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Sunday , September 12 , 2010
 
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Aromas of Assam
Food

There’s a tradition in my family that we’ve developed over the last 10 years or so. On the day of rakhi, when wide-eyed sisters tie a piece of string around the wrists of their brave brothers to ensure a year’s guarantee of protection from evil forces, my sister and I go out for a meal. We try out a new place every year, and that’s not tough, for there is always something opening up in some part of town in Delhi. This year we decided to visit Jakoi, a restaurant serving Assamese food.

The restaurant is a branch of the Paradise chain in Assam, which has fed hundreds of thousands of people over the years. Of course, to do so in Assam is one thing, but to promote Assamese food in a place like Delhi where people live on butter chicken is another. But I think Assamese food — often light, sometimes spicy — can take off in other parts of the country too. I’ve gone back to Jakoi with different sets of friends, and found that food has always been a hit.

I, of course, have a special fondness for Assamese food. It could do with the fact that my parents met in the hills of Assam. Or it could be connected to a trip that I made to Assam some years ago. I had gone for a wedding and wanted to eat traditional Assamese food there. But the guests had enough of the aforementioned and wanted butter chicken instead. And of course the hosts had to submit to local pressures. And even though there was tenga fish on the menu, I cribbed all the way back home (and continue to do so whenever I get a chance).

Hurum served with cream and jhola gur

But I remember that the tenga fish was wonderfully light and tasty. The owners of Jakoi — S.K. Bezbaruah and Paparee — stress that its tart taste comes from tomatoes and lime juice. A typical Assamese meal, they tell me, consists of varying tastes and flavours — the tanginess of tenga, the heady mustard taste of steamed fish, the light tempering of the ordinary dal, the sharpness of green chillies and mustard oil in aloo pitika, or mashed potatoes, and the rich gravy of a duck or pigeon curry. And then, of course, there is khar, without which no Assamese meal is complete.

I have been intrigued by the concept of khar for a while now. This is a dish cooked mostly with vegetables and soda bicarbonate or khar. My friends from the Northeast tell me khar is made by burning the dry trunk of a banana tree and mixing the ashes with water in a container. A hole in the container allows the liquid to flow through it. And this alkaline liquid is khar, which is mixed with a host of vegetables. The result is a dish that helps with digestion, and keeps your stomach light through and after the meal. Since the process is a bit too tedious for daily fare, soda bicarb is used instead for the same effect.

Gooseberry fish curry

Khar and fish are always there on an Ahomiya table. Fish is cooked in various ways — including with amla, or the Indian gooseberry. The steamed hilsa is quite like its Bengali version, but a bit different. The fish is marinated with mustard paste, slit green chillies, chopped onions, mustard oil and salt for ten minutes, and then steamed. At Jakoi they add a bit of salt to the mustard while making the paste to ensure that it doesn’t get bitter.

I love them all, but the dish that’s stolen my heart is a simple dessert of puffed rice (plumper and redder than what you get in Bengal), fresh cream and jhola gur — or liquid molasses. You put cream over the puffed rice, top it with gur and then eat it. It’s heavenly.

For some years now, I have been describing the food of Bengal as one of the most subtle forms of cuisines. I think Assam may have replaced it. A, as far as I am concerned, is for Assam.       

Chicken in bamboo hollow (serves 2)

Ingredients

• 350g chicken • 2 sliced small onions • 3 chopped green chillies • 2tbs kharisa • 1tbs mustard oil • salt to taste • 2 tender bamboo hollows • 2 banana leaves • coriander leaves and mustard oil for garnishing

Method

Clean and wash the chicken thoroughly. Mix the sliced onions, chopped chillies, kharisa, mustard oil and salt in a small bowl. Add the mixture to the chicken. Mix well and marinate for 10 minutes. Fill the bamboo hollows with the marinated chicken and then seal them with the banana leaves. Place the hollows over a charcoal fire. Rotate the bamboo hollows from time to time till they are evenly burnt. Let them cool.

Slit open the bamboo hollows and empty the chicken into a serving plate. Garnish with fresh mustard oil and coriander leaves.

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