A Vegetarian menu from Assam
Exploring the vegetarian menu in the North-eastern state of Assam can be a fruitful way of getting to know the cultural warp and weft.
Assam is a rice and fish eating state, somewhat like the coastal areas. Though, it is not sea-coasts that Assam boasts of but grasslands and hills, lakes and rivers. The land is green with mega-rain supplies and the fisheries department is quite active as I noticed on a drive from Guwahati to Jorhat in December 2008.
Nariyal pani abounds, fresh from the palms, the cocunut water is sweet here, and the water is more can 2 glasses in a single cocunut. Stopping at a railway crossing I sampled the green coconut water.
Coconut laddoos are another sweet delight. Fresh, grated cocunut simmered in sugar (no water) cooks itself into a chewy dessert, which is rolled into balls before it cools down. No cardamom, no saffron, no rose-water, no flavouring at all, just candied coconut.
Umbul, a tomato chutney goes well with rice and dal. Tomatoes are sauteed in a dash of mustard oil, pach-phoran (a mix of five spices: saunf, ajwain, kalaunji, sarso and jeera), salt and a bit of sugar. Pach-phoran is a strong flavouring and just a pinch suffices.
Red chillies, also called jolokia in Assamese are some of the hottest, and Bhoot Jolokia holds a world record for being the hottest pepper.
Bhaat, of course!
Rice being the main dish, a meal is referred to as 'bhaat', meaning rice. But the accompaniments to bhaat, make all the difference!
Vegetables and lentils
As vegetbales to go with rice, sauteed beans, cauliflower or cabbage, again spiced with a pinch of pach-phoran and salt. Turmeric, garlic and fresh ginger are optional. However, a half-teaspoonful of sugar is not optional.
Green olives fresh from the vegetable market find themselves in pickles. Lemon slices, jolokia (green and red chillies) on the table make for sour and pungent additives, fresh again. Fresh vegetables are easily available (I can vouchsafe for Guwahati) and make for a mainstay with bhaat and daal in the vegetarian world.
The North Indian Khichri or the South Indian Pongal, meet their more colourful and wholesome cousin in the Assamese (and Bengali) Khisri.
A rice and yellow moong lentil hot-pot, with diced vegetables - carrot, squash, beans, potato, etc. and a dash of pach-phoran, turmeric and sugar. In this case pach-phoran and turmeric is optional. Its the topping of pure ghee that makes it irresistible to me.
The temple prasad deserves special mention, going by what I tasted at Dol Govind temple in North Guwahati.
Krishna was offered a rich kheer - rice payasam and a salad of sprouted green moong lentils, gram, chopped coconut, bananas and pomegranate seeds. The salt and sugar-free salad was delicious.