Khar: The Astringent of Assam

- November 21, 2023

By Shakthi Bharathi and Himasweeta Sarma

According to Ayurveda, there are six tastes known as the ‘rasas’. Each rasa plays its own role in boosting health and influencing the taster’s mood. Thus, the perfect meal has to contain all six rasas: salty, sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, and astringent.  

Astringents, the last of these, are peculiar. More sensation than taste, their effect on the tongue comes from tannin-heavy foods. The cooling numbness of tulsi, the gritty sweetness of paan, the ashy burn of tobacco, the dry bitterness of wine—all of these are astringents at play. In Sanskrit, the sixth flavour is called ‘kashaya rasa’.  

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Khar in the style of Sattriya painting—practised in Assam;
Illustration: Anjali Narendra

In ancient times, the landlocked state of Assam had no access to sea salt. The common folk needed a strong condiment and a cheaper way to preserve food—thus came about khar. This brown liquid, filtered from the ashes of sun-dried banana peel, has an earthy smokiness that makes it the soul of Assamese cooking.  An all-in-one ingredient, khar is used as a palate cleanser, digestif, antiseptic, shampoo, and even detergent!

Did you know?  

Being an alkali, khar cannot be added to sour dishes, which contain acidic components like vinegar or tomatoes. This is because alkalis and acids neutralise each other.  

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