T his Assamese-style chicken curry, prepared with black sesame seed paste, is typical of the region, and is iconic for its jet-black appearance and unique depth of flavour. The ingredients used in this preparation are very basic, something most kitchens in eastern India use in their everyday cooking. Cumin seeds, crushed garlic, ground onion, ginger paste, bay leaves, black peppercorns, green chillies and tomatoes. The black sesame seed paste is the most prominent component in this dish; it lends a nutty flavour and undercuts the acidity of the tomatoes added.
In the North East, most dishes, which are locally prepared, use a very light hand on the spices. The mountainous terrain ensures minimalistic cooking is preferred over time-consuming, detailed preparations. And yet, with just a handful of ingredients, the people of the region have devised a range of gastronomical delights that are not only colourful but immensely flavourful.
The chicken is first marinated with these spices and left for some time before the process of cooking begins. This is a very common process with cooking in hilly regions, where the meat is married with spices and left for hours, ensuring the seasoning of the cut as well as softening the fibres. Sesame seeds and black peppercorns are first dry roasted, and this process helps in releasing essential oils and builds more full-bodied and developed flavours. In fact, one of the most crucial steps while making this dish is to ensure that the sesame seeds are not overburnt. Since the black sesame already has a dark hue, the flame's temperature needs to be constantly controlled. Once the sesame and peppercorns are roasted to perfection and cooled down, they are ground to form a fine paste (some also use a slightly coarse paste to add some texture) in a mortal and pestle by adding some water.
A generous use of chillies is recommended for this recipe. This should not come as a surprise, considering Assam is the origin of the revered Bhoot Jholokiya (one of the spiciest chillies in the world). Traditional Til Diya Murgi Mangxo is made with mustard oil, owing to its deep pungent flavour. The chicken is first fried in the oil before placing it in the masala gravy. This is to ensure that the marinated blend gets locked in with the meat and ensures a double flavour packing. Once the meat is thoroughly cooked in the masala, the black sesame and peppercorn paste is added to the dish and sauteed properly. It needs some gradual stirring and with time one would notice a slight change in the colour of the gravy: from light ash to jet black. Once the consistency of the gravy thickens and the oil separates from the gravy, the dish is ready to be served. Til Diya Murgi Mangxo goes perfectly with hot steaming rice. This meal is not just delicious but also highly nutritious given the plethora of health benefits that black sesame offers. Rich in iron, vitamin B, calcium and zinc, black sesame seeds have anti-ageing properties. They help in fighting cancer and regulate blood pressure; strengthen bones, and improve gut health.