Takeaway

Dead leaves talking

Rini Barman | Updated on August 17, 2018 Published on August 17, 2018

Sacred platter: Jute leaves are revered by indigenous communities for their healing properties; a dish of jute leaves with pork   -  ISTOCK.COM

Jute leaves, called morapaat in Assam, are vital to the cultural and culinary lives of the region’s diverse tribes

Mrinal Kachari, a resident of Assam’s Baksa district, is a raconteur. He relates a folk tale about a king from Bhutan who had brought zabrang (a variety of pungent edible seeds) to the region. The king was welcomed through the Bangsa (perhaps an earlier variant of Baksa), which was one of the doars or passageways to Bhutan in ancient times. Today, this region is a part of the BTAD (Bodo Territorial Area District).

The term “ethnic”, as it is used now in restaurants, caters to the upper-middle echelons of society and does little or no justice to tribal cuisine, which is often described as a “melting pot”. “I don’t even know where the pot is; it is definitely not on the menu,” Mrinal laughs.

His ancestors identify with the sarania kacharis — a group with a distinctive heritage, who had taken eka-saran-dharma (shelter in one dharma) under Vaishnavite social reformer Srimanta Sankardev. However, like many tribal groups, they have retained their ancestral folk customs and food habits.

Preserving to resist

Preservation is a form of resistance, as well — and there are stories that semi-fermented jute leaves and meat in tiny bags and on dolas (bamboo trays) are waiting to tell. Fermentation, as a process, allows you to save something before it is absorbed or translated. Preserving food traditions brings back older smells to life. And didn’t someone say that fermentation may be a better invention than fire?

Stir-fried jute leaves with garlic   -  ISTOCK.COM

When Mrinal’s father succumbed to head injuries in a riot, the son had to serve the dish shukta as part of the funeral ceremonies. Prepared with dried jute leaves, shukta is served on Matsyasparsha, the day the family collectively eats non-vegetarian food again after losing a relative. “I couldn’t taste the bitterness of the shukta in my mouth; anger and agony had diluted it,” Mrinal recalls.

The leaves have a role to play in the month of Sot (March 15-April 14). Fried as shukta bhaji, the jute leaves help ward off diseases that come with the changing season. A popular saying among the sarania kacharis is, “Sotot kore jiye pota, xihe bapekor beta (the one who consumes jute leaves during Sot is his father’s truest son)”.

Mrinal cultivates jute on his land. His mother, Juri Kachari, helps him in the farm and collects dried jute leaves. “We are having shukta for lunch,” she says. Jute plants are in full bloom in their garden, where the soil is moist.

The Assamese for jute is morapaat — literally, dead or dried leaves. It is the fibre of the Titamora plant (Corchorus capsularis), an edible variant of jute. In neighbouring areas such as Nalbari, Barpeta and Pathsala, this variety is known as shukta tita. The dried leaves are crushed manually and made into delicious chutneys. Mrinal shares insights about these greens as well as variations in preparations across other tribes. “The confusion of tribal identity and food is so ubiquitous that you must hear me out,” he says. The Bodo-Kacharis prepare dishes with dried jute leaves, which they call narzi.

The leaves are considered sacred and believed to have healing properties. They are rich in vitamins, carotenoids, calcium, potassium and dietary fibre. Along with mustard seeds, they are also believed to ward off evil spirits. They have a special place at funerals. After the final rites are over, the ties with the dead are broken by chewing narzi.

The Narzary Bodos derive their name from these leaves. In A Study of Socio-religious Beliefs, Practices and Ceremonies of the Bodos, author Kameshwer Brahma points out that they were originally entrusted with the job of collecting narzoi goran (dried jute leaves) during saradu (funeral rites).

Though the practice of chewing narzi during funerals is no longer prevalent among the dominant upper castes of Assam, faint memories continue to link the plant to a few recipes. In one classic preparation, 5-6 tender jute leaves are tied, almost like a corpse, and boiled. The leaves are tied meticulously so that they don’t degenerate upon boiling.

For semi-fermenting narzi, jute leaves are first sun-dried for a week and, sometimes, through the year. They are preserved, protected from insects and kept handy for meals. Narzi is mostly consumed with small fish and pork. The cooking, however, is tricky. The bitter taste is moderated or balanced by boiling and adding khardwi (locally prepared alkali) to a dish. A curry with tender jute leaves is thickened with ground rice powder, giving it a consistency between that of a soup and a stew. Bitter foods find a resonance across the Assam region for their perceived health benefits.

Food for thought: In Baksa, the edible variety of jute is grown mostly for food. The plants grow about three feet tall and are cultivated throughout the year   -  ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

 

Life to death

Among the Koch-Rajbanshi tribes, the variant of narzi is called shukatii, and is primarily used in fish preparations. For the tribe, too, the leaves play a vital role in funerals. Along with mustard and sesame seeds, shukatii is carried to a funeral pyre.

Dried jute leaves (paat-pata) from the desi variety are crushed by hand and fried with potatoes on annaprasan (a ceremony when an infant first tastes rice). It is also consumed with chèka (a locally made variant of alkali or khar) and the dish is called paat shaker chèka. Jute leaves are revered for their medicinal properties. Paat shak is a popular cure for fever in rural areas. The leaves are dipped in water and then pressed on a patient’s warm forehead.

In Mrinal’s garden, the dead leaves – along with a legacy -- are being resurrected. I tell Juri that in parts of Africa such as Egypt, mulukhiyah or jute mallow is consumed. It has a bitter taste and an okra-like texture. “There is no evidence of the other variety of jute (Corchorus olitorius) being consuming in this region so far,” she says. I wonder how mulukhiyah would taste with pork and zabrang.

In Baksa, the edible variety of jute is grown mostly for food. It needs fencing to protect it from cattle and goats. The plants are about three feet high and are cultivated through the year.

During the 1990s, it was still possible for families to survive by only farming jute. But reports of the Indian Jute Mills Association show that erratic rainfall has been hampering jute cultivation in Assam and Bengal.

This “golden” fibre with its peripheral use as a food item is vanishing.

As I take Mrinal’s leave, he hands over a bunch of jute leaves from his garden for me to ferment. I keep them carefully inside my diary. They are a part of our lives, but fast disappearing from our plates and hearts.

Rini Barman is a Guwahati-based independent writer

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Xukaan morapaat aru gahori

(Pork with dried jute leaves)

Ingredients to crush:

Zabrang: 6-7 seeds

Dried jute leaves: 100g

Peppercorns: 5-6, crushed

Ginger: A small piece

Garlic: Of medium size

Green chillies to taste

Maan dhania (Thai coriander) 40g

Khar (alkali) 1 1/2 tbsp

Pork (preferably with fat): 500g, cut into

small pieces

Salt to taste

Method:

Remove the fat from the pork. Boil the pork and jute leaves separately. Add khar and salt to the boiling jute leaves. Make a paste of all the other ingredients and add some of it to the boiling leaves. Do not stir too much as it will get gooey. Once the level of the boiling water is reduced, keep the jute leaves aside. In another pan, fry the pork fat and the remaining paste. Now add the boiled pork and jute leaves and stir very gently until done. Serve with rice.

Published on August 17, 2018

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