Enter the Gujarati monsoon kitchen
Indigenous corn, fresh spices and native millets are the stars of regional platters
Last year, Nihar Desai, a 28-year-old film-maker from Mumbai, started noting down family recipes under the guidance of his grandmother. The project lost steam as work took over. In June, his grandmother died. That made him turn, once again, to his unfinished project. This time, he spoke to his mother and shortlisted his favourite monsoon recipes in a video series titled Aav Re Varsaad (Gujarati for “come, oh rain")—a name borrowed from a popular Gujarati poem by that title. Posted on his Instagram page @bay101.in, they feature his 65-year-old mother, Jyoti Desai, recollecting food memories as she bakes handvo (a savoury cake), grinds mustard seeds in a mortar-pestle and coats whole ripe Alphonso mangoes with castor oil to make a pickle called bafaana. This is a pickle that is prepared when summer gives way to cumulonimbus clouds. It doesn’t just add flavour to everyday meals— it goes well with fasting dishes like simple khichdis too. With no garlic and onion, bafaana meets the definition of fasting food.
“Rains, fasting and festive season are intrinsically linked in our regional cuisine," says Singapore-based Sheetal Bhatt, who comes from Saurashtra and documents the dishes of Gujarat on her food blog theroute2roots. The practice of eating light, fasting and avoiding green leafy vegetables during the monsoon is common. Traditionally, most vegetables would be unavailable during the monsoon, so gourds, certain fruits and a wide variety of flours and pulses are used to make vadas, chillas and bhajias.
At this time of the year, every region of the state makes its version of deep-fried, flour-based vadas. In the south, jowar (sorghum) is the dominant flour; in the north, maize is the flour of choice; and in Saurashtra, bajra (pearl millet) and maize are preferred.
In central Gujarat, which includes cities like Ahmedabad, lentils play an important role in Jain households during the monsoon. Octogenarian Sarmista Sheth, a practising Jain, runs a catering business in the state capital. Her monsoon kitchen has a wide variety of dhokla, chilla and bhajia (fritters) made with pulses. Hardy vegetables, such as potatoes, and raw bananas, are soaked in batter and deep-fried to make crispy bhajias.
Jains lean towards easy-to-digest pulses, like moong (green gram), used to make pulla, a dosa-like breakfast or snack item. “Soak moong dal for 2-3 hours and grind to a smooth paste. Add fresh chillies and coriander and hing (asafoetida) and salt. It’s served with sweet tamarind chutney or a spicy green chutney made with coriander leaves, coconut, peanuts, lemon juice and green chillies," says Sheth.
In Gujarat, corn is synonymous with the monsoon. Indigenous varieties were popular before high-yielding sweet corn pushed them to near extinction, says Bhatt. She uses makai (maize) flour to make handvo and Makai no chevdo (Gujarati for Indore’s bhutte kikhees and similar to corn chowder). It is a popular snack of grated makai slow-cooked in milk and lightly flavoured with coconut and cumin.
Perhaps one of the most significant days in the monsoon month of Shravan in the traditional Gujarati calendar is Randhan Chhath, or the day of fire worship. “It is a day dedicated to cooking as we express gratitude to fire," says Bhatt. There’s a feast of puris, aloo sabzi, teasel gourd sabzi, bajri ka vada and handvo. Sweets include doodh paak, filled with dry fruits, and magaj, which resembles a besan barfi. Desai’s kitchen has a sweet kachori made with toor dal (pigeon pea), coarse wheat and jowar. A mango sapling is part of the fire worship— symbolic of south Gujarat’s mango-growing region, which boasts of some of the juiciest Alphonsos and fragrant kesar varieties.
Towards the end of the monsoon, around Janmashtami, a cornucopia of 52 ingredients come together in patrali. This dish includes gourds, peas, beans, yam, root vegetables and spices and is paired with bajra, jowar or maize rotis or rotlas (thick large rotis). The astounding variety is perhaps symbolic of the end of weeks of fasting—and anticipation of a prosperous festive season followed by a bountiful winter harvest.
Bhatt, who focuses on the less well-known rural foods of her state, talks about the forgotten practice of live fences that used to border farmland. Unlike barbed wires, these had wild vines that would provide food during the monsoon. A pale green edible flower, which looks like the parijaat, would be used to make a stir-fried dish called vaaseti ka phool. It would be foraged from these vines. This dish is still talked about but it’s nearly impossible to find it in cities. As Bhatt puts it, “The foods that you hear about are espoused by the ones who have a voice. There are communities who have not spoken about their cuisine because they have not yet found a voice." The Aav Re Varsaad series serves, in fact, as a mouth-watering trailer to the regional variety of the state’s monsoon platter. For the Desais, who come from a farming community in southern Gujarat, the defining colour of their cuisine is green, and the prominent flavour, a pungent, spicy blend of fresh green chillies and ginger. But while dishes like handvo and patra, from the series, exist in other parts of the state too, their flours and masala combinations are completely different. For instance, the Desais use jaggery and freshly grated turmeric, rather than the white sugar or powdered packaged haldi of Ahmedabad’s urban kitchens. Green chillies are central to their cooking while dry red chillies are prominent in the masala box of northern Gujarat and Saurashtra. Desai’s handvo is made with jowar flour, while Bhatt uses maize.
“Anyone new to Gujarati cuisine might be baffled with this overlap of dish names," says Nihar. “The differentiating factor in our dishes are regional ingredients, which vary as you travel the state."