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Spice of life
There are many things about India that are universally accepted. Mostly, those things are cliches and only a few have any truth to them. One example of the latter kind is that Indian food can be spicy. Well, we have a love for all things spicy. The intensity varies according to palates and regions but it is a dominant trait in most Indian cuisine.
Not surprisingly, in our quest to find a secret ingredient that is typically Indian, we found ourselves in Guwahati, Assam, as we decided to trace the origins of the deadly Ghost pepper aka bhoot jholokia – once hailed as the spiciest chilly in the world. Helping us on this journey was none other than celebrity chef of global renown, Kelvin Cheung.
Having spent a major part of his childhood in and around a Chinese restaurant that belonged to his family, Cheung is a pro when it comes to Asian food. Growing up in Canada gave him a distinct outlook towards food and he has honed his culinary skills to cater to a wider audience. His specialities include typical Asian and Indian cuisine. Interestingly, he even serves a Ghost pepper-derived sauce at his restaurant, Bastian, in Mumbai, which is regularly frequented by famous foodies including actors, cricketers and even politicians. 'Indians generally like spicy food,' he tells us. 'But they also like the other flavours. You can't make bland food for them. There is so much variety here when it comes to ingredients that I am discovering new things practically every day.'
This was one of the reasons why Kelvin joined us on this leg of the journey which was to take us into the heart of Assam to check out the famed chilly which is used extensively in Assamese cuisine.
We first began our quest looking for the fiery chilly itself. Thankfully we were in luck as we found some at a unique organic food market near Paltan Bazaar right in the heart of the city. This particular market is a must visit for food lovers simply because you can find actual farm fresh vegetables here. More importantly, the vendors here have made sure that cleanliness is maintained. In fact, you won't find anything rotting on the side. It seems to be the mandate here. Anyway, Kelvin seemed more happy about finding a fresh stock of bhoot jholokia and fresh veggies because on the cards was a face-off with a local chef.
As ancient as she might appear, Moromi Marney is just 60. She lives with her children in the small but picturesque village of Sonapur Tipesiya some 30km-odd from Guwahati. Considering the unknown terrain, we decided to make the journey in a tried-and-tested Scorpio. As it happened, the tyres were in bad shape. Thankfully, we managed to find a Michelin store in Guwahati to get the rubber upgraded. Armed with that confidence, we headed in search of the venue of our face-off which, among other things, would include the famed ghost pepper.
Arriving at Sonapur was like entering another world. Thatched bamboo houses surrounded by lush greenery, a rice farm with young kids peeking out the window, made for a good set-up. Moromi Marney told us in Assamese, translated into broken Hindi by her daughter-in-law, how the food habits of locals are actually cyclical. Meat is a delicacy, especially pork and is eaten mostly on weekends when the entire family is at home. The ghost pepper she has been using for some time, although she asked us whether we were ready to face it.
Just to be on the safer side, Kelvin decide to do his own version of the local pork which included a caramelised sauce to mask the potent bhoot jholokia. Moromi went with the traditional pork which was simpler in a curry form, with a dash of veggies.
The proof was in the pudding though and it all came down to the dining table where both versions of the pork dish were served along with the staple rice and dal. It was here that the wonder of bhoot jholokia was to be revealed. “Actually, I had decided to use just one chilly but I added another later just to make sure the intensity of spice is just right.” It was a good move – after all, the effect of the dreaded ghost pepper had to be experienced.
While the chilly is no longer ranked the spiciest in the world, the beauty of this chilly is that the fire is felt more in the food pipe than on the tongue. It is more like an after effect. It doesn’t hit you at first but sinks in slowly. While Kelvin’s fusion pork dish seemed to be balancing the effect of the bhoot jholokia with the other flavours, Moromi’s was a more earthier one and the spice hit much before. Strangely, it didn’t linger for long, which she later explained was because she used less of the ghost pepper to be “kind to the guests”.
Typically, like most northeast Indian cuisine, the Assamese also use flavours that come naturally. Even the chilly used is for the same purpose and not to make it spicy. The cooking forms are simpler. For example, while Kelvin cooked on a regular gas burner, Moromi preferred to use wood fire. The meat and veggies used were similar but the two dishes turned out quite different from each other.
As we all gathered around for an early dinner, the sun had set and a calm had set in around Sonapur. It was a working day, so some members were still to return from work. The remaining gathered around the dining table and despite the language barrier, the food managed to ease any sort of awkwardness at the table. The visitors, including Kelvin, gorged on the local dish while the hosts took healthy dollops of the celebrity chef’s preparation. We left it to the youngest member at the table to make the difficult but honest choice on which he liked more. Well, the vote went to a beaming Kelvin.
As we started leaving and the neighbours now started pouring in to watch what the noise was all about, we couldn’t help but think how one of the scariest and potent spices of the world has managed to create a genuine bond between people coming from distant regions. It also became quite apparent how being one of the spiciest chillies in the world was just one of the many facets of the dreaded ghost pepper. It was almost like an underlying connect between the cuisines and eventually, the people it brought together. To an outsider who has heard so much about Assamese cuisine and especially its famed pork preparations, you may almost miss the magical touch in the whole scheme of things. Thankfully, we didn’t miss the secret ingredient we came looking for…the one that made all the difference in the end.