Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Grandma's Cooking

So, the day I left Assam, my grandmother asked me what I wanted for lunch. Since I like most everything, I hemmed and hawed, not wanting to make life hard for her, but eventually sacked up and requested the following Assamese feast. Unfortunately, I was to busy stuffing myself to take pictures, but here's an attempt at description:

First course: Poita Bhat with Mitha Tel and Khorisa (Fermented rice with mustard oil and bamboo shoots).
This is Assamese comfort food. You take some cooked parboiled rice, cover it with water, and soak it overnight in a cool, dark place. The fridge actually works fine. This ferments it, and gives it an interesting sweet/sour flavor. Drain it, and the mix it with mustard oil and salt, and bamboo shoots to taste. Mustard oil is incredibly pungent, and this is definitely not for everyone. Serve the mixture with a hot green chili and raw salt on the side. Bite into the chili, eat a little salt, and then eat a little of the rice mixture. It's a very loud, very ethnic party in your mouth.

Second course: Masor Mur with Bengana (Fish head curry with baby eggplant).
I actually have very little idea what spices went into this to make it so delicious. I know fish heads scare people, but they are delicious. Interesting texture, great flavor. I'm going to guess there was some onion/garlic (but just a little), salt, and sugar.

Third course: Dayal Bhat and Xak Bhaji (Rice and lentils with a side of stir-fried greens).
The X is Xak should be pronounced like an incredibly soft H. I have no good idea how to transliterate this, but this is relatively standard. Dayal = the Assamese word for Dal. This was a nice, simple Dal, just some onions, cumin, cilantro, and turmeric. No cream, no butter. Light, and very flavorful. I'll post an approximate recipe soon.

The stir fried greens are of note because the incredible variety of greens that one can obtain in Assam is just fantastic, and all have subtly different flavors. By cooking them very lightly, you can really appreciate these differences. I know the Assamese name for many of them, but not the English. Some example of the English ones I do know: Mustard greens, radish greens, collard greens, bok choy (ok, not English, but god knows, familiar to this audience), clover (!). Though, to be fair, clover usually goes into soups.

Fourth course: Masor Tenga (Lemon-tomato soup with fish).
I could rhapsodize about Tenga Anja (literally, sour soup) for ever. It is the signature dish in Assamese cuisine, a delicately flavored broth with lemon, tomatoes, and cilantro, that comes in a thousand variations. It's also incredibly easy to make. I will post instructions soon.

The beauty of it is that you can put almost anything in it. People put in potatoes to add body to the thin broth, or greens to add flavor. Squash or zucchini goes well to absorb flavor. Fried lentil dumplings are another traditional favorite (this variation is called bor diya tenga, bor = dumplings).

But my absolute favorite is masor tenga (mas = fish). The heart of Assam is the Brahmaputra river, and the capital city, Guwahati, is right on the river. Thus, each morning, vendors come by house-to-house selling freshly caught river fish. This fish, cut into relatively small (2"x2") bone-in pieces, is lightly shallow-fried with salt and turmeric rubbed in before being immersed in the broth. The result is just incredible.

Fifth course: Doyi Bhat with Gur and Kol (Yogurt rice with jaggery and banana).
In both of the cultures that I come from (Tamil and Assamese), yogurt and rice is eaten at the end of each meal. However, in south India it's eaten with a salty and spicy pickle of some sort, while here, in Assam, it's eaten with gur (basically, brown sugar in big chunks) and bananas, almost as a proto-dessert. I like it both ways. And since I was in Assam, I followed the sage advice of Ron Burgundy: "When in Rome...".

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