The most iconic dish in Assam is muri ghonto, a thick, hearty, and delicious fish head dal. However, this dish is common across the region with variations being seen in Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Calcutta. In Assam, muri ghonto has a cult-like following and is a dish that is revered. It has to be served at a wedding to celebrate the occasion but is also served on other occasions. It is a complex dish to cook, the flavours are bold and complex. A good muri ghonto will be perfectly balanced with the mild spices and although it looks like a mush of fish and lentils the flavours should be addictive, making you go back for more. One of the magic elements of muri ghonto is that the fish and its bones are pressure cooked. This makes the bones soft and chewy, an important element is the texture of the dish. Roasting the mung beans is an important step to add a lovely nutty flavour to the dish.
This muri ghonto was perfect. The stew was hearty and thick, the fish was perfectly cooked with the bones being soft, and the spices' balance was bold yet balanced. In traditional style, I enjoyed this plain in a bowl and savoured the flavours.
Thank you to the amazing Jitumani Saikia for teaching me this recipe with patience and joy. Though he is not a professional chef, his dishes are outstanding. He comes from a family of cooks, his father being the head cook for the village temple, so he was exposed to good food and the kitchen at an early age. This is a passion he pursues even today at every opportunity he gets.
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1/2 cup mustard oil
1 1/2 lb fish heads split in half longitudinally
1 1/2 cups yellow split moong dal
6 4tablespoons with 3tablespoons mustard oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
4-5 green cardamom pods
4-5 dried red chillies
4 small bay leaves
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic paste
1 1/2 tablespoons of ginger paste
3 green chillies, slit in half longitudinally
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
1 heaped teaspoon garam masala
1 heaped teaspoon of meat masala
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon chilli powder, or to taste
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt, to taste
3 cups water
Heat the mustard oil in a shallow frying pan and fry the fish heads till cooked through and lightly coloured. Remove, drain well and set aside.
Roast the moong dal on a dry frying pan till lightly coloured and aromatic. Set aside to cool.
Heat the oil in a large pot and add the whole spices, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, red chillies, and bay leaves. Temper till the spices have flavoured the oil well, about 30 seconds.
Add the onion and fry till the onions have turned a light golden colour. Add the ginger, garlic and green chillies and fry till the ginger longer smell raw about 1 minute. Add the roasted moong dal and fry till the dal turns a shade darker, about 4 minutes.
Add the spice powders, turmeric, cumin, garam masala, meat masala, coriander, chilli powders, nutmeg, and salt. Give a quick stir making sure the spices do not burn. Add the water and the fried fish heads and bring to a boil.
At this stage, you can either simmer the curry on the stove for 2 hours, or you can pressure cook/Instapot the curry for 3 whistles/20 minutes. Allow to cool naturally and remove the lids.
Adjust water if needed to have a thick dal. Taste for salt. Serve hot without any garnishes.