#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we spend an afternoon with Daphimanroi Warjri, as she cooks us a Khasi-style pork with black sesame.
The monsoon was late this year. And when it did come, it tore through the country causing landslides and floods, from the hills of Meghalaya to the coasts of Kerala. But the cool spray of rain that the breeze brought in this afternoon carried no evidence of that fury. This rain was light and fresh. We slid open the kitchen window to views of a grassy lawn circled by squat frangipani trees in bloom. The rain spattered on the sill. To the left, the curved art deco wall of the building circled out along a puddled pathway up to Malabar Hill.
Inside the bright, cosy kitchen, square kitchen tiles in muted shades of beige are the perfect canvas for the bright colours of what is cooking. Tomatoes simmer in a pot on the hob. Daphi measures a pinch of salt and sugar, and instantly, sweet-sour aromas rise from the red pressure cooker. A shallow pan is steaming evenly sliced matchsticks of carrot and potato. In another pan, roasted black sesame has been set to rest under the ceiling fan. "We need to cool it a little before we can grind it into a paste.”
Daphimanroi Warjri is cooking pork in black sesame, a favourite with the Khasi tribe from the hills of Meghalaya. Hair pulled back into a neat bun, we can’t help but notice her sinewy arms as she stirs the pot. Hard earned from the intense physicality of working with bread and pastries, she tells us with a quick grin. Daphi runs a bakery in Shillong, her hometown, and here, in Mumbai, is the patissier at The Flourists, an outfit that focuses on rustic, wholesome bakes that balance flavour with nutrition. Almond cakes, coconut sugar brownies, wobbly Japanese cheesecakes, and wickedly indulgent marquis, fly off the shelves.
Daphi’s kitchen is filled with little sketches of the recipes she refers to most frequently. "I like to rewrite the recipes I use in my own way, and sort of illustrate them for quick reference.” (We spot little diagrams of whisking bowls and slabs of butter, but quickly abandon any interpretation as hopeless). “It might not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me," she says with a shrug and a laugh.
Her background as a baker is telling as we watch her in the kitchen. She slices onions in uniform translucent slivers, her movements precise and controlled; hands steady as a rock. We wonder if her affinity for precision and technique were honed through her years as a baker, or whether they are simply part of her personality, serving her well in her chosen career. Home cooking, especially in India, is marked by andaz and kai-punyam. The same dish is prepared differently in homes within the same neighbourhood, marked by the culinary style or preference of the home cook. Does she slice, or smash the garlic? Will he use tamarind, or vinegar, or lime? Will you thicken the gravy with coconut milk, or yogurt? It is also the reason that cooking is a bit magical: it makes room for the cook's imagination. So, watching the baker bring her precision into cooking is fascinating. Where cooking can be relaxed, Daphi is rigorous. We watch transfixed by the surgical precision of her knife slicing through onion, unable to look away as she moves on to garlic. She stirs the sesame paste into the onion slowly, leaning in to catch a whiff. "When it is done, the smell will change. And then we can add in the pork."
Nei ïong has a very distinctive flavour. Earthy, herb-like, decidedly unique. “We sometimes add it into a vegetable stir-fry, but there's no pairing like nei ïong and pork." In the cooker, as the sesame paste begins roasting with a wee bit of water, it turns a dark green, its texture velvet like moss. The aroma from the pot is deep and mellow, not entirely unfamiliar, but hard to pin down.
The Khasis, the community to which Daphi belongs, are a hill tribe from Meghalaya, a state where the landscape ripples with sinewy hills, streaked with icy waterfalls and cool blue lakes. The Khasis are a matrilineal tribe, with many interesting elements to their cuisine and culture. Their food is rife with wild seasonal greens, berries and fruits. A walk through the market yields all kinds of delicious surprises, from bags of foraged mushrooms to ox tongue, strung up on the pavement. But pork is a meat for all seasons.
The plate Daphi serves us is a rainbow. Velvet black pork, a bright tomato salad, yellow dal and a side of orange carrots and potatoes. "At home, our plate is always a mix of colours – red, green, yellow. But maybe that’s a home thing, not particularly a Khasi thing," she laughs. "Veggies are always simple stir fries. We don’t like to add more than a bit of garlic or pepper. We want the flavour of the ingredients to shine through.” And when the ingredients are so exceptional, you don’t need much to prop up a dish. It reminds us of last time we walked through Pali market, picking oranges at a fruit stall. Daphi refused to eat them. “When you’ve eaten an orange from Shillong, you’ll never eat an orange from anywhere else in the world.”
RECIPE: DOH NEI ÏONG OR KHASI STYLE PORK IN BLACK SESAME
1 kg pork, with a bit of fat included, cubed
2 tbsp nei ïong paste (Roast the sesame seeds, cool, then grind to a thick paste)
3 green chillies, sliced
2 medium onion, chopped fine or to a paste
8-10 garlic pods,chopped fine or to a paste
2 tbsp mustard oil
1/2 thumb ginger, ground to a paste
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp black pepper
In a heavy bottomed cooker, heat the mustard oil until it just begins to smoke
Then add in the green chillies, stir for a few seconds before adding in the garlic
Saute for a minute
Now add in the onions, and saute until soft and translucent
Add in the turmeric and pepper, and stir so the onions are well coated. Saute again for 5 minutes. If it gets too dry, add in a quarter cup of water
Now add in the ginger. Let it saute, stirring for about a minute. Then add in the ground sesame paste with 1 cup of water
Allow the mix to simmer for about 10 min on a low flame. The aromas should change slightly as it all comes together
Now add in the pork and salt, and mix well. Let it cook on open flame for a minute, then add in 1/4 cup water
Fasten the lid, and pressure cook on low flame for 20 minutes after first whistle
Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; illustration by Shruti Prabhu.
ALSO ON THE GOYA JOURNAL