Seasons on your plate
Explore the joys of the unusual suspects of seasonal summer cooking through two cookbooks as you relish the stories behind them
There can't be a better time than now to stop and appreciate everything we've been missing about the changing seasons. From the serenading sounds of a koel to the flame of the forest in full bloom or walking down a pathway strewn with the golden showers of the Indian laburnum— we've never really had the time to register the transitions of seasons and the beauty it brings.
Sadly, the cold chains that make everything available to us all year round, have made us dismissive of the satisfaction and wholeness of seasonal cooking—something that once made us mindful of the varying needs of our bodies in the heat, cold, rain and dry weather.
With the sun out and shining, thankfully in some homes, you'll still find refreshing drinks and cooling curries made from seasonal produce. A lot of these ancestral recipes, woven with nostalgia are found embedded in Indian cookbooks. We turn the page to summer and notice that these don't necessarily celebrate the usual heroes —like curd rice and aam panna.
For instance, in Sadia Dehlvi's Jasmine and Jinns, the historian weaves tales of Delhi's ancient past with stories of her growing up in the city and savouring season specialities. In one of the sections, the author remembers how the change of season brought sparkling colours and scents—of sandal, unaab, bazuri, gauzaban, falsa, bel and charon maghaz sherbet—to their home. These thirst quenchers were served mixed with a spoonful of tukhme rehan (tulsi seeds), to enhance their cooling effect.
"Since barley is said to have a natural cooling effect on the body, Amma [grandmother] used to boil it in large quantities and mix it with the sherbet for us to drink through the day," says Dehlvi. Her Amma had also planted a bel (wood-apple tree), near the entrance of her home. Years later, all her grandkids enjoyed fresh bel sherbet, summer after summer. Dehlvi says, "During summer, I miss the quintessential summer fruits gonni, khirni, shahtoot and kaseru. They are not easily available. When I feel nostalgic, I sometimes go to Maliwara and Ballimaran in the old city where you can find them."
All through the summer months, when karela and raw mangoes are in plenty, Dehlvi often makes karela qeema. "Most friends have never had it before and when they try it for the first time, they seem to love it. I get requests for it all the time," she adds.
Karela qeema (bitter gourd mince)
½ kg bitter gourd
½ kg mince meat
golden fried onions
2-3 medium-sized, finely sliced raw onions
1 medium-sized raw green mango peeled and grated
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp garlic paste
¾ tsp ginger paste
½ tsp turmeric powder
2 whole green chillies
2 tsp coriander powder
½ cup oil
Salt to taste
Scrape the karela with a knife till the dark green uneven skin comes off. Then place them in a bowl of water with a tsp of salt. Leave for at least half-an-hour. This helps remove the bitterness from the karela. Now, slice the karela into half inch rings. Don't throw the seeds. Fry karela rings along with seeds to a light golden colour and keep aside. Heat oil and add the fried onions, garlic and ginger paste, turmeric powder, coriander powder, red chilli powder and salt. Add a little water and fry for a few minutes till the oil separates. Now, add the mince meat and stir till the water it releases evaporates. Cook on medium flame for about 10 to 15 minutes till mincemeat is half done. Add half a cup of water so that the meat does not burn. Now, add whole green chillies, raw onions, raw green mango and fried karela. Cover and cook on low flame till the mincemeat is done. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.
Another interesting book is Cooking for All Seasons by Indian textile art historian, crafts expert and former UN worker Jasleen Dhamija. The photo-less cookbook released in 2003 has just a few line drawings, but some very interesting anecdotes and food stories from all her travels. "If you want good health and want the strength to cope with life, you must eat whatever is in season and especially, produce of the area you are in. This was the advice given by my naturopath years ago and I have been following it since. It was also what led to writing this book," says the 87-year-old author.
Thai spicy mince with mint leaves
Dhamija loves mint. She even once grew it in her kitchen garden and would often cover it with an old odhni to protect it from birds feasting on it. "Mint is fresh. I don't know anyone who doesn't like its flavour—it's like a beautiful perfume that lingers," describes Dhamija. Here's a dish using mint leaves that has been a favourite for many.
1½ cups mince meat
2 tbsp chopped onions
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp nam pla (fish oil)
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp freshly ground coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp chopped spring onion for garnish
10 fresh mint leaves
1 tsp salt
Brown mince in a pan without oil, until it is dry and the pink colour is gone. Place in a mixing bowl. Wrap onion and garlic in a piece of foil, cook on a live flame until almost burnt. Unwrap and pound it. Add to mince. Season mince with nam pla, salt, lime juice, coriander powder, chilli powder and spring onion. Spoon into a serving plate, top with mint leaves and serve.
Murgh chana (chicken with chickpeas)
200 gm overnight soaked chickpeas (Kabuli chana)
1.5 kg chicken
3 tbsp oil
2 tsp onions, finely chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ tsp freshly ground black peppercorns
1 tsp salt
Drain chickpeas, wash well and cook under pressure with enough water to cover for 15 minutes. Drain and reserve water. Cut chicken into serving pieces and set aside. Heat oil in a pan and sauté onions till golden. Add garlic and fry for one minute. Add chicken, mix well and sauté for five minutes. Mix in salt and chickpeas. Stir in two cups of hot chickpeas water, cover pan and cook for 12-15 minutes. Check if chicken and chickpeas are done. If not, cook for another 3-5 minutes more. Mix in lime juice and place on a flat platter. Serve with boiled rice.
Aam pulao (mango rice)
During summer, when someone sends Dehlvi, barfi or milk cake, she usually uses it to make aam pulao with it. "While any variety of mangoes can be used to make this, it tastes best with the fragrant alphonso, rataul and sarauli variety of mangoes," says Dehlvi.
½ kg basmati rice
750 gm ripe mangoes
250 gm khoya
6 green cardamoms
¼ cup desi ghee
2 cups sugar
Soak the rice in water for 45 minutes and cook it till almost done. Handcrush or grate the khoya and fry lightly to a golden colour (khoya releases ghee). Peel the mangoes and cut them into one or two inch pieces. Now spread a layer of rice in another cooking utensil. Add mango over the rice and sprinkle it with khoya and then sugar. Make one or two more such layers. Heat desi ghee in a separate pan and add the crushed cardamoms to it. Fry for a minute and then pour the ghee over the rice and mango layers. Cover and leave to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes on low flame till the rice is done. Do not stir as the rice grains should remain whole.
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