Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  First, the palate cleanser

Come summer and, almost of their own volition, my feet take me to Gharua Exaj, a tiny Assamese restaurant in Amar Colony in south Delhi. My Sunday lunches there usually comprise rice, dal, mashed boiled potatoes and a little papaya khar. There’s also meat curry, fish and a few other dishes but, to me, they are mere distractions.

Especially from khar, an alkaline solution prepared with bananas in Assam, where I come from, and where traditional foods are losing a bit of their charm. Khar (rather confusingly, the term is used for both the alkaline solution and the dishes made with it) tastes slightly astringent when raw—the alkaline levels are directly proportionate to the bitterness—but blends beautifully when cooked with vegetables, elevating their taste in a subtle yet remarkable way. It acts almost as a palate cleanser, prepping the tongue for the rest of the tastes to follow: sour, salty and sweet.

To extract kola khar, the commonest kind, local cooks use the Athiya kol, or the Bhim banana (Musa balbisiana), a seeded, inexpensive variety of banana with large stems, by burning the dried skin and other parts of the fruit and, indeed, the plant, soaking the ashes in a bowl of water and emulsifying it with a very small amount of mustard oil. Best harnessed during the months of Ahin and Kati (late September-mid October), quality khar keeps for a long time in a glass jar.

Opening with the khar dish, the typical traditional Assamese meal usually (though not strictly) winds up with a tangy (read acidic) semi-liquid curry, preferably a masor (fish) tenga. Tenga literally means sour, but the word also applies to sour curries, generally prepared with citrus fruits and vegetables.

“We eat a lot of acidic foods in Assam, because there’s quite a profusion of sour greens and fruits in the region," says Sneha Saikia, a New Delhi-based home cook with a particular enthusiasm for khar. “That is why having alkaline khar as an appetizer balances the meal." But more than the meal, khar helps balance the body’s pH levels; lower or acidic pH levels are associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity, while higher or alkaline pH levels indicate lower risks for hypertension and stroke.

The origins of khar, according to Dibrugarh university history professor Jahnabi Gogoi (Nath) in the book Agrarian System Of Medieval Assam (2002), are linked to a scarcity of salt. Coupled with medieval accounts such as the tantric text Yogini Tantra and Ananta Kandali’s Kumara Harana, which indicate that lon (salt) was a condiment available only to privileged Brahmins and aristocrats, it seems safe to conclude that khar was a peasant improvisation. Over time, the rich also started consuming khar, perhaps because of its perceived health benefits.

The humble origins of the concoction are reflected in the thrift of its preparation: Once you have stir-fried the vegetables of your choice in a little oil, all you need to add is salt and khar and cook till it’s done. While cooking fish, the process is the same, except that the pre-fried pieces of fish are added at the end. Leftover vegetables, too, benefit from the use of khar—and one doesn’t really need much else. Just a few green chillies and fresh coriander. No turmeric powder, no chilli powder and certainly no garam masala, not if you wish to retain the alkaline benefits of khar.

Interestingly, khar shows up in multiple variations among communities in Assam and surrounding states, an indication of the years of inter-ethnic exchanges. The Rajbongshis, for instance, call their edition shyaka: In his essay “Rajbongshi Lokakhadya (The Food Of The Rajbongshis)" in the book Axomor Janagusthiyo Khadya (2012), Dwijendra Nath Bhakat notes that khar is made with the ashes of dried mustard and black lentil seed plants.

Mizoram and Manipur, too, have their individual takes on the khar. “The Mizos call it chang-al while tribes like the Paites in Manipur call it tangal. Unlike khar, which uses the banana plant, the Mizos process the solution by collecting ashes of wood and filtering these with water through a split bamboo tip," says Mary Lalboi of Rosang Café, a North-Eastern restaurant in Green Park, New Delhi. “In Manipur, they make a curry called ooti using a similar alkaline solution."

Community feasting forms an integral part of life in the North-East, so, foods are imbued with symbolic meaning, evoked in songs, tales, jokes, rhymes and proverbs. The Karbi tribe has a saying that translates something like this: “Feed khar to the one with a sharp tongue, pour khar on the sour mango." Khar is thus seen as the “pacifying" element or the agent of slowness here, meant to take the edge off your aggression. However, this principle can be twisted to aid an insult: to label a people “khar-khowa" is to call the community comparatively lethargic and slow-paced.

If khar is a marker of social identity, it is also a reminder of the bond we share with the old and the diseased, who cannot afford to have deep-fried fast food or anything else that uses a lot of oil. In a Madagascar folk tale, a couple chooses to die like the banana tree: Death for the banana tree marks the beginning of many new lives sustained by the nourishing fruit. My grandmother used to say “plantains never die"—a nod to the banana omnipresent in her recipes, but also to the fact that khar is born, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the fallen fruit.

Perhaps the old fear a different kind of ending: That there is little hope for dying recipes—a fear that seems justified given the growing preference for commercial baking soda over the painstaking process of preparing khar, even in Assam. Baking soda functions much like khar, but, to an experienced palate, the taste of organic khar and that of baking soda are worlds apart. Khar is really a gift of the ages.

CUCUMBER KHAR

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 cucumbers

A pinch of paanch-phoron

Quarter tsp khar

Mustard oil

Salt, to taste

Fresh coriander for garnish (optional)

Method

Slice the cucumbers thinly and stir in a wok with a little mustard oil and paanch-phoron over a slow flame for a while. Then add khar: Remember to check how strong the alkaline level is first; if it’s too alkaline, it will taste very bitter. Add water, salt and stir for a bit, until your dish is ready. Zucchini, ghiya (bottle guard) and tori (snake gourd) can be cooked the same way.

XEWALI PHOOLAR KHAR

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 small bowl of sun-dried xewali (night jasmine) flowers

Half tbsp mustard oil

A little less than Half tbsp khar

Fish heads, previously fried

2 green chillies, chopped

Salt, to taste

Method

Wash the sun-dried xewali flowers very carefully in lukewarm water till the water runs clear. Now, heat a pan, add mustard oil and stir-fry the flowers till their colour changes slightly. Add salt, green chillies and a pinch of khar; the entire dish will turn a dark shade of maroon-brown. Add a little water, stir slowly and cover. As the flowers become softer, add the fried fish. You may also break the fish head into small pieces. Wait for 8-10 minutes for the flavours to meld. Serve the xewali khar hot with rice.

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