Spring Blossoms of the Northeast
What you see in the picture above is a traditional Bodo dish, recreated by Living Foodz Chef Gautam Mehrishi at the Manas Spring Festival in Assam.
What you see in the picture above is a traditional Bodo dish, recreated by Living Foodz Chef Gautam Mehrishi at the Manas Spring Festival in Assam. Known as Onla Daau Wingkhri, it is a signature dish of the Bodo tribe in Assam, consisting of tender chicken pieces cooked in a rice flour gravy with onions, chilies and khar. The robust flavour of the meat is accentuated by the addition of coarsely ground rice. For language lovers, onla is rice flour, daau means chicken and wingkhri is a gravy.
How does one know that spring has arrived in Assam? The air is heavy with the fragrance of foxtail orchids, shopping lists are made to buy gamusas and mekhela sadors, and then there is Bihu. This year, Manas Spring Festival, held in April, added to the festivities with a focus on culinary tourism. Located about 140 kilometers away from Guwahati in Assam, the first edition of this festival took place in a Bodo village near Manas National Park. It is an initiative under the overarching objective of forest conservation by the World Wildlife Foundation. Their aim is to provide an alternative livelihood to poachers who have surrendered from the fringe villages. These poachers are encouraged to give up illegal hunting and trading by the Bodo Territorial Council. So, rural tourism is on the forefront. Food and handicrafts are the driving factors and Chef Gautam was invited to experience traditional Bodo cuisine prepared by village women and wives of ex-poachers.
Chef Gautam hails from Rajasthan, but has spent a few years of his childhood in the northeast as his father was in the army. He fondly recollects his memories of growing up there and sampling local foods.
“The biggest advantage of these areas is the tropical climate, so the produce is pretty fresh and very different compared to the rest of the country. The lime in Assam – Kaazi nemu – has a refreshing tartness. Many herbs and green leafy vegetables are included in everyday meals. At the festival, I discovered two such leafy greens – matikalda that is unique to Manas and mosundari which stood out with its distinct aroma and sour flavour. Matikalda was combined with potatoes to make an interesting dish, and I feel it replaces spinach. Mosundari lends itself beautifully to chutneys, which is prepared by grounding its leaves on a silbatta with local chillies and onions,” shares the chef making our mouths water.
The chef is a teetotaler, but couldn’t resist trying the local rice beer called Zumai, which he claimed was of premium quality as he sang high praises of the rice found in the northeast. The two-day festival offered the rare opportunity to sample 25 unique dishes; from the exotic emphoo laatha bhaaja (silkworm fry), samook sobei wingkhri (snails in black urad daal), to a variety of pork, chicken and veg dishes. A dessert item was conspicuously missing, but there was the wholesome tekeli pitha that was served for breakfast with laal saah or black tea.
“Although rustic, there is an underlying understanding of the science of cooking. The tekeli pitha is like an idli, but the steaming process differs. The mixture of rice flour, grated coconut, jaggery and sesame is stuffed into the lid of a kettle or urn-shaped pot and covered with a thin cotton cloth. Then it is steamed for a few minutes by placing the lid on this vessel that contains boiling water. The cloth is removed and the spongy but densely packed tekeli pitha is ready to be served, and you don’t even need chutney as an accompaniment. It is bigger than an idli and more filling, making it a delicious and nutritious breakfast item. Even the combination of souring or bitter elements in their cooking is perfectly balanced and nuanced. They know how to pair flavours and ingredients. They have a pork dish called Oma Narzi, that’s made with bitter-tasting dried jute leaves. It is quite interesting and pairs perfectly with rice, but the one who cooks needs to understand taste so that the dish is not too bitter or completely devoid of the meat flavour. This requires skill,” he points out.
The chef got a chance to observe the dishes being prepared while the tribeswomen willingly shared their knowledge about food. As the two-day festival was coming to an end, he was requested to prepare the chicken dish – Onla Daau Wingkhri to encapsulate the spirit of Manas Spring Festival. Bodos make this dish by sautéing onions and chilies in a little mustard oil, fresh chicken pieces are then added and some alkaline khar goes in to cook the meat. Then, a mixture of coarsely grounded rice flour and water is added to the chicken and allowed to cook. Flavoured with salt and a hint of turmeric, the dish is then ready to be served.
Gautam shared that the concept of Onla Daau Wingkhri is like a lapsi or stew. The thickening comes from the coarsely grounded rice flour making it almost like a one pot meal. “So, it seemed like a French stew to me and that’s how I attempted to recreate it” – the starting point for him.
“Masalas like ginger, garlic and chillies were sauteed in mustard oil, before putting in the chicken. They had par-cooked the meat, but this dish required it to be raw. You need to keep it raw so that you can extract all the juices to make the sauce, while the meat is rendered succulent;” the chef has a way to tease our taste-buds.
In the midst of a motley audience of bloggers, media professionals, festival organisers and curious village folks, Chef Gautam explained each step while trying to keep off the smoke from the woodfire stove. To their utter shock, he deglazed the pan with rice beer while a lady tried to stop him. Bodos don’t cook with alcohol and he had to gently explain why he was doing so - “It softens the finely diced onions that had turned translucent and combines the flavours, a classic French technique. Before putting in the chicken, there were also some greens and slices of the local white brinjal, known as baramasi, that were sautéed, and deglazing held all these flavours together.”
Moving away from the rustic style of adding the coarsely grounded rice flour with water in one instance, the chef decided to put it in stages. He soaked the rice flour in warm water to soften it before churning it well with hand. He had also pounded the rice in a large wooden mortar pestle the day before and knew the texture of the rice. It was joha rice which has less starch and it’s a shiny, short-grained variety. After it’s soaked a whitish liquid emerges on the surface which is the first extract and it has the most starch. It was added straight away on very slow fire and allowed to cook. “This helps you to develop the gravy, the sauce. Then mash the rice slightly, and put it in the kadhai with water. The third stage is, add the remaining and cook in slow flame. If required, add some water. Instead of water, I added the khar to cut the acids. To secure the alkaline flavour of khar, it was deliberately kept for the end. The dish turned slightly pinkish which happens because alkaline combines with alcohol. While pouring the khar, there was this simmering liquid on top that turned pink. You can see it reacting with the acids and the colour changes beautifully,” – he smiles while recollecting that it was much appreciated by the crowd.
Almost ready, people wanted him to taste the dish for salt. It was a Saturday and the chef avoids non-vegetarian on that day. He surprised them further by gauging the quantity of salt in the dish by smelling the vapours; a trick he learnt from his grandmother who is his first teacher in the kitchen.
While strolling through the village, he noticed edible flowers aplenty growing in the wild. Periwinkle, gladiola, pumpkin flower, squash flower, tomato flowers, gourd flowers, raat ki rani and many more. He plucked these to garnish on plates that were carved out of sliced banana stem. While he was plating, an audience member, Kampha Borgowary, the Deputy Chief of Bodo Territorial Council, informed that flowers are an important ingredient of Bodo cuisine and he appreciated the use of periwinkle and pumpkin blossoms on this dish.
"Celebrating spring should become the norm as we have rabi and khari crops. Although winter festivals are popular, I am happy that there is a festival which profoundly celebrates traditional cuisine and nature in abundance," he signs off.
Image Courtesy: Akkil Suvarna, Mitali Dutta and Chef Gautam Mehrishi
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