Creativity in terms of food is the key to the season
In peak summer, mango trees laden with fruit are the first sign of the feast that awaits us. The months preceding the monsoon have special foods that build up the excitement to the rainy season. Mangoes can make an early appearance in the market after dust storms. Some of this unexpected harvest is turned into a pickle but this does not store well. Enterprising chefs turn these into panna — a beverage that is prepared from the pulp of boiled mangoes tempered with asafoetida and cumin — and launji, a sweet-and-sour relish.
These not only help beat the summer heat but also prepare the palate for the bonanza of ripe mangoes to be consumed after the first showers have cooled the fruits down.
The summer months preceding the monsoon bring a huge variety of fruits and vegetables to the market. Phalsa (small purple berries) and khirni (golden yellow berries) find their place among the more common fruits such as litchi, peaches, plums and apricots. Water-rich vegetables such as squashes and gourds — tinda, lauki, tori and so on — are also common. There are, however, fewer fresh fruits and vegetables during the rain.
The greens that sprout profusely after the showers are often contaminated with the spatters of mud and microbes from the ground. There is a logistical problem in accessing fresh produce during the rain, for it is difficult to wade through waterlogged roads to reach the markets. This is one major reason why pakoras are so popular during the season. To whip up a quick batch, mix chickpea flour with vegetables such as potatoes and onions, deep-fry them, drain the oil and enjoy the fritters with a hot cup of tea. These staples can be easily stored for months. The piping hot pakoras provide instant comfort during the damp days and are full of calories that help boost energy levels.
But it would be wrong to think that no fresh food is around during the season. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) brings out a book series on food based on biodiversity. First Food has recipes from across the country and many revolve around the theme of the monsoons. In the eastern part of the country, in place of traditional greens such as spinach and mustard leaves, poi saag(Basella alba) is eaten. The leaves of this vine can be consumed without the fear of contamination. In Karnataka, people of the Soliga tribe collect more than 50 vegetables, including 30 leafy varieties, during the rainy season.
By the end of summer, the karonda fruit (Carissa carandas) is ready. This sour fruit is turned into spicy sabzi with green chillies or sweet-and-sour chutney, which works well with pooris and a potato sabzi. In Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, colocasia leaves are used to prepare patode — a healthier version of the pakora. For this, a paste of spiced chickpea is spread on a leaf, which is then rolled into a cylindrical shape. The rolls are steamed, cut and then sautéed in mustard oil with cumin, asafoetida and turmeric.
Dried food is also a veritable part of the season. In the North-Eastern regions of the country, mustard leaves are fermented and dried to prepare something called gundruk. This is then used in spicy hot soups, which work very well during the rain.
Seeds are eaten, too. The seeds of muskmelons and water melons are saved during the summer. In rural areas, women spend long afternoons peeling the seeds and then selling them. Then, during the monsoons, the kernels are sautéed with makhana (lotus seeds or fox nuts) to prepare a nutritious snack rich in protein.
The monsoon season ends with festivals marked by fasts. Here, too, food that can be stored are consumed. Since the consumption of cereals such as rice and wheat is prohibited during the fast, the preference is for what is known asphalahaari khana — dishes prepared with buckwheat flour, sama ke chawal(Echinochloa colona) and sabudana (tapioca pearls). Potatoes and colocasia find their way into the menu, too. Most of these foods are high in fats and sugar, and thus just right for those fasting.
Janmashtami, the festival that celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, falls in the middle of the rainy season. One of the dishes eaten during the festival is arbi paak — fried colocasia coated with thickened sugar. Then there is mingi paak, a sweet prepared with the seeds of musk melon and water melon.
Many of the dishes serve a medicinal function, too. Joint pains are common during the season and in Tamil Nadu, leaves of balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) are used to make a variety of rasam which alleviates the pain. The leaf is also added to make unfermented dosas. These leaves are easily available during the rainy season and are often dried and stored to be used the year round.
The end of the monsoon does not mean the last of interesting food. Winter heralds a new platter.