Acidity is a critical, but often underused flavour which balances out fatty or sweet dishes that sometimes feel monotonously rich. It adds a spark of brightness to something stodgy or plain even though on its own, it doesn’t have many dishes where it stars as the main character. It often features as a supporting act that just makes the story of a dish taste complete.
To discover acidic ingredients beyond the common lemon, lime and vinegar, we explore two cultures that adore their acid on our podcast episode called “Sour & Sour.” Our guest speaker, Dubai-based international art curator Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé (@mojganendjavibarbe), uncovers an array of Persian souring ingredients from ab ghooreh (unripe grape juice or verjuice) to albaloo (sour cherries) on a journey to Shiraz, Iran.
And our Eating Designer at Frying Pan Adventures, Mufaddal Husein (@mufaddal.husein) shines a light on Assam in North East India where sour flavours have an entire category of dishes on their own called ‘tenga.’ We’ve shared two recipes from the show below: Mojgan’s Shirazi salad with ab ghooreh and Mufaddal’s chicken khurdi soup with kokum.
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Acidic Ingredients and Sour dishes in Persian and Indian Cuisines
- Sour Persian Ingredients
- Ab Ghooreh – Juice of Unripe Grapes (Verjuice)
- Salad Shirazi
- Koresht-e-Bademjan – eggplant stew with meat
- Narenj – Bitter Orange
- used for fish, salad dressings and cooking
- Limoo Omani – Dried Limes from Oman
- Koresht-e-Bademjan – eggplant stew with meat
- Rob-e-Anar – Pomegranate Molasses (Syrup)
- Koresh Fesenjoon – velvety stew made crushed walnuts and duck
- Qambar Polo – Pilaf rice with onions and raisins
- Tamr-hindi – Tamarind
- Ghaliyeh Mahi – sour fish stew
- Ghara Ghoroot – Dried Buttermilk Cheese vs. Kashk – Dehydrated Whey
- Ghaliyeh Mahi – sour fish stew
- Sour chew
- Albaloo – Sour Cherries
- Used in the summertime for festive dishes such as pilafs at a wedding
- Ab Ghooreh – Juice of Unripe Grapes (Verjuice)
- Sour Flavours from Northeast India – Tenga
- Kokam, Thekera Tenga – Indian Mangosteen
- Sol kadi – refreshing coconut and mangosteen cold soup tempered with curry leaves
- Khurdi – turmeric soup
- Tenga Xaak – Indian Sorrel
- In salads or simply chopped and stirred into stews
- Jalpai – Indian ‘Olives’
- Assamese Lemons
- used to sour stews, make limonade
- Ou Tenga – Elephant Apple
- used to sour fish stews and lentils
- can be sliced and eaten raw
- Kokam, Thekera Tenga – Indian Mangosteen
Mojgan’s Persian ‘Salad Shirazi’ Recipe
Mint, chopped (dried mint can also be used)
Ab ghooreh (juice of unripe grapes) or lemon juice
Toss all the ingredients together and put them in the refrigerator for about 10-15 minutes before serving.
Mufaddal’s Indian ‘Chicken Khurdi’ Soup Recipe
For the Stock:
200 g chicken or mutton bones
Salt to taste
Ginger, an inch crushed
For the soup:
2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
A very small stick of cassia
1/2 tsp of cumin seeds
A few garlic cloves, sliced thinly
2 tbsp of wholemeal flour (atta)
3/4 tsp of turmeric
1/4 to 1/2 tsp of red chilli powder (to taste)
1/2 tsp of coriander seed powder
Dried kokum OR tamarind (cleaned and soaked in a bit of water) OR lemon juice
Chopped fresh coriander leaves
Make a stock with the water, bones, salt and crushed ginger. Skim off any impurities and let stand.
In another pot heat the oil till shimmering. Add peppercorns, cassia and cloves. Add cumin seeds and garlic. Before they burn, add wholemeal flour and cook, stirring constantly until the flour is bubbling and fragrant but not browned.
Mix in turmeric, red chilli powder (to taste) and coriander seed powder and cook for a minute to remove the rawness of the spices. Stream in a few ladlefuls of stock to prevent lumps and then add the rest of the stock, bones and all. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer to thicken the soup.
Once simmering add your desired souring agent, dried kokum is recommended but you can add tamarind or lemon juice as well. The amount depends on your preference and the strength of the souring agent. Try to get kokum that is not too old as it will darken the soup.
The soup is done when the oil collects at the top and the desired thickness is achieved.
Best eaten with chunks of stale bread or a very simple khichdi. Chopped fresh coriander leaves or fried onions are an optional garnish.
Not a fan of audio? Here’s the show transcript for you to read!
Arva: This show is brought to you by Dubai’s most gluttonous food tour company, Frying Pan Adventures, and you’re listening to Deep Fried.
Hey there! I’m your host, Arva Ahmed, and thanks for joining me on the show, that’s inspired by flavors of the East. This podcast celebrates the flavors that we as storytellers, content creators and food tour guides with Frying Pan Adventures have discovered in Dubai. These are the flavors, the people, their communities that inspire us and that we want to share with our culture-loving community from around the world.
So in this episode, we’re going to talk about a very specific flavor that balances out fatty or sweet dishes that sometimes feel monotonously rich. It adds a spark of brightness to something stodgy or plain, but on its own, it doesn’t have many dishes where it stars as the main character. You usually see it as a supporting act and it just makes the story of a dish taste complete.
I’m talking about acid. Those acidic ingredients that give sourness to a dish, the most and ones that we know are lemon, lime, vinegar. But if you dive deep into different cultures, I find how they add acidity to dishes is far more intriguing than how they add sweetness and today we’re going to look at two cultures that adore their acid.
Persian culture, specifically Iran, and India with a focus on the North-East and bringing these two cultures to the table are our two speakers for this podcast.
The first is a familiar voice on the show and a member of our team here at Frying Pan Adventures, our eating designer, Mufaddal Husein. This Indian culinary geek is our detective on the team. He’s always got his nose to the ground, sniffing out new flavors across the city.
Hey Mufaddal, how’s it going?
Mufaddal: Hey Arva, it’s going great. I’m so glad to be here.
Arva: And likewise, always good to have you on the show. And our next person that I’m really excited about is a guest speaker.
She is an international art curator based in Dubai, Persian by birth and French by marriage. And to be totally transparent, this is actually the first time that she and I are speaking. So, we connected very recently over a mutual love for food and culture when she found us on social media and we got to talking about Persian cookery, which is something that has always fascinated me. We’ll get to know why Persian food is such a perfect base from which to talk about sour flavors.
But first, I want us to hear more from the lady herself, Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé. It’s so lovely to finally speak with you; how are you doing?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Hello. I’m fine. Thank you so much for inviting me to this exciting podcast! And I’m so happy, finally, I meet you because we’ve chatted, but finally we meet each other.
Arva: And it’s so good to see your face, even though at a distance over Zoom. It’s so wonderful to connect.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Yes..thank you so much.
About Our Guest Speaker on Persian ingredients Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé
Arva: Alright, so before I get into food talk, I just want to hear a little bit about you. I know that you’ve dedicated your work as a curator to championing Iranian artists. What made you take up that cause?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: You know, I’ve been in art for 30 years, working with international artists, but then my frequent trips to Iran made me realize, that we have so many talented artists who don’t have a voice outside of Iran and not everybody can come out, you know, because Iranians need visa all over the world. And I thought, I’m privileged, and my privilege should be an access and help them to be heard and seen. So that’s why I took up with myself, for the past 10 years, to represent Iranian artists outside of Iran because, arts should be out of—politics should not include art—because artists are not politicians and they should not be punished. So I’m the wind under the wings to help them to show their works.
Arva: Oh, that is so beautiful and you’re so right! Art, and I would classify food under art as well..
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Exactly.. I agree.
Arva: ..should fall outside the realm of politics and that’s so wonderful. What you’re doing is incredible. I’ve actually visited Iran and I’ve been blown away by the art and architecture. So what a service you are doing to the global art community by connecting Iranian artists to the rest of the world.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: I also took up, you know, because I lived, for my husband’s work—he was working with the French oil company—so we live abroad. We lived four years in Paris, three years in Tokyo, in Japan, 10 years in London and 15 years in Geneva. And while I was in Geneva, I created two art associations to promote Iranian artists. And my big project was to create the first Persian garden in Geneva. And we worked 4 years on the project and it was a very good project, but for different reasons, because also, we didn’t have enough funding to realize that. But that project didn’t take off even though we worked very hard for four years. But then I came to Shiraz.
My father is from Shiraz, which is an hour from here (Dubai). City of Hafez, Saadi—the great poets—and Persepolis and Necropolis, which is the, you know, birth of the civilization, the Persian civilization and the capital of Persia.
And I looked for two years to buy an old house, Qajar house, to restore, to make a museum for my uncle who for 30 years, he’s given his time to collect the Iranian verbal culture and to make them, you know, document them.
So after two years of looking for the right place, I finally came across somebody who could help me, Hamid Reza Jehan(?), and he helped me to buy the houses. So, this project of one house became multiple houses and we restored them to perfection. And now we have guest houses behind the carpet bazaar in Shiraz.
Arva: Oh my goodness!
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: So, you know, once all this Corona-thing is over, we would love to have you over and we’d love to show you the real Persian cooking, Shirazi style. Each section and each part of Iran has its own specialty.
But it’s just an hour flight from Dubai, so you’re next door. And.. the bazaar.. and the spice bazaar, you would just love it.
It’s so, so close to you.
Arva: You already had us, when you said Persian gardens and guest houses. We’re with you there.
I’ve actually been to Shiraz and two things that immediately came to mind—and this sort of transitions as perfectly from art into food—one was the faloodeh, which are these vermicelli-like noodles, which you typically would splash with a sour syrup, like ab albaloo—sour cherry syrup—or with lemon. And the other one, which really was surprising, I saw this in a nuts and just a specialty shop, were pickled kiwis! I had never seen pickled kiwi, that shop had pickled everything.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: That’s unusual, that’s unusual. This must be something new, but because I’ve never seen that. And it’s not a typically..
Arva: I’m sure it’s not. I think pickled torshi, like garlic and so on, are more common. But the point is there is clearly..
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Yeah, yeah.. and Kiwi is expensive in Iran, so it’s very unusual.
Persian Cuisine’s Appreciation of Sour Flavours
Arva: ..and it seems like sour on sour, but the thing is, there’s a real appreciation of sour flavors. Would you say that compared to your experience with other cuisines, do you think that Persian cooking uses sour flavors more than other cuisines that you’ve come across?
Is that an accurate statement?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Yes, yes, and I think the Persian food is never completed unless you have some kind of pickle or like what we call Salad Shirazi, which is a mix of chopped or diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and it has lemon. And in Shiraz some people put ab ghooreh which is the juice of the grapes, the young grapes, the green, you know, and the Shirazis love it and..
Arva: Unripe grapes?
Ab Ghooreh – Juice of Unripe Grapes (Verjuice)
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Yes, because you know, when the grapes are green, this is called ghooreh. It’s not yet grapes, it’s not yet angoor.
So, because before we didn’t have freezers—now people put it in freezers and throughout the year they use it in the cooking—but when we didn’t have it, they had to juice it. Same with the lemons. Then we could keep them in a bottle and keep it for a long time.
Shiraz has another specialty because, you know, Shiraz is the city of poets and flowers and we have more Persian gardens in Shiraz than any other cities in Iran. And when you come to my house and I will invite all of you for next spring, hopefully, everything is okay.
In the springtime, when you walk into the city, I mean, especially my area where I am around the bazaar, the smell of the orange blossoms, its just so prominent. And then, you know, after the orange blossom, we gather the orange blossoms, because we use it in the desserts or we use it also as a herbal drink.
Just because it’s very relaxing to have, in hot water, and the Lebanese use it a lot. They call it “white coffee”. They put the extract of orange blossom with water. But in Iran, we use the actual blossom and we put hot water. Then after the blossoms are gone, then you have the orange, this is called ‘orange amère’ (Fr). It’s bitter, it’s very acidy.
Narenj – Bitter Orange
It looks like an orange, but when you open it, it has a lot of seeds and it’s very acid. We use it a lot for fish and salad dressing and cooking. So Shiraz has three prominent acidity, which is lemon, oranges/orange blossom—the ones that comes from orange amère, we call it narenj.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: ..narenj, limoon—the lemon juice—and then ghooreh, which is the juice of the grape—the green grapes. When the grapes are growing, when they are green, we pick them. But, these, they’re big enough to have juice.
You know, they put it into pressers, like the same way in Shiraz, if you go, I always buy fresh pomegranates. So when it’s pomegranate season in fall, I go to these shops, they have these pressers, it’s like a cylindrical thing and they press it.
They press it and then I have like about 20 or 30 bottles of pomegranate fresh juice. They do the same process with the ghooreh, which is the young green grapes.
Arva: How would you use that juice again? The green, unripe, grape juice?
Limoo Omani – Dried Limes from Oman
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Ok, like personally, when I do my khoresht-e-bademjan, which is aubergine—it can be with meat or chicken—so, I love this limoo omani. There’s Omani lemons, the small ones. We call it, limoo omani. I use..
Arva: Those are the dried ones, right?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: ..the dried ones. I either use that for the khoresht-e-bademjan, which is eggplant/aubergine and either meat or chicken. And then you put tomatoes and I add, always, a little bit of a darchini, which is..
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: ..cinnamon, yes. I put a bit of that and saffron. My trick for yummy food, Persian food, is the saffron. Saffron makes anything taste good.
And, you know, like, because it has such a noble flavor. And it has such a beautiful perfume that, you know, like, even if you make a little mistake in your food, cooking, the saffron takes it away. The saffron covers it beautifully.
So I use the limoo omani, which is the dry lemon. But if I have access to those green grapes, ghooreh, I definitely use ghooreh. Because it gives it a bit sour, but it’s delicate sour and it’s different from lemon, you know, it’s really good.
Rob-e-Anar – Pomegranate Molasses (Syrup)
Arva: I’ve never had that. So this is very interesting too, to hear. Now, one of the things you also alluded to was pomegranate. So you said that the green grapes are pressed in a very similar way that you would press pomegranate and obviously the Persians love their pomegranate molasses. But I’m interested to hear from you about the kinds of dishes that you would typically use it in?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: There is a dish called fesenjoon, which is a winter dish and its grated walnuts and then we use either duck—duck, this is the, like the traditional one is the duck. So it’s fall and it’s winter, there is a season for duck. They use duck, but you can use, also, chicken, the dark part of the chicken. And you grate the walnuts and then you mix these together and then you add the pomegranate sauce.
In Iranian cooking, like in Indian cooking, we have pitta, vata, you know, we have cold and hot.
This is for us, it’s very, this element of cold and hot is very important. And in Iran, like in the South of Iran, the climate, all the foods they eat and maybe the dates, everything makes your body hot. So we have to neutralize this. So in Iranian food, cooking, the neutralization of elements and ingredients are extremely important and people pay attention.
If you go to an Iranian house, if you feed them fish, you cannot give them lassi, you cannot give them doogh (yoghurt drinks). Because doogh is cold, fish is cold, and then if you give them watermelon—they die.
Arva: This is blowing my mind. I feel like you need an app for this. Like, you input in fish, and then it tells you what you’re allowed to serve.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Because the thing is, you know, like this pomegranate that we put to khoresh fesenjoon, the walnut is warm, its hot. It makes your body hot. Then you neutralize it.
We eat pomegranate (with it) because it’s cold. So, and then my friend in Switzerland, Iranian friend in Switzerland, she always put citrouille (Fr)—she put the pumpkin. She put, also, the pumpkin to give it more texture and to also be a cooling element. And it is very interesting when you add a bit of pumpkin to this. So we always pay attention to the yin and yang, to the cold and hot. You pay attention to this and this is very important.
So we use the pomegranate juice, we use it typically for fesenjoon. But in Shiraz, when I go to my family, they also have something called qambar polo. Which is rice, polo is pilaf rice, and they have, we always have onion, its a very important part of our cooking. So we always have sauté of onion, raisins, and then we add the pomegranate sauce on the rice with all this mixture.
Mufaddal: Wow, I’ve never heard of this.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: This is called qambar polo.
Arva: Wow, that sounds delicious.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: But the thing is, also, the recipes I’m sharing with you, you know like, when you go to the restaurants in Iran, you have a lot of kebab. Like, the tourists, they have kebab coming out of their ears.
Arva: That is exactly right.
Tamr-hindi – Tamarind
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: And the thing is we have, so.. Iran has such a variety of cooking. And, because I have, in my guesthouse, I have a lot of French people coming because I work exclusively with the French travel agencies. By the time they get to Shiraz, you know what I give them?
What I give them is fish, coming from the south, coming from Bandar Abbas. And this fish is made with tamr-hindi, it’s with tamarind. So, and so it’s garlic, tamarind, fish—but a fish that can cook for a long time. And it’s not an easy dish to make, it’s called ghaliyeh mahi. It’s like stew of fish, tamarind, coriander and garlic. And it is divine and tamarind, it is divine.
So when they come, because they haven’t had fish during the whole trip, they’ve had only kabab, kabab, kabab, kabab. By the time they get to my house, I give them this ghaliyeh mahi, which is fish and tamarind and coriander and a bit of garlic. And they are like, “oh my god!” They love it. And then either I give them faloodeh or bastani Shiraziwhich is with saffron and with rose water.
Ghara Ghoroot – Dried Buttermilk Cheese vs. Kashk – Dehydrated Whey
Arva: Wow! It’s just a whole spectrum of flavors. I do have a final few ingredients that I want to discuss with you, especially because you brought up the fish stew.
And that’s a stew that we actually just recently mentioned on a previous podcast episode. And one of our favorite Persian vendors actually told us that in addition to all of the other sourings, so let’s say you add tamarind, he actually said some people even use something called ghara ghoroot in that, which is the dried buttermilk cheese, which is extremely acidic. So maybe that is just taking it over the top. Is that an ingredient that you typically use?
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: No. And ghara ghoroot in Iran, people, children, use ghara gharoot as, you know, like chips or things like that.
Arva: But it’s so sour!
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: But it’s terrible for the teeth. It’s so bad, you know, because it’s so strong, and ghara ghoroot is like kashk, but sour kashk.
Arva: Yes, it’s basically dehydrated whey, and so interesting about the teeth that you mentioned.
So one of my favorite cookbook authors, Sami Nosrat, talks about, in her chapter on acidity—and she is Persian as well—she says that the word mouthwatering, which we often associate with delicious, it happens because your mouth produces saliva and acidic flavors are the ones that produce the most amount of saliva because your body is having a natural reaction to protect your teeth from getting destroyed because of the acidity. So the more acidic the flavors are, the more your mouth will water and therefore acidity is naturally connected to being delicious.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Yes. Yeah, I was asking my sister because you know, my mom is an excellent cook and we’re six children. My older sister who’s in Shiraz, the only one who’s in Iran, because we were six, but all of us, majority of them in France, my sister’s in Shiraz and I have a brother in the Philippines and I’m here.
My sister, I was, because she’s a very good cook, very good cook. Last night, I was getting her, you know, I was picking her brains about some of these recipes and she was telling me, “you know, sometimes I put ab ghooreh”, which is the grape, the green grapes. She said “the juice of that, I then, you know, like grate some cucumbers and a bit of tomatoes.” And as she was telling me, she said “dahaanam ab ukhtar”—“I have my mouth watering”. So even explaining to me her mouth was watering.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: So it’s psychological.
Arva: Well it is!
Mufaddal: ..listening to you talk about pomegranate molasses and tamarind my mouth is watering over here as well. Hearing about fesenjoon and polo..
Mufaddal: ..and it’s just an automatic reaction.
Arva: I’m with you. I mean, we’re at your guesthouse right now, honestly, just seeing one tree would be great, but talking about Persian gardens, for someone who’s been cooped up in an apartment through all of this madness. That just sounds like paradise.
One more question on an ingredient, which is an ingredient that I personally love, which is sour cherry or albaloo.
Albaloo – Sour Cherries
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Albaloo for me, it’s like the royal fruit. Because, you know, in Iran, we usually, traditionally, cooked according to the season. For me, this is like summer is coming. So it’s like announces of summer. And this is usually for festivities, you know, for weddings, very special times, you know.
And albaloo is very special and albaloo is not the easiest dish to cook because you know, when you, because it’s sweet you have to know exactly when to add albaloo to the rice and you have to be very careful about the heat underneath, otherwise it burns very quickly. Because, you know, we love tahdig, which is the burnt part of the rice, on the bottom of the rice. But albaloo is the trickiest and we don’t eat it as often as other dishes. So it stays very noble.
Arva: Well you’ve tortured me by sending me a WhatsApp photograph of cherries. So I’m just going to need to figure out how to get some sort of thing that is as close as possible.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: The thing is when I was a child, I was in, because we lived in a garden, and we used to go up the trees and eat them and then, you know, put them in our ear, like rings, you know, like in earrings. We put them on our ears, because they were attached to each other.
So we’d hang it in each ear and then eat them. And, you know, the problem with me is I can eat cherries, like, I can’t stop. I mean, I love cherries, but then cherries, you have to be careful! If you eat more than you can eat and then your stomach tells you that you have eaten too much. But I get carried away with cherries, I love it. And cherries are cold.
Arva: I can’t imagine that. Fruit is always good for you.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Cherries are also cold. So if you eat a lot of cherries, make sure you have some dates after, to, it can make it equilibrium, balance it.
Arva: The more I learn about Persian cookery, the more I realize how much I still have to learn. It’s just one of the most ancient and rich cuisines that we have on this planet.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: …but the Indian and I’m sorry, I have to cut, the Indian cooking is also so scientific.
Arva: Completely agree with you. Indian cuisine is one of those incredibly intricate and layered and ancient cuisines. And you’ve provided the perfect segué because Mufaddal, we are going to pick your brains for some sour flavors, especially from the Northeast of India.
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..and we are back to this acidic episode of Deep Fried. We’ve just heard from Mojgan about sour ingredients in Persian cookery. And now we’re going to fly over to northeast India with Mufaddal.
So the reason we have nabbed Mufaddal from the team on this episode, is because 10 years ago, he actually had to do this entire university project using sour flavors as a metaphor for the future.
So Mufaddal, why don’t you first tell us why you chose to focus on Northeast India specifically for this project?
Sour Flavours from Northeast India – Tenga
Mufaddal: Well, I was actually based in Guwahati, which is the capital of Assam, which is the largest state in Northeast India. So it was part of my dive into food and experiences or designed experiences around food.
And as part of my research, I had also researched the cuisine of Northeast India, which is not familiar to many Indians, themselves. For me, it was like a completely unknown cuisine with a lot of unfamiliar ingredients, but a few similarities, like you have your daals and you have your vegetables and use of mustard oil, but then you have all of these fresh herbs and a lot of fresh spices as opposed to our dried spices.
And Assamese cuisine also particularly focuses on a lot of sour flavors. So they have a whole category of dishes called tenga. And tenga is not only used to refer to the dishes, but also sour ingredients are called tenga. And I’ll describe some of them as we go along. But for example, one of them is called ou tenga or you have tenga xaak.
So all of these ingredients have tenga kind of associated with them to tell you from the start that, “hey, this is sour.” And just as Mojgan was saying, a lot of these sour dishes, are used with fish, which is very popular, in Assam in the Northeast, cause you’ve got all these rivers and the most popular fish stews are these light, sour stews made with various souring ingredients.
Arva: That’s really fascinating. Can you start us off on a little bit of familiar ground? Tell us about a sour ingredient that you might have seen in Assam that the rest of India uses as well.
Let’s begin there with something that might be common knowledge, and then we’ll go into some of the more unknown ones.
Kokam, Thekera Tenga – Indian Mangosteen
Mufaddal: Yeah. So one of the most familiar ingredients is kokum or what the Assamese known as thekera, or rather thekera tenga, if I’m saying it correctly. So thekera tenga, or in west India we know it as kokum. And you know kokum is so widely used along the Malabar coast, whether it’s in Goa in South Maharashtra, whether it’s in Kerala and Karnataka.
And kokum, the most familiar link that I can give to kokum, is mangosteen, cause they’re both from the same family. And whereas in mangosteen, when you cut it and you want to eat those lovely white kernels inside that are beautifully sweet, in India, it’s the other way around. The most prized part of the kokum is actually that pink rind, which you can’t eat directly, cause it can be—I think it’s considered—toxic, but if you salt it and cure it and dry it, that curing process makes it much more edible.
Arva: Is that really how kokum is produced? Cause I eat a lot of kokum. I had no idea that that was the part of the fruit.
Mufaddal: Yeah, it’s the rind. Actually, it’s that, when you, like, when you cut a mangosteen and you see that gloriously pink rind, that’s the same part that we use of kokum.
Some of my favorite dishes with kokum are sol kadi, which is this lovely, refreshing drink with coconut, but also further south, like in Kerala, you use it in a lot of fish dishes. At my home, we use it to make this lovely soup of chicken, which we call khurdi. And it’s like a turmeric and wheat flour-based soup with chicken stock. And we’ll usually add a piece of kokum into the soup right at the very end, because my mum says that if you add too much kokum for too long, it’ll darken the soup and it will turn it brown.
Arva: Moral of the story always do, as mum says.
Arva: Let’s move into some of the more unusual ingredients that maybe some of us have never heard of before.
Frankly, a lot of these Assamese terms that you’re throwing out just seem like Greek to us. So tell us about some of the ones that. Folks in other parts of India may not necessarily come across.
Tenga Xaak – Indian Sorrel
Mufaddal: Okay, so I have actually three ingredients to talk about over here. The first one is tenga xaak. Xaak, basically across India—or saag—refers to leaves that are cooked. And in Assamese cuisine, because it’s a very riverine area, geographically, you have a lot of fresh plants that are growing around people’s backyards in villages and stuff like that. There are hundreds, literally hundreds of xaak that you can have in Assamese cuisine. And all of these xaak have different uses, a lot of them are medicinal, but one of the particular ones which I used in my project was this one called tenga xaakor tengesi.
So the tenga xaak is something that you would find always in the bazaars. Whenever I would step into the wet markets in Guwahati, you would always see tenga xaakavailable. And it has this lemony flavor, kind of like sumac or like lemons, but in a very floral sense, in a very light, delicate sense.
So it’s like, if you wanted to make a salad, but you didn’t want lemon or you find lemon too strong, I would just break a few of these leaves with say cucumber, maybe a few nuts and just toss it up and in fact, that’s how I served it in my project. And it gives you this lovely light sourness, which is just so refreshing.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Something like lemongrass?
Mufaddal: No, so it’s got, it looks a little bit more like rocket or kind of like jarjeer. It looks like that, but yeah, the flavor is kind of like lemongrass. So it’s got this, it’s got the texture..
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Refreshing.
Jalpai – Indian ‘Olives’
Mufaddal: Yeah. Another one that comes to mind is jalpai, and jalpai, are these olive-like fruits that are usually picked raw in Assam and they’re turned into pickles.
So they’re cut up and they’re turned into pickle with spices and they’re usually eaten alongside a meal. So, how you think of your Indian achar with raw mango, in Assam it’s more typical to find your jalpai achars.
Arva: This is, this is quite a revelation!
Arva: I just didn’t even know that olives were growing in the Northeast.
Mufaddal: Which brings me to a little aside on this.
So when we think of olives, you think of Mediterranean fruit, and when you think of Mediterranean fruit, what comes to mind? You think of oranges and lemons, and apparently all citrus fruit, the whole citrus genus originated or evolved in the Indochina region. And I think that’s the reason that you have so many different lemons in Assam, and I was surprised to find this. In Assam you have like six to seven different varieties and in all different shapes.
Arva: I feel like you’ve gone through so many different things that I’ve not heard before. You’d said three. What’s the third one?
Ou Tenga – Elephant Apple
Mufaddal: The third one is the one, it’s the most interesting one, that I’ve been saving for last and it is called ou tenga.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Ou tenga.
Arva: Ou tenga—sounds like a little bit of a beat.
Mufaddal: Yeah, so it’ll give you that kind of when you eat it. Cause, ou tenga, interestingly in english is known as elephant apple.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Oh, it’s a big one.
Mufaddal: Yeah. So it’s an apple-sized fruit. Apparently you do find it in the rest of India, but in Assam it is revered. It’s part of a lot of dishes.
You can use it to sour your daal, you can use it to sour your tenga fish curries. And again, like mangosteen, it’s not the pulp inside which is really what you’re after. What you’re after is those sepal-like structures, which kind of coat around the pulp and form these rind-like layers.
The pulp is also acidic and you can use it. You can, like, sweeten it and beat it up and use it in different ways. But what is most prized is the rind. And when you cut up the rind, you can use the rind directly. This fruit you don’t need to cure it or dry it, you can just bite into it. And it has that apple-like texture. What it reminds me most of is green apples.
Green apples, and you get that puckering in your lips, that kind of astringency, that’s the kind of flavor that ou tenga gives you.
Arva: Where is it used in what kinds of dishes would you throw in?
Mufaddal: You would actually slice up the rind and put it into, yes, like when Mojgan was saying about fish dishes and sour fish dishes, I was immediately thinking that, wow, this is so parallel to Assamese cuisine, cause you slice up that ou tenga and you’ll toss it into your tenga fish curry or you might slice up the rind and throw it into a daal.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: Well, can we, is there anywhere in Dubai where we can have these Assami dishes?
Arva: Great question. At Mufaddal’s home, he just invited you home because you invited him to your guest house.
Mufaddal: I would love to.
Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé: I can invite you to my house in Dubai and we could do Persian.
Arva: Done! I am all up for this.
Mufaddal: And we should do an Assamese and a Persian cook-up sometime, but frankly, I haven’t practiced Assamese cooking as much. And I miss those flavors from 10 years ago.
And this is what kind of upsets me, is that when you think of Indian cuisine, you don’t think of these kind of Assamese flavors, which in fact have in some ways, some similarity to Thai food, in a way. Because the Ahom kings were from Thailand and they migrated over into, and they took over this territory and they settled themselves there and they brought over these flavors from that side.
There was an Assamese chef who I had spoken to in Assam, called Atul Lahkar. And Atul-da—da is your kind of, how you refer to your elder brother in Assam. So, Atul-da believed that “one day Assamese cuisine would move the world.” That was his saying, and I hope so. I hope that someday we get to experience Assamese cuisine in Dubai, because it’s so wonderful.
Arva: I feel like we almost need to take a pause and go, each of us, grab a paper napkin and just wipe our watering mouths because this conversation has been one of the most stimulating ones that we’ve had. It has been so eye-opening, with so many ingredients that honestly are not part of mainstream culinary lingo.
And thank you both for joining us. I feel like you’ve uncovered a whole new sour world beyond lemons and limes for many of us.
And all of you who are listening in, we’ve shared the recipe for Mojgan’s Shirazi salad, with ab ghooreh, which is the juice of unripe grapes and Mufaddal’s chicken kurdhisoup with kokum on our blog, and you can find that at fryingpanadventures.com/blog.
If you enjoyed the show, we’d love for you to rate, review and share it, and also connect with us over social at Frying Pan Adventures on Instagram and Facebook and @FryingPanTours on Twitter.
We’ve also shared Mufaddal’s and Mojgan’s Instagram handles in our show notes. So you can hit them up on social.
And as always, before we head off, I want to leave you with some words of wisdom from that best-selling cookbook author, Sami Nosrat, who I mentioned earlier. She’s written the book ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’, and she says:
“As with all good cooking, the best way to use acid well is to taste. Over and over again.
Using acid is much like using salt. If something is noticeably sour, it’s probably got too much acid. But if a food tastes bright and clean, then it’s acid balance is spot on.”