Noshtalgia Food

If it’s alkaline it must be khaar

Food is being prepared at a makeshift camp in Assam during a festive season. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Food is being prepared at a makeshift camp in Assam during a festive season. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  

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Wherever my father was, he would experiment with different kinds of bananas found in those places, roasting the peels to make khaar. But it never really worked

Such a humble dish, khaar, yet so addictive, and a defining one for the Assamese. Simple to make, with ingredients that are easily available around the house, khaar’s had with rice. It has a unique taste that is neither salty nor umami, but alkaline.

Both the dish and the taste are called khaar. This taste comes through the addition of a particular ingredient. This khaar agent is of two different kinds, which I would call the traditional and the contemporary. And thereby hangs the tale of khaar in my home.

From father to kids

My father worked in different countries, my mother set up home in all of them, with us siblings in tow. And though schools, textbooks and friends changed, the one constant was the food that ma churned out. True, the local cuisine invariably left its mark on her cooking. But there was rice, perhaps a fish or meat curry, dal and a vegetable for many of the meals.

My father, though, was a khaar aficionado. Having grown up in a Sattra, a monastery-like religious and socio-cultural institution associated with the Vaishnavites, he was used to eating it, and he passed on his love of khaar to us, the children. I remember the cavernous kitchens of the Sattra, with its earthen wood-fired fireplaces and mud-wiped floors, where something or the other always seemed to be bubbling in the vast iron kerahis.

On a normal day, there would be around 30 people for a meal, many more during festivals. There were professional cooks, baputis, who did both the daily and the ceremonial cooking, though I also remember my grandmother going in to cook sometimes. She would discard the mekhela sador she was wearing, and after a bath, don one of the two red saris that were kept specifically in the kitchen for her. This was customary.

A lot of fish

It was the taste of the khaar she cooked that had my father hooked for life. Which was strange, because there were so many other things that those kitchens turned out — fish fresh from the pond; turtle meat curry; pigeon with pepper; duck cooked with ash gourd. Venison, too, and, of course, lots of goat meat, but no chicken. The turtle gave me a severe allergy, but I relished the fish, which my cousins hauled out of the ponds with shouts of joy and triumph. They tasted of the pond and the earth, and I loved them.

But it was the khaar that pita, my father, missed the most.

Craving it

The problem was that ma did not come from a khaar-eating family. She was from Dhubri, where the food traditions are different. The food that came out of my Dhubri grandmother’s kitchen was what a Brahmin widow would be ‘allowed’ to eat those days. Vegetarian, of course, with no hint of onion or garlic. But she treated us, her grandchildren, to delicious discs of crunchily fried sesame held together with rice flour, and payox, kheer, that was sweetened with nolen gur and served in stone bowls. There was a separate non-veg kitchen too where meats and fish were cooked. No chicken though — that was taboo.

And never khaar. Dhubri shares many traditions, including culinary ones, with neighbouring Bengal and Bangladesh. And khaar is something that is not seen there. One encounters khaar in a variety of forms as one goes more to the east. Some variants of this dish are popular among the ethnic communities of the hill states of the Northeast. Mizoram’s bai, for instance, though more watery than khaar, has a tinge of the same taste. Alkaline.

Ma learnt how to make it quickly enough. It’s not difficult. Like most Assamese fare, it does not require spices. It was that other Assamese dish, the tangy fish tenga, that she never mastered. I fell in love with it after my marriage to a family from eastern Assam, where it is a staple. And when I went back to ma’s kitchen on visits, I cooked tenga for them. But they never acquired a taste for it.

Burnt flavour

Traditionally, the agent that brings in the khaar taste is made by burning the peels of a particular kind of banana, and then distilling the ashes. But the faster way is to use baking soda. There is perhaps a slight difference in taste, but I don’t really notice it. But it mattered to pita. Wherever he was, he would experiment with different kinds of bananas found in those places, roasting the peels to make khaar. But it never really worked, and he had to be content with baking soda.

Pita’s search for the perfect khaar, though, does have a happy ending. These days, bottled essence of banana peel ash is available commercially. Ma would use that to make khaar, and he would relish it as much as he had in his Sattra dining hall. He also loved the khaar in my marital home, my mother-in-law being an expert khaar maker.

Her specialities were the delicious tenga she made with elephant apple and fish, and the khaar, always for lunch, never dinner, made with the leftover prasad of chickpeas and mung after a puja in the house. Khaar and tenga, however could never be served together. Her khaar was something I looked forward to, and though I make it myself now, that flavour that came from the touch of her hands is missing.

Sunday recipe

Omita (green papaya) khaar

For kol khaar (khaar made of banana peels)

Use the peel of the bheem kol banana. Sun-dry the peel, then roast on flame. Dunk it overnight in a bowl of about two cups of water and strain. Discard the peel and ash, keep the water. Half a cupful of the freshly made liquid is needed. Or, use bicarbonate of soda — half a tsp.

Ingredients

Green papaya — peeled, with the seeds removed and cut into medium-sized cubes (about two cups)

Grated ginger — approx a tsp

Two fresh green chillies

Salt to taste

Mustard seeds — approx a tsp

Mustard oil — two tbsp, and a little extra to drizzle over the finished khaar

Water — one cup

Method

1. In a kerahi, heat the oil till it is smoking. Throw in the mustard seeds, lower the flame and cover till the crackling stops.

2. Add the green chillies and the papaya. Stir, add the ginger and salt.

3. Add enough water to cover the papaya cubes.

4. Sprinkle the soda, and cook till the water decreases and the papaya is a soft mush.

5. Sprinkle raw mustard oil before serving for added pungency.

The writer is a novelist, short story writer and translator whose latest book is A Full Night’s Thievery.

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Printable version | Dec 10, 2019 5:26:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/if-its-alkaline-it-must-be-khaar/article30116273.ece

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