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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Simple, Vegetarian Assamese Thaali ~ Mati Mahor Dali

My regional thaali today comes from the North East Indian state of Assam, whose cuisine is supposedly close to East Asian and South East Asian countries like Thailand, according to Wiki. I knew a few things about Assam before I planned to create this thaali like it's world famous tea, Assam silk, the Bihu festival and the signature white and red sarees women adorn during the occasion, a couple of dishes I had tried in my kitchen, and a few details about their cuisine picked up now and then through blogging. Not much from the culinary point of view to be able to create a thaali on my own. People well versed with the local cuisine have been generous enough to share their culinary skills with others in the virtual world and have aided me in this regard indirectly providing me the details needed. And so there is no one source from which I was able to create this spread. 

Assamese cuisine mainly differs from the other regional Indian cuisines because of it's usage of less spices and simple style of cooking that rarely involves any elaborate preparations. The concept of 'bhun-na', the frying before the main ingredients are added is absent in Assamese cuisine. The cooking is a blend of indigenous styles and vary regionally. The cooking styles is influenced both by those in the hills who ferment and dry to preserve food and those who live in the plains with access to abundant sea food, meat and fresh vegetables. 
Rice is an integral part of cooking in Assam just as in south India. It is eaten in one form or another at all meals and wiki has a lot of info on their rice cooking styles.Their breakfast and snacks are called 'Jolpaan' and are mainly rice based. Poita bhaath is leftover rice which is soaked overnight to be eaten as breakfast or lunch the next day with mustard oil, salt, green chilli and pitika. Odisha has also a similar dish called pakhala. The meal revolves around rice aka bhaat and they prefer plain rice over the pulao / briyani kinds. They prefer to use joha rice which is short and aromatic and no breads are served with the meal. The preferred cooking medium is mustard oil just as the other East Indian states since it can also be consumed raw.

A tidbit:
Did you know the Assamese ferment milk in bamboo tubes? They cover the bamboo tubes with banana leaves and leave it at room temperature for about two days to make yogurt.

I served the following with rice along some lemon slices and green chillies which are a must in an Assamese thaali. Salted cucumber slices were included as a salad. 

Amita Khar / Omita Khar - A side dish prepared with raw papaya and khar
Aloo Pitika - Potato mash
Dali - A simple lentil and potato side dish
Mati Mahor Dali - A black gram based lentil dish
Bilahir Tok - Tomato Chutney
Xaak - A spinach saute
Bhaja - I made fritters with spinach as I had seen them in a Assamese thaali video.
Papad - Microwaved lentil wafers
Payokh - Rice kheer
Doi - Yogurt

A traditional Assamese meal or thaali is served in bell metal utensils with various courses and eaten with one's right hand. I could not stop from noticing the similarities with the Bengali cuisine in the style the courses that are served. While Bengalis start their meal with a bitter vegetable to cleanse their system, Assamese go with khar, an alkali dish first for the same reason. I have given below the list of dishes that go in a typical Assamese thaali though not in an order. They are all served with rice with some lemon wedges and red and green jolokia chillies on the side. Truly a  mildly flavored, simple meal compared to the regional cuisines I am acquainted with.   

1. Khar
The meal starts with a khar. Khar is an indigenous preparation where banana peels and / or trunk of the banana plant are dried, burnt and the resulting ashes are mixed with water and kept overnight. The filtrate of the mixture which is going to be stored for the future use is called khar and Assamese cannot do without it. Some of the vegetarian options to prepare khar are raw papaya, bottle gourd, jasmine flower, ash gourd, pumpkin, ridge gourd and local greens. Baking soda is the closest substitute for khar. I made this with raw papaya and chana dal / split chickpeas and found the dish is an acquired taste.
2. Pitika
Pitika, a ball of mashed vegetable is also an essential part of a thaali. There are several vegetables used to make pitika but the most popular one is that made with potatoes called aloo pitika. Sometimes onion, either raw or fried can be added as well. Fried chilies could be a flavorful addition as well.The preparation is found in the neighboring states as well. Biharis call it chokha while it is called kangmet in Manipur.

3. Bhaja / Bora - Fritters 
Fried fritters were not a part of traditional Assamese cooking but are prepared now because of external influence. Bhaja are fried vegetable fritters made with a coating of chickpea flour / besan and rice flour mixture. Bora are lentil fritters and what are called vada in other parts of India. They both are made with a wide variety of local vegetables, flowers, and shoots which sure sound exotic to non locals. Fritters for example are made with pumpkin, the tender leaves and flowers of the pumpkin plant, night blooming jasmine, agathi flower, tender leaves of bottle gourd, eggplant, cauliflower and others while boras are made with lentils adding either greens / vegetable / fish eggs and such. I made spinach fritters for this course.
4. Dali - A lentil / legume preparation
The indigenous people did not eat dal as well traditionally just like the above course of fritters. It was slowly introduced into the cuisine again with outer influence. Black gram is the preferred dal in Assamese cuisine and a dal prepared with it called mati mahor dali is a must if serving an Assamese thaali. It can be cooked with or without the addition of khar. If not black gram, the dali can be prepared using other dals like masoor dal adding vegetables such as raw jack fruit, kohlrabi, papaya, pumpkin, potato and others. Below is potato - masoor dal. 
5. Xaak and Vegetable preparations
Xaak, a simple greens stir fry with the addition of lentils / fish / meat / eggs is a must. They are just simply cooked in water and salt and then lightly sauteed.

Whereas a vegetable preparation is spiced with panch phoran and salt. Ginger, garlic and turmeric are all optional ingredients in a vegetable preparation. I have noticed that a dry saute of a locally available potato is also a must in an Assamese thaali. They are small marble sized and they are cooked / fried whole without peeling. I made a spinach and peanut subzi.
6. Tok and Achaar
A tok is a sweet sour dish aka chutney while achaar is the pickle. 
Panitenga or kahudi and karoli, the tangy fermented black mustard chutneys are signature Assamese accompaniments. There is Bilahir tok aka tomato chutney which is included in my thaali. The chutneys are made with a wide variety of greens unique to the region. A chutney made with dried fish is a most popular one among the tribes. Apart from the usual Indian pickle variety, pickles are also made with olives, hog plums, star fruit, magosteen, elephant apple, jujube, ghost peppers, etc.

7. Tenga
My understanding is that it is a non vegetarian course and is a sour one. Tenga would be the last side dish to be served while khaar is the first one in an Assamese meal. Sour fish curries are a must for non veg thaalis while duck is also the most popular meat choice.

8. Doi 
The meal ends with a serving of yogurt. Dessert is not a part of thaali but a simple payokh - a kheer made with joha rice or barnyard millet can be served. 

9. A Tamul Paan  
Betel nuts and leaves are served after the meal. 

I am posting the recipe for mati mahor dali today which is always included in an Assamese thaali. Dal preparations in Assam lean towards simplicity and this one is no exception. The basic version needs just a tempering of panch phoran and chilies though there are onion and ginger here, We loved this dal, including my husband who hates to see black gram as a side dish. One can go with split black gram but I used the whole black gram / sabut urad dal here.

1 cup of black gram
2 pinches of turmeric powder
2 tbsp. mustard oil (or any preferred oil)
1/2 tsp. panchphoran
1 bay leaf
2 dried red chilies, broken into bits
1 inch piece of grated ginger
1 onion, chopped
2 green chilies, slit (Mine were hotter.)

* Soak black gram in water for about 3 to 4 hours. Pressure cook the dal adding about two cups of water. Don't make it mushy.
* Heat mustard oil in a pan. When it's smoking hot, add the panch phoran, bay leaf and the red chilies. Add the chopped onion when they start to splutter. (Don't bring it to a smoking point if using any other oil.) Fry until onion starts to turn light brown in color. 
* Add ginger, green chilies and turmeric. Saute for a minute and add the cooked dal. Add salt as needed and adjust the water consistency if needed. The dal should be not too thick or too thin, somewhere in the middle. Bring it to a boil if water was added.
* Garnish with cilantro and serve hot with rice.



vaishali sabnani said...

Suma , kudos on a Assamese thali . Seriously I can never never dream of trying this cuisine . I have made a couple if dishes , but I guess Assamese cuisine has a very acquired taste , with the flavours being so simple .
You have done a tremendous research which is clearly visible from this simple , yet elaborate thali .
From this thali , I am sure I will first pick that pakora , then move on to taste the dal . Then spinach ! Which looks excellent !

I love mustard oil in cooking , it imparts a unique flavor , but at the same time I love spicy food ! So perhaps if I were to make this meal I would add some spice for myself !

Totally loved this thali , which is a feast by itself .

Srivalli said...

This is a fantastic record of what the Assamese make for their thali! I know its really hard to get a proper source as there is hardly anything recorded well..I had the same problem and above all the fact that many dishes are sort of bland made me not to pick this up..I know I would have been the only person eating all this..heheh..However, reading yours, makes me feel so good that you had done so much research to gather all these details! Great job Suma. The whole thali looks out of the world!

Suma Gandlur said...

Valli, thank you. I did not make any of the dishes bland except that khar dish which I am sure is an acquired taste. I thought I wasted a papaya there. :) The dishes are enjoyable as long as they are made to suit our tastes but not definitely when they are bland.

rajani said...

I have tried a couple of recipes from that area and I remember liking it a lot. It was very simple to make and since my son was much younger then, this was his regular diet. I mean, he won’t eat anything heavily spiced and so we were already there. Don’t know how I will like it now! I didn’t know they use bamboos to make yogurt, that’s cool 😎

Harini R said...

OMG! Very well researched thali from Assam, Suma. Your thali reminds me of my early childhood in Assam and recollect certain words,phrases related to food. The usage of banana stem was very popular. I love the Bilahir tok and khichdi they used to serve in the local temple.

Srividhya said...

Like every other post,this is also amazing. Gathering and researching info about Assamese thali is difficult and make this kind of amazing spread is simple awesome. Kudos Suma.

cookwithrenu said...

It is not easy to make a thali from this cuisine and you have done it like a pro. Each and every dish is just wow and feels like you have mastered all of them. Wonderful share.

Narmadha said...

OMG. Each and every post of yours is outstanding and it shows how much hard work and research you have put to make these amazing thalis. This is one of the cuisine where it is difficult to source ingredients and many dishes are least known. Whole thali looks so inviting.