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Monsoon cuisines of India

Curating a monsoon food and art festival at The Park New Delhi has been fun and a good learning experience. I discovered the importance of seasonal foods in our cooking traditions…

Seasonal diets have always been an intrinsic part of Indian regional cuisine(s). While we may not have had codified “kitchen literature”, and recipes and methods of cooking may have been passed down generations simply through word of mouth, Ayurveda, the “science of medicine” and food, undoubtedly played a significant role in how Indian families across the country cooked and ate. Households developed their own repertoires based on availability not to mention granny’s wisdom and such cooking was centred around the undisputable premise that you were what you ate! And that good health could be ensured by eating correctly.

Monsoon foods of different communities were significant for the simple reason that the season is so central to the Subcontinent—and not merely in terms of climactic conditions. Instead, like the Western construct of “spring” in art, literature, music and more, that time of the year inextricably and symbolically linked with renewal (of hope, love, happiness…), the monsoons in India have connotations that go much beyond the odd shower or two! In a primarily agrarian world, traditionally, this has been a season of abundance, fertility, and thus of celebration as seen in the spirit of festivals such as Teej and Ganpati, Rakshabandhan and Onam. And with so many festivals marking this time, can an abundance of fine food — community feasts and prized family recipes—be far behind? And thus we have everything from jave (typical of Rakshabandhan), golen and ghewar (for Teej) to fresh coconut-filled modaks, a favourite of Lord Ganesha, not to mention his devotees.

Sweets apart, this is the time for savouries too—as the summer heat abates and the weather gets more pleasant in most parts of the country. Thus, you will find dal-bati-churma gots, gatherings or picnics, in Rajasthan, and people gorging on bhajiyas and batata vadas in western Maharashtra. With several common seasonal ingredients in different parts of the country, it is also interesting to see how the same ingredient (and, many a times the same way of cooking) gets customized to local tastes. Thus, in old Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, if you have patore, a snack made of colocasia leaves, in Mahashtra, it becomes aduchi vadi and patrode in Mangalore’s Bunt kitchens, a dish of the same colocasia leaves stuffed with rice, dal and jaggery. On the other hand, some times, traditions differ. In the villages of Punjab, a typical monsoonal pastime in the old days, would be sucking on small, ripe mangoes (still available in the north in the rainy months), while sipping kachchi lassi—one quarter cold milk, three quarters water; unsweetened, supposed to aid digestion and soothe the stomach. In coastal Maharashtra, on the other hand, the season for hafus and amrakhand is already over.

Since the rains typically brought in their wake several water-borne diseases of the stomach in our tropical climes, chaat, vegetables and street snacks were to be commonly avoided. In their place, there was a stress on pucca khana, deemed more hygienic and safe since food was fully immersed in hot oil or fat during cooking. It is to this wisdom that we can possibly trace the evolution of bhajiyas, bhajas and pakoris not to mention aloo ki tikkis, samosas and vadas. So next time you see hot, smoking oil in a wok and batter-wrapped vegetables, including onions, potatoes and green chillies being deep fried as soon as it starts raining, you will realize the method behind the pakora madness India. But in north India, where potato and onion supplies could be hit due to the rain, households would traditionally also make the likes of kashi phal (gourd) pakoras. Similarly, other monsoon vegetables like other varieties of gourd, zucchini, colocasia and jack fruit would be used instead of leafy greens either spoilt by the rain in poor storage conditions or worm infested.

The iconic status of the pakora as a rain food in many parts of the country is shared by the khichuri in Bengal. A fragrant, subtle preparation pepped up by a number of side dishes like beguni (chickpea flour coated aubergine slices), kosha mangcho, slow-cooked lamb, and, of course, what the non-Bengalis will simply call fish fry.

Fish was (and is) commonly not eaten during the monsoon months in most parts of India— except in states like Assam and Bengal, where river fish is a fixture. In Kolkata, this is hilsa time as much as it is the time to make khichuri, and the ilish, fresh water fish may be either steamed wrapped in mustard paste, the fabled Kolkata way, or fried. Another common monsoon category was ankurit foods, or germinated seeds, highly nutritious. Chunki hui moong (moong beans soaked overnight, tempered with heeng) is thus a simple but delicious delicacy as also usal, more robust with a flavouring of the Maharashtrian kala masala.

While, today, there are various opinions on whether or not to consume jackfruit during the rains, it is a common seasonal ingredient and various jackfruit preparations are thus popular in different parts of the country; including jackfruit papads, jackfruit sambhar as well as a jackfruit and fresh coconut preparation from Mangalore that’s on our menu. Other ingredients find expression in dishes such as singadhe ki subzi from UP, a host of corn preparations, in the use of lotus stems and seeds and so forth.

What was to be avoided during the rains was fermented food, in keeping with the tenets of Ayurveda. So yoghurt was replaced with milk and milk products (as we see in the kachchi lassi of Punjab) but there were exceptions, of course. Tambli, a buttermilk like drink from Karnataka, continues to be consumed during this season but is prepared with a tempering of either garlic or ginger—heat-inducing ingredients in keeping with the weather. Naturally sour, astringent and bitter foods were supposed to be included in the diet— supposedly to benefit the stomach and keep diseases at bay in this season. So while the tomato-based saar and tenga, or the hot menas kai may be consumed even during other months, in monsoons they gain a special relevance.

You will find many of these foods in our monsoon food festival. The recipes have been painstakingly collected from families belonging to different parts of the country—many of whom didn’t even remember whether their traditional diets ever had anything special for the rains. But memory is a strange thing. Rejig it a bit, and customs, habits, traditions come tumbling out.

Note: The Monsoon Cuisine-Art festival is on till August 1 at The Park New Delhi

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