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Food Memories with Nilav and Dipti Pyne

In this interview, Mr. Nilav Pyne and his mother Mrs. Dipti Pyne tell us about how their belonging to both the Assamese and Bengali communities reflect their everyday food practices.


[Acronyms: DP = Dipti Pyne, NP = Nilav Pyne, IN = Interviewer]

IN: Thank you very much for joining me on this talk today. And, before we begin, could the both of you please introduce yourselves, tell me a little bit about where you’re from and where your community is?

DP: I come from Tejpur, Assam. My name is Dipti Pyne, I was a teacher, now I’m retired.

NP: So, she was a teacher for 35 odd years and she retired last year, and right now she’s a homemaker and she is currently in Tejpur. My name is Nilav, I also hail from Tejpur, I was born and brought up there. And I’ve now moved to Delhi, where I’m currently working as a social impact consultant. I am also Bengali, but the fact that my mother was first Assamese before she was married, she hailed from the Assamese community, and my father is Bengali, so I’ve gotten the best of both cultures. And it's been 8 years for me in Delhi thus far.

Common Assamese and Bengali Dishes

IN: Okay thank you very much, it’s very interesting that you say you’re from Assamesse and Bengali backgrounds both, and I just wanted to know, could you tell me a little bit about the foods from both these communities?

DP: So now, I’m going to talk about the Bengali recipes in our community. Most of the popular recipes, that is the Bengali shukto, it is a traditional recipe in the Bengali community. Various types of vegetables can be used, yes, so it is very useful for the stomach, even for digestion. So that is the traditional recipe, and apart from this, others also there are so many, the winter special recipe aloo dum, that is potatoes with tomatoes and peas. So together, that one is also one of the most important recipes, especially in the winter seasons. And, one more is using the jackfruit and potatoes, especially in this season, when the jackfruit is ripe in the month of April.

NP: Okay, and what about Assamese communities?

DP: That one I’ll tell you, Patot Diya Mas, is fish with banana leaves, and should be wrapped with the banana leaf. Another one is the Khaar, [inaudible] that one is with black daal. And another one is Kosu Saag.

Mati Kalai Daal (Black Gram)
Mati Kalai Daal (Black Gram)

NP: Got it, as Maa is saying, there are a bunch of dishes according to both the communities.

DP: Mostly it's similar, there's only a little difference. Most popular in the Assamese, that one is a very simple one, is the masor tenga, with tomato and [inaudible].

Khaar (Papaya Stew)
Khaar (Papaya Stew)

NP: Okay I think, since we have to mention a lot of these dishes. I’ll also summarise and share from my end Muskaan. They are similar but there are also overlaps between both the communities in terms of the food that they eat. It’s very much flavorful, they use a lot of vegetables in all the things that they cook. Khaar is very popular in the Assamese community, made with papaya, and is very good for your stomach, similar to Khaar, for the Bengalis it’s Shukto. Again, in terms of non-veg, fish is big in the Bengali community.

DP: I can tell you, Ilish Maach Bhapa, that is another Bengali recipe. Ilish Maach is a Hilsa fish. The recipe of that is mustard and poppy seeds grinded together. Then, [inaudible], it is baked, not fried.

NP: I think you’ve gotten a lot of these recipes, but again summarising, Khaar for Assamese, and there is Shukto in Bengali, Ilish Maach and there is Bhapa Doi Maach. There's a bunch of these dishes, but I won’t go into details of how it is cooked but again, for both vegetarian and non vegetarian options, there are a bunch of these flavorful yet different dishes in both the communities. But I hope that answers your question.

What makes them different?

IN: It does, and it’s so interesting because you started by talking about the similarities between Assamese and Bengali cuisine. That got me thinking, because I know fairly little about both, so I wanted to know in what ways are they different? Could you share some major differences between both cuisines.

DP: In both, the vegetables are the same, whatever the Assamese take, the Bengali also take, but for the Assamese the spice is less, not too spicy. In the Bengali community, people use different types of spices like mustard and poppy seeds, [inaudible].

NP: Just to again add to the point maa was making, the key difference between the both is just the fact that Assamese cuisine is not a lot of masala, they mostly use ingredients like ginger, onion and garlic, these are the primary ingredients, not so much masala. But, Bengalis do love flavorful and tasty food which does have a lot of masala in them, and it's a little richer than Assamese food. Assamese food is normally a little lighter in terms of flavours as opposed to Bengali food. But again, the kinds of ingredients used are very very similar. Aloo Pitika is big in the Assamese community, similarly Aloo Dum is a very common dish in the Bengali community.

DP: Mostly we used to take the Tenga (in Assamese food), but here in Bengali, we take Kaliya, the same thing, with tomatoes. But in Tenga, we don’t use onion, nothing else, only the mustard seeds, potatoes and tomatoes. But with the same ingredients, in Kaliya, we use potatoes, onion paste, ginger paste and even raisins also sometimes.

NP: Maa went into the details of the making of the dish, but the fact is that again, just to add to her point, it's a lot of ingredients that goes into Bengali cuisine, whereas Assamese is more simplistic in nature and that would be the key difference.

Festival Dishes

IN: So I’ll move onto my next question, I think you’ve already talked about the famous dishes in both communities, but I also wanted to ask in particular, are there any festival foods that are very particular to your community that you want to share?

NP: I think Maa can share. Maa, what are the festival foods? For example, Bihu and then Durga pooja, two big festivals for both these communities. Bihu for the Assamese community, and Durga pooja for the Bengali community. What kind of food do people eat during Bihu and what do they eat during Durga pooja?

DP: Ah I’m going to tell you, in Bihu, in the Assamese community, there are three Bihus, but the main Bihu is in the month of April. The Assamese community people make Pitha, Til Pitha, Gila Pitha, Chira, Doi, these are most important in the Bihu festival. Chira, Doi, Kumol Saul, Bora Saul. But in our Durga pooja, it is a very big festival, both Bihu in Assamese. Here, Khichdi is made, mainly Khichdi is special during Durga Pooja; Aloo Dum, Labra, Labra means mixed vegetables, and even the Baingan Fry, and Pumpkin Fry.

NP: I’ll try to make it a little simpler for you to also understand. Pitha basically is a version of pancakes for us, and again, this version of pancakes is used in both the communities. Til Pitha is sweet in flavour which is made with a batter of rice flour which is ground. That serves as the base and inside it the sweetened sesame seeds with jaggery with it. Then you wrap it up like a tortilla and it becomes a Pitha. And there’s multiple types of these Pithas or I won’t call it pancakes because that may not justify their name, but Pitha is what we call them. As she was saying, on the day of Bihu, like the day before the day of Bihu, to celebrate the harvest season, to celebrate the spirit of the community, we start off having puffed rice, dahi, and Boka Saul which is a kind of rice which we have only—mostly—in the North-Eastern region. So that’s very much the Bihu food…

DP: But these are popular in both the communities, not only Assamese. Bengalis also used to [take] in the Bihu season. So we used to take the Chira, Dahi, Doi, Pitha, if you make it like that. But the difference is that in Bengal the Durga Puja festival is there.

NP: Yeah. So just to share a small memory, where we stay in Tejpur there’s a place called Bengali Theatre Hall which is now a 120+ year-old institution where every year there’s a Durga Puja—big Durga Puja celebration—which is the biggest in my hometown. So all the community people, we contribute some amount of money, and across all the three days of celebration—Shoptomi is the seventh day, Ashtomi, Novomi— we get food, we get prasad from the Mandir which is Khichdi, Labra, the mixed veg., and Begun Bhaja which is fried baingan and Payash, which is the kheer, the rice kheer we have. So that’s very particular. And Durga Puja happens in the wee-end of September or the month of October. So that’s like a big deal for us and these are the kinds of foods we get to eat during these two festivals.

What is your favourite dish?

IN: Thank you so much for sharing that. That is absolutely interesting. Well I think the question that follows from that is, what is your favourite dish? From either. From both, from any of the two, what is your favourite dish?

NP: I’ll let Maa answer this first. Maa, what is your favourite dish right now? Maybe say one or two.

DP: Veg or non-veg?

NP: Either. Whatever you feel like.

DP: That one is Ilish Maach Bhapa, Masor Tenga. Then Aloo Dum also…I like it. I like—and even one more interesting thing I will tell you is the Luchi, which is what you say for Pudi. That is my favourite. I like most of them. Pudi I like, Pudi and Aloo Dum.

NP: Luchi Aloo Dum.

DP: My favourite. I like it too much. Not only me, everyone likes it.

NP: Just to share a small anecdote, Muskaan, when people come over to our houses, like when guests arrive, I think in the cities, I personally don’t think we follow the tradition of cooking food on our own. But whenever people come to our houses, people cook food. And the best, easiest thing to cook is Luchi, which is a version of Puri there. And to go alongside, we have Aloo Dum. So both the communities, Bengalis and Assamese homes, when guests come over, you see Aloo Dum—Aloo Bhaja– and one meetha.

DP: Aloo Bhaja and even the chutney also, the tomato chutney.

NP: Yeah. That serves as a great, quick meal to be served to the guests. But I think Maa has answered her favourite dishes, which is Ilish Maach Bhapa. She also mentioned Aloo Dum and Luchi.

DP: And Masor Tenga, Luchi-Aloo Dum.

NP: For me, it’s a little different. After I actually moved to the city, I really do miss the flavours of the town that I hail from and the kind of festivals we get. There are two things—two veg. and one non-veg. option. The veg. food that I really enjoy is the kind of saag that we have there. There’s one saag called Dhekia Xaak, which is mostly found in the hilly regions.

DP: That is like a fern.

Dhekia Xaak/ Saag (Fiddlehead fern), and Mishti Kumura Patar Torkari (Pumpkin leaf sabzi) (with rice, a lemon wedge, and battered cauliflower)
Dhekia Xaak/ Saag (Fiddlehead fern), and Mishti Kumura Patar Torkari (Pumpkin leaf sabzi) (with rice, a lemon wedge, and battered cauliflower)

NP: Yeah. It’s found in parts of North-East India. I haven’t found it in Delhi yet. So Dhekia Xaak, in both the communities, you cook it very simply with garlic and a minimal amount of oil, and a couple of chillies, and you’re good to go. Alongside it, there’s one more sabzi that I really enjoy eating. It’s something that, again, my mother makes. It’s a mix of mula, which is the red mooli found there, and the rice pumpkin. It’s a mooli and pumpkin mix. It’s a light fried sabzi, and you club it with the Dhekia Xaak. That’s a great, great meal to have. In terms of fish, as Maa said, I too love hilsa—Ilish Maach—a lot. My favourite is the Ilish maach that gets cooked with mustard seeds. You make a paste out of it, and it’s a very colourful-looking dish, it’s tasty. It has the smell of mustard in it, that’s a big dish especially in the Bengali community. I think these three are my favourite, amongst the food that I’ve eaten. That’s why I miss them a lot, given that I’m living far away from home.

Chana Daal with Rice (left), Laal Morisa Saag (Red Amaranth) (up), Hilsa Fish Fry (right), and Potol and Begun Bhaja (Pointed Gourd and Brinjal fried in Chickpea Flour Batter) (down)
Chana Daal with Rice (left), Laal Morisa Saag (Red Amaranth) (up), Hilsa Fish Fry (right), and Potol and Begun Bhaja (Pointed Gourd and Brinjal fried in Chickpea Flour Batter) (down)

IN: Wow, I can already imagine the colours, especially with mustard. Wow. That sounds so interesting. And I think it’s only natural that the next question be, I was thinking about this: you talked about your favourite foods, right? But food also has the ability to transport us home, or sometimes it transports us to a different time when, you know, it links us to our happiest memories or a memory that we hold very dear to us. So I just wanted to ask, which kind of food has done that for you and aunty? Is there any kind of food that is like your happy place? Or any food that you always eat and you feel, you know, better all of a sudden? It could be anything.

NP: I could say first, and then Maa, you can say after me. Like what food makes you happy and reminds you of good memories? I’m not sure if honestly I’ll be able to cook it as much, but every year, after Durga Puja, after a gap of two-three days, there’s a Lakshmi Puja that happens at home and we celebrate it at my aunt’s place. They live in a very beautiful Bengali-style bungalow. Because Tejpur is a small town, we can walk to these houses. They’re not more than 200 metres away from each other. And it’s always on a full-moon night. So when we go there, there’s a Bhog—prasad—that gets distributed with again, Khichdi, Labra Torkari, some amount of cauliflower sabzi, and Begun Bhaja. Now Begun Bhaja is very, very particular to the Bengali community. And Begun Bhaja is basically—you have a batter of besan and then you add cut brinjal pieces, and you fry it. And then you put some chaat masala on top if you’d want to. But it’s a great go-to side dish with a full-fledged meal. Yeah. So for me, that reminds me of just that walk from my house to my aunt’s house on a full-moon night and actually enjoying the puja. When I cooked Begun Bhaja in Delhi at home, and my wife does it as well, I get reminded of that memory, which is very very fond for me.

IN: Wow, wow.

NP: Maa, what is your favourite memory of a food?

DP: My memory is [inaudible] that is the Begun Pura, when our mother cooks, the Bhaat, Rahar Dal, then even Begun Pura, Aloo Tikki Chaat. These, and the Maas Bhapa. These are actually my favourite.

NP: So Begun Pura basically means the way you do…what do you call it? I forgot.

DP: My memories, if I’m going to tell you that one, I like—my favourite is the anda, egg. Egg means not only chicken’s, the duck eggs.

NP: Yeah, so my mother also really loves duck eggs. So duck eggs is big.

IN: I see.

DP: Egg curry.

NP: But haan, what she was saying was the Begun Pora is basically the chokha version for the Assamese people, with again, minimal—

DP: You can cook it on gas also.

NP: In Delhi, they call it chokha.

DP: In the family we call it chokha, but now there’s no chokha anywhere.

NP: No no, chokha is the name of the dish in Delhi. It is called Begun Pora in the Assamese community, but yeah.

IN: Okay.

DP: Begun Pura is [inaudible] like that only.

NP: Muskaan, I hope that answers your question.

The Role of Food in the Personal

IN: It does, it does, and the conversation has taken such an intimate turn, but I guess that’s what food means for us, right? And, I mean, allow me to ask a couple more intimate questions. First, I’ll ask aunty, if that’s alright? Aunty you said you first were from an Assamese community and then you married into a Bengali household, right? So, of course there must’ve been a transition for you, where you were before mostly always eating Assamese food and afterwards, you had to either change the way you cook and the way you eat. And I wanted to ask, how was that transition for you? Was it very difficult? Was it easy to adapt? I just wanted to know a little bit about how it was for you to make that change in your life.

DP: Nothing like that only. In the North, there’s not too much difference. I didn’t get any problems, because my in-laws’ house, the same thing—whatever we ate— little bit modified, otherwise nothing was different. I didn’t get problems. Because the ingredients are the same, everything is the same, already I have learnt it. But it was, in our time, that was completely different. I didn’t get any difficulties, I didn’t get any problems. Everything I could make smoothly and sweetly.

NP: I will add a point here. So Maa always keeps talking about her mother-in-law, my dadi. She was a great support to her.

DP: I don’t think that’s a difference, because no problems. Some things are a little bit different, but it was no problem for me. I easily settled everything, because my in-laws also were like that. I didn’t get any problems.

IN: That’s very nice to hear.

DP: I cooked the food and everything, I did it myself.

IN: Wow, and did you always like cooking?

DP: Yes, I love cooking, I love to cook food. And if any guest comes, I don’t like myself only to take everything, but I like to make—I’m fond of cooking. There’s various types of foods, and sometimes I think I’ll have to make this one for them. Like that, I prepare it.

NP: She loves serving guests and she loves feeding us as well.

DP: Yes, I like it too much.

IN: That’s lovely. And Nilav, I think you were talking about your grandmother? I didn’t quite get that, could you…

NP: Yeah, so basically what I was saying is, when Maa always mentioned that when she moved from her own house to her in-laws’, which is the current house that she’s in, my grandmother was a huge source of support because my mother was a teacher. She supported her well [inaudible]. And I think both of them worked together in the kitchen well enough that there was a good change of hands in terms of the recipes and adapting to the new cuisine, and just the Bengali culture altogether. I think she mentioned this to me on multiple occasions, and I’ve seen that with my grandmother as well. She passed away 15 years back, 14-15 years back. But I think she also had a huge role to play to make sure that food remains an integral part of our lives.

IN: Right, and I’m really glad to hear that she passed it down, and now it’s going to get passed down. Like that’s really beautiful. And for my next question, it is actually directed towards you Nilav. You said that you shifted to Delhi and that you have been living in Delhi for quite a while now. And what we usually do is when people move away from their communities' cultural capital like food, language tends to get dissolved overtime because you can't always take your culture with you because you have to adapt to the places you are going to and so on and so forth. Because you have had to make that change and because you have lived in Delhi for so long. I wanted to ask you how much of your culture, how much of your community food have you been able to take with you? How has living in Delhi been for you?

NP: That’s a great question, also to give you a broader idea of this city. I personally love Delhi because there's more variety in terms of food. There are so many restaurants that serve Assamese food and not only Assamese, they have Naga food, Manipuri, Mizoram, and food from other Northeastern states, that you don’t often get the chance to miss the food if you were stepping out, there are enough options. There are Northeastern festivals that used to happen every year at IGNCA, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts which is now being reconstructed. So, every year until 2018 before the pandemic I used to go there just to enjoy the music, we had local artists from Assam come and perform there and the food there was amazing. I took my wife who was my then partner to these events to make sure she also gets the flavour of Northeastern cuisines and what it looks like. But at home the couple of things that I do not compromise is just to make sure that I carry on the culture of food and I think my wife has been really supportive about that and she is really sweet enough to at times talk to my mother about the recipes that she can cook here. Especially like fish dishes. One thing that I personally enjoy cooking in general is Posto, Posto is poppy seeds and you find it in the Chittaranjan Park market in Delhi and to add to that is this beautiful variety of lemon called Gondhoraj Lebu which has a lemongrass-y smell to it and it is a very very pivotable part of Bengali cuisine, you have it in the spread of years, that [inaudible] open your rice and you mix and you eat it, is something I incorporate in my food in almost a regular basis. And third, I also try to make sure I have Begun Bhaja which I told you about right in the beginning about the batches of besan with brinjal. And my wife makes really good Begun Bhaja. So, my trying to make sure I keep the culture of at least food alive in my daily life, not daily per se but at least a weekly regime of my home in Delhi. The city also allows enough options to explore and make sure you don't lose out on your traditional and ethnic foods.

IN: I'm glad that you know because you know again it's pretty nice when people from other cultures kind of mesh together when you live in so much diversity that you get to keep your own culture but also explore other cultures. I think that is really amazing and I’m glad that you have access to that kind of experience in Delhi. So, the way you prepare food has changed a lot overtime and I just wanted to ask if something similar has happened in your community? Like, in the past a certain dish would take a long time but now you have a quick fix version to it. Or you know any sort of change in which a dish people would enjoy in the past they can do the same today but it is prepared in a different way. Is there any that you can think of?

NP: Let Maa answer this. I think what has changed completely is the use of chula. We used to have a Chula at our Tejpur house, but now I don’t think houses are equipped, especially in the peri-urban, semi-urban and urban areas that don't have chula anymore. And when she mentioned Pithas, most of the Pithas were cooked in chula. (DP: His aunty’s house still has a chula).

IN: Right!

NP: I think it is a slow burn process and it takes a lot of time and I think right now with the multiple facilities that we have we do cook things on the stove, the gas stove that we have right now which makes it a bit quicker than it used to make in the chula. But the essence kind of got mixed out. When you sit there, it's hot, sweltering hot and you are still making it, it takes a lot of time to prepare this. I think that is one thing that has changed. In terms of a quick fix, I'm not really sure because I'm still rooted to the kind of food my mother cooks at home. And most of our dough’s tough and that's the process that I do enjoy. As food is to be celebrated and if it's quick it loses the beauty of it. Most of the foods that my mother cooks at home, she engages in a lengthier process than usual. Although now we have resorted to eating breakfast, at times we have Poha, at times Maa cooks noodles which becomes a quick fix. But more often than not, she does engage in the lengthier process of cooking food and I also personally enjoy that when I cook at home as well.

IN: That was really interesting, I’m glad to know that things haven’t changed that much and of course like aunty cooking fast is honestly a grace in today’s day. Thank you for talking about that, I think I’m done with my questions. I deeply thank you for making the time to come on this call from the bottom of my heart because I feel like I have genuinely learnt something new today.

[exchanging pleasantries]


Thanks to Mr. Nilav Pyne and Mrs. Dipti Pyne for sharing snippets of their life, their communities and their food with us.

Reach out via Instagram: nilav_pyne90 or via e-mail:

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