There is a scene in Nicholas Kharkhongar’s Axone where a landlady screams at her tenants from the Northeast for being audacious enough to cook their “stinky” food, something she had specifically told them not to do. The pungent smell of axone (pronounced ‘akhuni’) — fermented soya bean — that the girls were discreetly using to cook a traditional pork curry, had reached every nostril in the building and raised a storm. This scene took me straight back to my own Delhi days years ago.
It was 2006. I was straight out of college and had landed an internship at a media house. I decided to move out of the hostel and get a place of my own. I had my carefully rehearsed lines ready in mind to negotiate the rent. But bafflingly, the first question a house-owner asked me was, “No stinky food, I hope?” Taken aback, I mumbled a feeble “no”. The broker with me felt the need to be more vociferous on my behalf. “Arre nahin, she is from Assam. They don’t cook all that there. Does she look like them?” The house-owner gave a half-convinced nod. I turned and left.
Three days and countless such visits later to matchbox buildings in Kingsway Camp, Mukherjee Nagar, Indra Vihar and other nagars in north Delhi — which, ironically, is full of students from the Northeast who come to study at Delhi University — I finally made peace with the comments and found a place. For the first couple of months, I adhered strictly to my own rule of minimum interaction with the landlord and his extended family, including the daadi who always lay sprawling on her khatiya at the entrance of the house, keeping an eagle eye on the tenants. Trouble began when I returned after a visit back home. Packed in my suitcase, wrapped in layers and layers of polythene bags, was a bottle of khorisa.
For the uninitiated, khorisa is fermented, tender bamboo shoot, which is widely used in Assamese cuisine — as in other parts of the Northeast — for its distinct and tangy/ sour/ acidic taste and strong flavour. The shoots are first defoliated, then pounded in a dheki (a leg-operated pounder) or scraped and ground. It is then left to ferment for about two weeks until it turns sour. Once ready, it can be used in vegetable dishes, with fish, chicken, and pork, or just pickled with oil and chillies.
Like axone, khorisa’s nemesis too is its smell — unabashedly full-bodied and pungent. I was not brave enough to use it. Like a thief keeping stolen treasure close to his heart, I held the bottle gingerly in my hands and then pushed it into the darkest corner of the kitchen cupboard. But the heart won over the head and like Upasana (Sayani Gupta) and Chanbi (Lin Laishram) in the film, I decided to take the risk.
And so, one fine Sunday afternoon, I dived into the mission. Ideally, I would have loved khorisa maas — fresh river fish cooked with khorisa — but settled for chicken, which also tastes divine with this magic potion.
I took the usual precautions to prevent the ‘smell’ wafting down the staircase. Deodorant spray cans were emptied in the rooms and in the balcony for added effect, and after what seemed like an extraordinary feat, my sister and I finally savoured the taste of success. That evening, my heart skipped several beats when the landlord stopped me on my way down the stairs to ask, “Did you have a party? Perfume ka smell yahan tak aa raha tha. (I could smell the perfume down here.)” I smiled and almost ran out.
I did ‘dare’ to use khorisa many times afterwards. Grind it a little in a mortar, add a spoonful in curries and dal, sometimes with a dash of mustard oil, a little onion and some chilli for a lethal chutney. That momentary authentic smell — before it’s drowned in ‘perfume’ — felt like home.
For many of the thousands of Northeasterners in Delhi, it is still a struggle to accept it as home. In 2007, the Delhi Police issued a booklet titled ‘Security Tips for Northeast Students/ Visitors in Delhi’ in the backdrop of a spate of violent incidents against the community. Under ‘Food Habits’, the booklet said ‘Bamboo shoot, akhuni and other ‘smelly’ dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in the neighbourhood’. Naturally, this invited a backlash.
But life is not all black and white and despite those crude, racist remarks passed casually, Delhi has given many of us at least a couple of well-meaning ‘Hyper Shiv’ pals in our lives. I have a bunch of them and hold them closely, like my bottle of khorisa.
Khorisa maas (fish cooked in khorisa)
4 pieces rohu fish
3-4 tbsp khorisa
1 medium-sized onion, grated
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp white mustard seed
1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped
2 green chillies
4 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste
1. Wash the pieces of fish and rub salt and a half teaspoon of turmeric powder on them. Keep them aside.
2. In a pan, heat the mustard oil and lightly fry the fish pieces. Take them out and keep them aside.
3. In the same pan, heat the oil and add chillies and white mustard seeds until they crackle. Add onion and ginger-garlic paste and sauté it for a minute.
4. Add the rest of the turmeric powder and salt. Keep stirring.
5. Add the tomato pieces and cover with a lid. As the tomato gets pulpy, add a cup of water and cover it again.
6. As the gravy mix blends, add the fish pieces and give it a careful stir.
7. After a few minutes, add the khorisa and stir it in the gravy. Let the gravy come to a boil without the lid on.
Your khorisa maas is now ready. Ideally to be enjoyed with plain rice.
The writer is a Gujarat-based freelance journalist.
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