Book House The Lead

This culinary guide blends delectable recipes from North East India with evocative memories of Shillong

Putharo and Dohjem (North East Indian cuisine from Meghalaya) Photo: Meghalaya Tourism
  • In the book “Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved: Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills”, Indranee Ghosh brings together charming vignettes from her youth in the densely forested Khasi Hills and then in Bengal’s plains with a delectable selection of family recipes passed down over three generations to weave an utterly engaging narrative.


  • Featuring over 70 recipes that represent a mix of Bengali, Khasi and Nepali cuisine, this collection will introduce you to host of exciting fare – from essential spice mixes to forgotten dishes reinvented over time.


  • This treasure trove of treats is a must-have culinary guide.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Among Ketumama’s other interests were hunting and fishing in the summer and monsoon. Sometimes around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., the creaking of the gate hinges followed by a loud, ‘Hey!’ would herald Ketumama, who couldn’t ring the doorbell because his hands would be holding a large trout or two smaller ones on a bamboo loop. Whenever my father saw him with a biggish trout, he would say, ‘Ah, saala, you must have got it in the market!’

There was a bantering, affectionate-but-uneasy relationship between my father and Ketumama, and my uncle took the teasing sportingly. If my mother protested against my father’s repeated ‘saalas’, he would retort that that was precisely their relationship, for the word ‘shaala’ in Bengali refers to the wife’s brother. The uneasiness on Ketumama’s part must have come from my mother’s complaints about her marital relationship, and I remember cold evenings near the fire when Ketumama would visit and there would be no one else at home but us. My mother vented and he listened; I, bored, would doze off.

Among the things I learnt from my mother and Ketumama was scaling and gutting fish. This was necessary for, unlike the city, fish in Shillong came whole and you had to do everything at home. Later, I devised easier ways to do this, meaning I did not use the boti, but the method was the same. This is what I learnt.

Hold the fish by its tail and use a razor, the blunt edge of a knife or a large coin to shave off the scales. With a pair of kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, trim the tail and fins. Make a shallow slit below the neck and pull out the guts carefully so as not to burst the bile duct. Trim the gill flaps. Wash under running water to clean the gills of grit and slime till they are pink.

A dying species, trout is rare to find these days. It is a species of freshwater fish of the family of salmonidae. The name may also refer to some non-salmonid fish such as the spotted sea trout. Freshwater trout is what Ketumama, who spent hours with his angler friends at Umiam Lake a few miles below Shillong, brought home. Trout fishing was recreational for them because the fish puts up a good fight before it is hooked well and proper. Slightly bony, unlike sea trout, freshwater trout has tasty flesh.

Sea trout and freshwater trout are not only different in taste but also in appearance and size as well. The latter is smaller than sea trout, slender, has silvery scales and an orange belly.

Small trout are cooked whole; larger ones, halved. This is how Ketumama cooked them.

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Trout with Garlic and Pepper

1 tbsp peppercorns, heaped 8–10 garlic cloves

6 medium-sized trout, or 3 large ones

Salt, to taste

2 tsp turmeric powder

1 lime, juiced

1 cup mustard oil

1. Grind the peppercorns and garlic, either in mortar and pestle or mixer.

2. Marinate the fish in turmeric powder, salt, the pepper-garlic paste and lime juice for 10 minutes.

3. Heat the mustard oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the fish with the marinade. Let it sizzle and cook on each side for 3–4 minutes. Serve with brown rice.

****

Grilled Trout

6 pieces of a large sea trout, or 6 medium-sized whole freshwater trout

2 tsp garlic paste or powder

1 tsp pepper

½ cup lime juice

1 tbsp olive oil or sesame oil

1. Preheat the oven at 150 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes, and then turn the control knob to broil/grill at the same temperature.

2. Coat the fish well with garlic, pepper and lime juice. Transfer to a greased baking sheet and drizzle olive oil over the fish on both sides. Grill for 10 minutes turning the fish after 5 minutes, or till it has browned.

3. Serve with fresh salad and bread.

****

It would, however, be a mistake to think work was all that Ketumama did. There was a fun-loving, quirky side to his character. He was a big tease and laughed easily, a laugh that was infectious. As children, we looked forward to evenings when he would drop in at the gatherings at home. In those days, the only entertainment in Shillong was having visitors: coffee in the evening after everyone had come home from work, chatting, singing and so forth by the fireside or in the sitting room on warm summer evenings. This was when Ketumama acted the clown, teasing, laughing and making others laugh as well. He could be counted on to make fun of nasal tones in one, tunelessness in another; making parodies of popular tunes, hilarious but somewhat embarrassing often, but nobody minded – no one doubted his motives or intentions. When we children protested his scatological jokes at our expense, it was halfhearted because we laughed in spite of ourselves. Take, for instance, a familiar refrain: ‘The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, Aku [me] is shitting and Bula [my sister] is eating it up.’ My sister and I would rain blows on him, and he just laughed harder as he warded us off. But he also sang songs we have remembered into our middle age. He was constantly whistling and humming while he worked with his tools. He sang one particular song constantly and absentmindedly, which embedded a picture in my mind as a child. It was a Salil Chowdhury composition sung by Hemanta Mukherjee: ‘Shanto noditi, potey aanka chhobiti’, which means ‘Little calm river painted in the picture’. The picture I had in my mind was desolate for its stasis, but that was just a childish impression. However, it has remained, contemporary videos that accompany the song on the internet notwithstanding.

Ketumama worked with wood, white and red pine, in his shed below the main house where my grandmother lived, until her eldest and youngest daughters married and moved away, and she moved to Kolkata with her eldest son, who had become an invalid after a football injury at the age of 21, to live in two of the family houses. My grandfather, whom I had never met, had left homes in Shillong and Kolkata to his family, and had bequeathed the Cherrapunji property to his various adoptive children. After everyone had left, only Ketumama lived in the old house in Shillong, making do with the earnings from two tenants who had rented a section. He lived in a single room, formerly the living area, with a sizeable bed beside the window.

It was one of my favourite spaces. The bay window was surrounded by comfortable cane chairs and had a table in the middle | 17 with a vase of fresh flowers and an ashtray shaped like a human skull crafted from animal bone. This intrigued me because of what I imagined was its semblance to reality. It wasn’t pretty at all, rather scary in fact, with its edges of brown and the gaping mouth with teeth. Ketumama convinced me it was a real skull, only shrunk in size with age. I remember an occasion when one of our hyperactive cousins had tried to ‘smell’ the skull and instead pulled all the ash up his nose – he’d had to be taken to the clinic!

Outside the windows one could see tall poppies, red and white, and hollyhocks of vibrant colours hiding the hedge from view and the road beyond that led uphill. From the window to the south, one could see, as if from an eyrie, the entire town sprawling below, and the aged, tall eucalyptus in our school field 2 miles away towering in the landscape.

Excerpted with permission from Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved: Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills, Indranee Ghosh, Hachette India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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