For years, I've had friends entreating me to cook the very basic, quintessentially Assamese dish of tangy fish curry, Maasor Tenga for them and for years I've kind of put it off. Mainly because though I am an Assamese by birth, I wasn't really much into eating Assamese food or Assamese fish curries! Blame it on the multi-cultural influences in my life; moving from city to city every two years and thereby unable to really decide if that was what constituted home food for me. Growing up in a boarding school with a British principal meant we ate a lot of English cuisine too and no prizes for guessing where my loyalties lay.
It was only after many years had passed that I finally began to feel the weight of my own cultural identity; albeit in a good way—that of being an Assamese and understanding the real value of the healthy, simple, food that had always been cooked in my mother’s and now my mother-in-law’s house. I actually started relishing the food that I once ignored. This happened once I reached middle-age and started becoming more discerning about what I was consuming and started avoiding a lot of foods. We all start scouring for healthy foods to keep that burgeoning belly and sugar levels and what-not in check. And the trick is simply to look closer to home for traditional curries and recipes, as I found out. And that’s what the now famous dietician and celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar (responsible for Kareena Kapoor Khan's svelte frame) will have you know in her various opinion pieces and books.
In a nutshell, the food cooked in your family homes, something that you grew up eating, native to the locality and clime where you grew up, is really the food best suited to you. For me that’s Assamese food, which is a model in healthy eating, right from the low oil cooking methods to achieving complete balance with fish, meats, vegetables, herbs, plants and grains; all that one can get in abundance and is seasonal. For example, the tangy fish curry or Maasor Tenga, that I began this treatise with, is really typical of what Assamese food is all about. The Punjabis have their Butter Chicken; we have our Maasor Tenga, a fish curry that is healthy, delicious, non-fattening, low oil and the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of steamed rice.
For the fish curry, we usually use the Rohu variety, though you can use any other too. It is lightly fried in mustard oil after mixing in haldi-namak and kept aside. Then you cook the thin, light tangy fish curry using lemons or tomatoes, dried mangosteen or elephant apple and let the fish simmer in it. Mostly known as a summer dish because of its cooling properties, this tangy fish curry is a universal favourite and features in every basic Assamese menu. One can also add fresh herbs or leaves to the fish curry, but the best is the unadulterated version of it.
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Dr Geeta Dutta, CDMO, Guwahati refinery hospital who is also an avid foodie and home chef tells us why: “Maasor Tenga Anja which means a sour/tangy fish curry is one of the most loved dishes in the main course. Keeping in mind the climactic tropical conditions of Assam and the vast availability of fresh herbs, vegetables, fish, these light fish curries are paired well with rice and help to keep the body cool and rejuvenated. Various locally available fruits, vegetables and herbs are used as the basic souring ingredient, based according to seasons. The most commonly used are tomatoes, both the big ones and the small cherry tomatoes or kon bilahi; outenga or elephant apple, dried pieces of thekera (Garcinia pedunculata ), lemon juice, Roselle leaves or tengamora, suka xaak (saag-a kind of leafy vegetable), nol tenga (Tetrastigma angustifolia), abu tenga, omora (hog plums), raw mangoes, tengesi or Indian sorrel and bogori or jujube.”
Dr Geeta Dutta's Maasor Tenga Recipe
(Any fresh water fish cooked with homegrown kon bilahi. You can use Rohu fish too.)
1. Clean the pieces of fishe, wash properly and pat dry.
2. Then, rub little turmeric and salt on the pieces and sear them for a minute in hot mustard oil.
3. Then, add some methiguti or fenugreek seeds in the same oil . As it splutters, add a cup of cherry tomatoes to it.
4. Also a green chilly, a pinch of turmeric and salt to taste.
5. Sauté the tomatoes, mash them a bit with a ladle.
6. Then add 2 cups of water to it. Put on the lid and let it simmer for 10 mins. Now add the fish to it . Cook for another 10 mins. Garnish with fresh coriander .
7. Serve with plain steamed hot rice.
Alternately use the pulp of big size tomatoes or cut slices of elephant apple or add just the juice of three long sized lemons to make this gravy with any kind of fish.
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