A few months ago, when the country was reeling under a health crisis, Sneha Saikia received a unique meal request. The supper table host, who curates Assamese luncheons in Delhi, was asked to prepare an alkali-rich menu by a patient recovering from Covid-19. “To my surprise he was prescribed to eat something that we commonly cook back home. Since he was familiar with the cuisine, I made him khar with raw papaya,” says Saikia.
Khar is considered to be the crown jewel of Assamese cuisine. It is prepared from the peels of vegetables, but the one made with banana is the most popular. It works like an organic cooking soda, and is obtained by filtering water through dried and burnt ashes of the stem, corm and skin of an indigenous variety of banana called bhimkol or Musa Balbisiana. It helps that the seeded cultivar is prized for its nutritional benefits. The parts of the fruit used to make the ash filtrate are a good source of antioxidants and phytochemicals that are said to combat several illnesses. Kolakhar or the pale grey ash filtrate, which is obtained from the plantain and is alkaline in nature, is believed to counter the risk of gastro-intestinal conditions.
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A year into the pandemic, and businesses continue to steer the conversation around the country’s lesser-known indigenous produce. “Bhimkol is certainly a superfood, and when it is processed to make khar, it holds therapeutic value,” says Anubhuti Deorah, who co-founded Pro-To-Grow, a brand that was born last year to offer wholesome nutritious food products. Deorah has worked with a team of experts to develop a country-wide retail market for khar in the dried ash packaged form.
Role of ash water
Khar has close cousins across the Northeast, and is the most versatile ingredient in the kitchens of the region. The Garos of Meghalaya use kharchi as an alternative to cooking oil. The Mizos add chingal to retain the colour of a dish. In Assam, khar acts as a palate cleanser, and mimics the role of a digestif. Whereas the Tripuri community uses chakhwi as seasoning.
In her research journal Food Habits in Pre-Colonial Assam published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, 2013, Arani Saikia traces the origin of khar to medieval times, before the region fell under British command in 1826. She writes, “As sea salt and brine salt were not easily available, alkali was used in place of salt,” suggesting brine salt was inaccessible for the common folk.
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The traditional process involves drying the trunk, rhizome and peels of the plantain. They are cut into pieces, and left in the sun for several weeks. Once dried, they are burnt into fine ash. The ashes are then allowed to trickle down through a sieve made of bamboo by pouring water over it. The filtrate is stored in glass jars for use throughout the year.
Unlike most parts of the region, in Mizoram, chingal is obtained from firewood ash. “But, we are slowly switching to commercial soda as we don’t cook in firewood anymore,” says Zoe Lizzy, a home chef based in Aizawl.
Cooking with alkali
The Garos may have cracked the science behind using alkali in food. The community follows a zero-oil approach by replacing it with ash water. The traditional dish kappa, which is cooked with either fish or meat, is regular fare and kharchi acts as a tenderiser. “Garo cooking is about preserving the flavour of the core ingredient. To achieve that, we soften the meat with the help of alkali. The dish comes together once the meat releases its own fats,” explains Danyl Momin, a home cook based in the Tura hills of Meghalaya.
In Tripura, chakhwi or the ash filtrate forms a class of dishes that are cooked with either meats, fish, lentils or local vegetables such as bamboo shoot and jackfruit seeds. Sushanta Debbarma, who holds a government post in Agartala, and dabbles in food culture, says chakhwi is integral to ceremonies such as weddings, and even when guests come over for a meal.
The unique culinary practice is also governed by strict rules. For instance, it cannot be added to dishes that contain sour ingredients like tomatoes. “It is because alkali and acid don’t go together,” says Saikia, who believes it is an acquired taste, and comes with a certain flavour-taste conditioning.
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The Assamese khar lends itself to the names of several dishes—omita-r khar implies raw papaya cooked with alkali, lai xaak-or khar is mustard greens infused with the ash filtrate and masor muro-r khar is fish heads stewed in it. Saikia hopes to change the perception about the cuisine, by focusing on rare, endemic foods such as these through her supper tables.
Perhaps the most ingenious hack when it comes to cooking with alkali can be found in Mizo homes. For those living in remote villages, where gas connections are scarce, it is obtained from firewood ash. “Chingal is commonly used to give body to a dish, one that could be best described as buttery or thick,” says Lizzy, adding that it is often used to retain the colour of certain vegetables. In a porridge that is made with tawkte, a green bitter berry, chingal ensures it does not turn brown during the cooking process.
Business of khar
In 2015, Catherine Dohling and Trideep Rabha, launched The NorthEast Store to connect homesick northeasterners with the food that they grew up eating. The duo added khar only a couple of years ago, “because any liquid product goes through research and strict packaging protocol,” says co-founder Dohling from Shillong.
Many also realise the need to showcase such indigenous products in contemporary and easy-to-eat ways. “Very often we let go of such regional gems because of sourcing or preparation hazards. Khar is one of them,” adds Deorah. Pro-To-Grow khar is available on Amazon India and Flipkart.
In 2016, Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna cooked a special meal for Pope Francis at the Vatican. Of the 13 dishes that he served, khar cooked with raw papaya was one of them. A lavish feast from across India demands a palate cleanser.
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Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.