Fermented Mustard (Kahudi)
Growing up in a family where road travel was an important part of our lives, car journeys featured high. Dad would pile us all up in his trusty car and we would forever be exploring areas around us. I clearly remember from these trips, the rolling yellow fields along the road and the bright blue sky above. Its an image that has stuck in my head, winter meant yellow fields and summer would mean endless rolling green fields of paddy and night drives would mean glowing fires flies along side the car. Kind of romantic pictures in a little girl's head but that's how I remember my childhood.
Mustard Field in Assam
The yellow fields were flowering mustard and the seeds of which are an intrinsic part of our cuisine. I also recall watching how oil would be pressed out these fatty seeds for consumption- "Tel Pera", the Assamese term for it. Two bulls yoked at the neck go round in circle pushing a rod attached to two stone grinders that would press the oil out of the seeds. Today, we know it as cold pressed oil but that was the only way to do when villages did not have electric power. I did have a brief brush with this charming life in my paternal grandfather's home. Once he passed away, we hardly ever went back to our ancestral home and my only connection to the village remained through Dad's stories and few far between trips.
Assamese cuisine uses mustard seeds extensively in its cooking- our favourite dal is Mati Dail, or split Urad dal that is tempered with mustard seeds, ginger and green chilli in smokey mustard oil. These little grains or the oil literally finds its way into almost all our dishes, adding a pungent and robust flavour. We also make a fermented mustard paste called "Kharoli" in lower Assam and "Pani Tenga" in Upper Assam. In the former, mustard seeds are ground and a bit of "khar", alkaline liquid extracted from the ashes of burnt Banana peels along with salt, and in the latter juice from "Kaji Nemu" or limes added to pounded mustard grains. Both are wrapped in banana leaves and packed away in a dry and dark place, mostly an earthen pot called "Koloh". After 3-4 days, one is rewarded with an amazing tasting fermented mustard paste which is eaten as an condiment along with rice and dal or with "Poita Bhaat" or fermented rice (I have written a previous blogpost about this beloved fermented rice, you can read it here).
Don't be fooled by these tiny grains, they pack a lot of health benefits. Historically, Mustard was used only for medicinal purposes, integration into the diet happened much later. Mustard is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, helps in blood circulation, improves your metabolism and is also antiseptic. Besides, fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates into lactic acid which improves the nutritional value and helps in digestion.
Poita Bhaat (fermented rice) served with a dollop of fermented mustard
One can add a sliver of garlic or chilli to the ground mustard but the basic recipe is simple and calls for only a few ingredients. Salt, always use sea salt never use iodised salt, it just doesn't taste ever deliver the taste you want. The final product after the fermentation is absolutely amazing, it has a creamy texture with complex flavours, sharp and robustly spicy with a sweet after taste. It makes the bland rice come alive and I of course add it to my sandwiches and salad dressings. It is a way of juxtaposing my traditional culture into our new life, a happy marriage of the old with the new.
Also during my fermentation I have found that if I keep the the seeds a little grainy, they swell up plump during the fermentation process and the when one bites into these grain they give a wonderful mellow taste along with a beautiful texture. But, this again is a very personal choice, I have seen that the traditional way is to use finely ground mustard seeds.
The last few days of understanding the science of fermentation from experts in the field, has been an exhilarating journey and I aslo had the opportunity to share the fermentation culture that is practiced in the North East. It has been a deep dive and the more I learn, it makes me realize how little I know. Besides, this has also given me the wisdom to document details about our own heritage of fermenting food, which continue to be a very common practice until a few decades but as we are progressing as a race we are slowly loosing some of the ancient culinary practices. What I take for granted may be completely a new experience for another person. I never thought anyone would be interested in learning about our fermented food, although I have always used "Kharoli and Kahudi'' during my Food Festivals, outside the State and it has always been accepted with much enthusiasm. I mostly serve it as a condiment or as a dip, I haven't taken the trouble of writing down the recipe.
Kahudi/ kharoli goes brilliantly with fried food and fish in particular, fish and mustard are old companions, whether in a Assamese dish "Xoriya diya maas", fish in mustard sauce, or French mustard with a fillet of fish.
Fermentation helps to break down the carbohydrates into lactic acid, which helps it to to preserve for longer time. I have a feeling that no science was applied while making Kharoli. It must have come about as an accidental discovery but the sharp flavours worked wonders to the simple Assamese meal and that is what probably worked. When making Kharoli or Kahudi, we always use an equal mix of black mustard seeds and the milder yellow mustard seeds to prepare it.
Looking forward to hearing your feedback for this recipe.
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