…India cooks up a storm of mouth-watering dishes. And so, the monsoon charms us not just with its weather, but also a delightful gastronomical experience. Yogesh Pawar and Heena Khandelwal bring us bites from different regions
What the four seasons of the year mean to the European, the one season of the monsoon means to the Indian. It is preceded by desolation; it brings with it hopes of spring; it has the fullness of summer and the fulfillment of autumn, all in one.”
Nevermind the water logging or the muggy weather of a sluggish monsoon, this subcontinent’s romance with the rain is unparalleled. And it has as much to do with the aroma of the special monsoon delicacies as with watching the rainfall carpet the outdoors into a verdant green.
Hearths from the hills of the northeast to the Indo-Gangetic plains, from the blazing Rann of Kutch to central India, and downwards to the Deccan, the Konkan coast and the Southern tip, churn out a whole wide world of seasonal dishes that do as much to boost our immunity as they do to tickle our tastebuds. Ready for the food trail?
From the Seven Sisters
Dominated by tribes, the produce of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura is largely organic and fermentation is a year-round practice. But seasonal produce varies as per topography – the region is mostly hilly, barring major portions of Assam and parts of Manipur and Tripura.
“Monsoon is when fresh bamboo shoots, a perennial favourite in the northeast, are aplenty and translate into many dishes. Markets of hilly areas, which turn lush in the rains, groan with greens such as fiddlehead ferns, fitweed herbs, Mexican coriander, bitter cress, mint, chives, an array of mustards as well as shoots of pumpkin and squash,” says journalist Purabi Shridhar, who hails from Shillong and has co-authored the cookbook The Seven Sisters: Kitchen Tales from the North East. The unconsumed produce is dried and preserved for the rest of the year. Use of oil and spices is minimal in the region; boiling, broiling, stewing, stir-frying and roasting are preferred techniques.
“Fish roe (fish eggs) – usually served fried with a pinch of salt, turmeric and a few drops of lemon juice – and snails are very popular at this time of the year. As the region receives rain early, snails start appearing in many markets by May. Assam prefers snail curries; elsewhere they are stir-fried or even pickled. In Assam, it’s also the time for jackfruit, teasel gourd and ilish fish, and Meghalaya sees an abundance of mushrooms in the wild,” says Shridhar.
Starting East, heading West
Spices and oil are also avoided in Bundelkhand, a region spread over Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. NGO Bhoomi Ka and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) recently held an ‘Ashadh Mela’ in Delhi. One of its speakers, a 75-year-old Bundelkhandi organic farmer Prem Narayan Mishra, says, “During ashadh (the beginning of monsoon), we set up a furnace to make gakariyas (thick wheat chapatis) and aloo-baigan ka chokha (a sabzi of potatoes and roasted brinjal). Jaggery is also important as it’s good for the digestive system.” But food critic Pushpesh Pant believes poverty may also be the reason they avoid oil; the region once notorious for dacoits, is one of India’s most economically backward.
During ashadh, villagers of Bundelkhand follow the age-old practice of visiting the temple of their family deity and preparing a meal. While mahua has been infamous for its intoxicating properties, Mishra extols its asthma-curing ability. In this season, its flowers, rich in minerals and sugar, are dried, roasted and grounded with mortar and pestle to prepare mahua murka. It tastes like a powdered form of til ke ladoo becuase sesame seeds too are added to it. It’s eaten early in the morning. Another delicacy is dubri for which mahua flowers are boiled in milk or water, and then mashed, giving it a kheer-like consistency. Adding grated coconut and dry fruit is optional.
“You can also make labsi or halwa if you grate roasted mahua and add ghee and dry fruit,” adds Mishra.
For quenching thirst, there’s kori, prepared from a mixture of wheat and chana with either salt or jaggery powder, stirred into water. But farmers of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh prefer barley sattu. “It’s both cooling and diuretic,” says Aparna Rajagopal, who has been doing natural farming in UP’s Noida region since three years and is the founder of Beejom.
Popular across Asia from Myanmar to Sindh, is the spiny gourd called kantole (in Marathi) or kankoda (in Gujarati). The bristly balsam pear is used to prepare several vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes – thick gravy with chicken or pork in the north-east and a minimalistic stir-fried versions popular in Gujarati and Maharashtrian homes. But nothing beats the besan-stuffed one dunked in gravy, on the other side of the border.
Pant believes that some practices are influenced by caution as we are prone to infections during the rains. He says, “With the onset of rainfall, one starts feeling hunger again, which tends to die during summer. In Bengal, people observe Arandhan a day before the monsoon’s arrival. Food prepared at night is consumed the following day — a practise that cannot be continued during the monsoon season due to fear of infection.” The Jain community avoids most greens fearing the presence of insects. “In coastal areas like Goa, Mangaluru and Kerala, people stick to dry fish and shrimp,” adds Pant.
That said, among several communities, wild seasonal greens are much in demand, especially in the West and South. Prominent among these is bharangi. A much-celebrated herb from ancient times, it finds mention in several authoritative Ayurvedic texts for its ability to treat allergic rhinitis, asthma, fever and several other inflammatory conditions. Mostly eaten stir-fried with minimal oil, salt and chillies, it goes well with wheat or rice rotis; in some areas it’s paired with ragi rotis that up the nutritional quotient manifold.
Another favourite, taakla, is found in two closely related botanical varieties across tropical India. It can be stir-fried and eaten as an accompanying vegetable or prepared into a yummy chutney by stir-frying, cooling and coarsely pounding with roasted cumin, green chillies and coconut. Kavla, the monsoon harbinger that looks akin to the touch-me-not mimosa, is also a much sought after, low-growing herb. Used for traditional medicines to treat bladder-related ailments in South Asia, its tender stalks make for delicacies to go with rice and roti. Bengal has a preparation with a tamarind base and mustard paste and in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka give it fiery temper with green chillies and powdered peanut.
A few weeks into the first rains, you can’t miss the bright-red silver cockscomb flowers that are called Lagos spinach across most of Africa from where it is said to have travelled to India thousands of years ago. Stir-fried with chillies, salt and peanut powder, it makes for a yummy vegetable rich in minerals and micro-nutrients. It’s also used to prepare medicines to cure several ailments including musculo-skeletal and gastrointestinal disorders, burning and painful urination, abscesses, fevers linked to liver problems, etc. The decoction of its seeds is an aphrodisiac. Safed or shweta musli of north and east or phodshi also has legendary aphrodisiacal properties and is much awaited for during shravan in the land of Kama Sutra. While multinational pharma companies fight to patent it for its anti-obesity benefits, enjoy it as sabzi: stir-fried with onion, garlic and chillies after cooking some soaked chana dal in oil.
Although grown across the year wherever loamy soil is available, in this season, nothing can match the taste of the colocasia leaves that grow wild; its stalks, leaves and even rhizomes (arvi) are used for cooking. The black stalk variety is preferred for its taste. Generous rubbing is important as the microscopic calcium crystals it’s coated with can hurt the throat if not treated with tartaric acid. While the alu wadis or patras are savoured in western India, the leafy vegetable is more loved across the Malenaad region of Karnataka and the coastal belt up to Goa and Konkan. Whether you eat the alucha phat-phata or the fiery dry-shrimp version popular in upper Konkan, you’re sure to return for more.
North meets South
But it’s not all about stir-frying. Except certain regions, deep frying and use of spices during the rains is a common thread that runs across the country, if you ask Pant. “Almost everywhere, people consume a lot of oily or fried and spicy food – be it pakodas, puris, paranthas, bondas and vadas (medu and maddur in south India and sabudana vada in Maharashtra),” he says. “That’s because as the boiling point of oil is higher than that of water, it kills all the germs.” Since fermented foods like the batter for idli or uttapam easily catch fungus, Pant adds that people in the south prefer adai (dosa prepared with urad dal and rice). “To accompany spicy food, north Indians have malpua; pua (sans malai), which is prepared in economically weaker regions because it consumes less ghee.”