My first experience of Assamese cuisine was during a weeklong visit to Jorhat as a guest at the ancestral home of a friend whose sister was getting married. This was serious festivity. Wining and dining of the most tasteful and gracious kind. People flying in from all parts of the world. Midnight barbecues. Bihu dancing. The works.
My favourite meal was lunch. This was the quietest time of the day. One sat down with the family and the food was simple, homely, usually typically Assamese and just what the doctor ordered after a night of carousal. One or two days, individual thalis for each of us emerged from the kitchen, the goodies laid out invitingly, light and subtle colours to behold; light, subtle and delicious to taste.
The last time I came here, said my friend, I had nowhere near as much fun. Thats because I was getting married myself.
It was during this trip that I fell in love with tenga, a most unassuming everyday dish, enjoyable in its various forms throughout the year, the light gravy of which in consistency almost like south Indian rasam I can drink cupfuls of just by itself. In Assamese, tenga simply means tangy (a good one for the etymologists) and can be a vegetarian or a fish dish. No marks for guessing which, as a good Bengali, I would go for.
Fish Tenga Maasri Tenga of course. There are many variations and one favourite recipe I got from an Assamese family and which I use a lot would probably have some purists fuming, but here goes. The fish of choice is pieces taken from a really large carp rui or katla of about eight to 10 kg. These are the same cuts that one would use for making the celebrated Bengali fish with yoghurt Doi Maachh.
Wash the fish pieces at least eight pieces is good pat dry and smear with salt and turmeric powder and leave for 10 to 15 minutes. Fry the fish lightly till just golden brown and set aside. Splutter some mustard seeds and one or two dry red chillies (many would consider the chillies a no-no) in oil and when the spluttering stops, add potatoes halved and thinly-sliced lengthwise (one largish potato should do). Next, add chopped tomatoes and cook till these are mushy and then add water, salt and turmeric and bring this to a boil. Add the fish, lower the heat to let it simmer, add lime juice (two limes), a pinch of sugar and a little mustard paste (another uncommon practice I am told). Cover and cook for a few more minutes before removing from the fire. Serve with rice. Green chillies are a great accompaniment.
Some recipes would use fenugreek instead of mustard seeds while others would use both. Vegetables used also vary. Bottle-gourd and tomatoes are a common combination and spinach (palang shaak) and other shaaks kolmi or dheki are also used, as is bamboo shoot. The fish used may also vary. Pabda, a freshwater catfish is a good choice for tenga (I must try it) and if pabda is used, the fish must be whole about six to eight inches each. Chitol (featherback fish) and even koi (climbing perch) can be used.
A vegetarian recipe for tenga that appealed to me is where, instead of fish, deep-fried bori (small, sun-dried lentil cakes) are used. The various vegetable combinations (bottle-gourd and tomato/potatoes and tomato etc) can be retained and the fish can simply be left out to make a good veg tenga. Other dals (moong, beuli) are also used, not in bori form, but normally, boiled along with the other ingredients.
Mustard oil must be the cooking medium. And the gravy must be light in consistency.
At a Cambodian food festival held in the city about 10 years ago, I had my first taste of Oxtail Soup, Cambodian style of course. It was a very clear soup with light seasoning and delicately-used herbs but the oxtail joints themselves gave the soup its robust nature. Strong in flavour and rich in nutrients, oxtail is an excellent ingredient for stews and soups and makes a rich curry as well. The percentage of bone is high, but the meat of a smooth texture and if slow cooked for long enough, comes off the bone easily is quite unique and very tasty. For a simple oxtail casserole, fry the joints till browned and lay them in a casserole. Add veggies (onions, carrots), stock thickened with flour, wine (optional) herbs and seasoning, boil and then simmer for three-four hours. Enjoy with pasta or bread.