festive occasions because of the tediousness. It was not easy to make the pigeon curry.
The last time I ate pigeon meat curry was, however, almost ten years ago. Today it is almost a thing of the past. My grandmother has also passed away, and it feels like the pigeon meat curry that she so lovingly used to feed us went away with her. Now our visits to Pathshala have reduced as parents have aged, and we moved to Delhi. Also, nobody would take that enormous amount of effort (understandably so) required to make pigeon curry.
But one may ask, what happened in Guwahati? Well, with more and more urbanization and modernization, the city of Guwahati has undergone tremendous changes in the past twenty years or so. Hence, food cannot be left behind. Increasing work hours and busy schedules mean that people do not have the time to spend two to three hours making one dish.
“It is difficult to clean and cook. Nobody has that kind of time. Hence, we stopped having pigeon meat at home. Whenever we have a craving for it, we now eat it outside in restaurants and dhabas,” says Babita Kalita from Hengerabari, Guwahati, who came to the city from Jorhat after her marriage almost three decades ago.
There is another reason for the decline in the consumption of pigeon curry. Pigeon meat is seen as unhealthy and harmful for people with non-communicable but fatal diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart illnesses. Hence people are not keen on eating it much nowadays.
In fact, younger generations are not even familiar with pigeon meat curry as they have never tasted it in their lives. For Vijay – an MA student in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Guwahati, pigeon meat has never been a part of his diet.
“My mother last had pigeon meat before her marriage, and my father has high blood pressure. She does not like to cook it because of its labour-intensive nature as well as the fact that it’s unhealthy. I have therefore never had it,” says Vijay.
Pigeon curry then has become a thing of the past, a food etched in memory. Many food items across cultures become closely associated with memory and nostalgia. The Assamese pigeon curry has become an ‘object of memory’ (borrowing from David Sutton’s concept), a symbol of the past. It is no longer regularly prepared and/or consumed because it is too difficult to prepare and considered unhealthy.
This has meant that the demand for pigeon meat has significantly reduced in the market. Even most restaurants in Guwahati that call themselves ‘authentic Assamese restaurants’ no longer serve pigeon meat. Popular Assamese eateries like Mising Kitchen, Taii Singpho, Michinga and Tholgiri do not serve pigeon curry. Paradise hotel and Gam’s Delicacy are two of the hotels still serving pigeon curry on their menu.
Monorom Gogoi, owner of Tholgiri, which has emerged as a restaurant cum store that sells authentic and local Assamese food and goods, says that they do not have pigeon meat in their menu as there is no demand. ‘There is no demand for it now at all, and hence, we do not serve it in our restaurant,’ says Gogoi.
The disappearance of pigeon meat from the Assamese diet is also connected to the increasing production and the rise of chicken, particularly broiler chicken as a form of meat. Broiler chicken rules the restaurant industry as well, with a variety of chicken dishes dominating the menus. It is easy to rear, cook and cheap. In fact, broiler chicken took over the market from local or country chicken once they had been introduced to the Indian market in the 1980s. The broiler chicken is soft, easier to cook, can be minced and deboned easily and much cheaper than country chicken. Hence, in no time, broiler chicken became a favourite of chefs and cooks in the food industry as it was easy to experiment with its meat.
In fact, even though the country chicken yields less meat than its compatriot, the broiler chickens, it is easily the second or third most preferred form of meat in Assam now. It is considered healthy, and its peppery curry has taken over the place that pigeon curry once used to occupy.
Thus, with increasing urbanisation and a shift towards capitalism, there is a replacement of traditional foods with easier and quicker ones. It signifies a transformation of Assamese history, social life, and memories. Manasi Barua, a homemaker and food connoisseur from Beltola, Guwahati, perhaps puts it aptly: “we grew up eating pigeon meat, but new generations will not even get to know its taste.”
Rituparna Patgiri teaches Sociology in Indraprastha College for Women (IPCW), University of Delhi. She is a sociologist interested in issues of food and culture.