There’s something wondrous about the soft-stemmed, glossy oval leaves of Basella Alba, the beloved pui. The herbaceous vine thrives in full sunshine and invades the trellis of kitchen gardens to be transformed into delicious mishmashes through the hot months. When cooked with carp heads or shrimps, dried lentil crisps and gourds like pumpkin in a heady tempering, they make for an addictive meal.
As summer kicks in, the kitchens of east and northeast India welcome a wide choice of edible greens. Bitter and sour, sometimes offensively smelly, they are treasured for their unique flavours. Home cooks display their ingenuity in the form of frugal stir-fries, fritters, roasted pastes or stuffed variations to make the most of these wonderful greens that are also revered for their healing properties.
‘Pakhala-saaga’ from Odisha
In Odisha, the harsh weather makes way for light, homespun fare. Leafy greens add texture to pakhala, a meal in itself, which features leftover rice from the previous day, served with a selection of accompaniments. “For most people, the go-to meal is ‘pakhala-saaga’, the everyday fermented rice gruel typically eaten with seasonal greens,” says Gurgaon-based food writer Shweta Mohapatra, who promotes rare greens from her home state on Odia Food Stories.
One of them is pita saaga or Mollugo Oppositifolia L. which sprouts abundantly along the shorelines of ponds and estuaries and is cooked during the month of chaitra when it is flowering. Although bitter in taste, they are favoured for their nutrient value. Pita saaga is commonly stir-fried with potatoes or brinjals to balance out the flavours. A coastal favourite is the mildly sour balubaluka saaga, or purslane, which gets its name from balu meaning sand as it can adapt to sandy and saline environments. “Traditionally, my grandmother cooked them with pumpkin and served it with pakhala. But, it can be added to salads, or made into stews, soups or stir-fries,” she adds. Taste and texture allow greens to be prepared with specific ingredients—moringa is typically made with lentils, and always topped with badi or lentil crisps, gourd leaves are finished off with a dash of milk, while sula or sun-dried tomatoes act as a souring agent in most.
‘Bhaja’, ‘bata’ and ‘bora’ from the Bengali kitchen
When I was growing up, market visits would often send my mother into a state of panic. This was because my father, after repeated instructions, invariably returned home with a legion of greens. While her stress point was how to keep them fresh, his was about the many ways to relish them.
Summer indeed brings a bounty of shaak (greens) into the Bengali kitchen, foraged from marshlands, and people’s backyards and terraces, to be savoured as the first course of a meal. The bitter shoots of helencha or watercress that are batter fried to a golden crisp or added to shuktos; the tiny circular leaves of thankuni or Indian pennywort blanched and grounded into a paste to make pata bata; the slender gima shaak or carpetweed fried into bora or fritters; punko shaak, a variety of amaranthus cooked along with pumpkin or brinjals in a garlic and nigella seed tempering are some of the many greens that excite the traditional cook this season.
There are also those that get a bad rap. Take for instance the notorious gadal pata or skunk vine, which takes over neighbourhood fences causing a riot of foul smell in the still summer air. While some show marked rebuff, others forage the vines on the sly to make fritters, or add them to fish curries to ward off stomach ailments.
My mother also tells me about paat shaak, or tender jute leaves that unfailingly made their appearance in summer lunches back in her day. For families like hers, who left their homes behind in east Bengal before Partition, paat shaak holds memories of lost times. Due to the slimy texture and bitter taste, the most preferred way to eat them was in the form of fritters, she says. My late Dida (maternal grandmother) often threw in the crushed leaves while cooking lentils. The flavour lingers on, as she laments how greens such as these are slowly disappearing from urban markets.
The many flavours of Assamese ‘xaak’
In Assam, jute leaves or titamora paat, are tied in knots and stir-fried in mustard oil with crushed garlic. The knotted leaves are fried to a crisp, says Geeta Dutta, a food researcher from Guwahati, who also cooks them with smoked pork. It’s also the season for moringa, the miracle tree that sees fresh shoots in late spring and early summer. Apart from dals and fritters, Dutta favours them in a khar, the signature alkaline dish that she prepares with fish heads.
But what makes the season special is ‘ekho-ek bidh xaak’, a selection of 101 varieties of leafy greens, usually foraged from the wild, that are intrinsic to Rongali Bihu celebrations in April. The herbs are cooked together as a single dish with garlic and chillies and is a customary item on the day as it is said to build immunity. “But it is practically impossible to source all of them in an urban environment,” says Dutta.
Greens from the Khasi and Naga kitchens
Leafy greens primarily add taste and nutrition to the cuisines of the northeast. Unlike mainstream Indian preparations, they are typically added to meats, or eaten raw as salads and chutneys to perk up an everyday meal. In Meghalaya, the tangy jamyrdoh or fish mint leaves are plucked fresh from kitchen gardens to be pounded along with tomatoes, onions and chillies to make a relish of sorts. Some believe they act as a blood purifier. While in Nagaland, michinga leaves, or native sichuan pepper, add a distinct tartness to meat recipes. Others like centella asiatica, also known as Brahmi in other parts of the country, are pounded along with roasted fresh spices or fermented fish and smoked meats to make chutneys or salads. Their rich food value is what fortifies overall health for generations to come.
With inputs from Gerald Samuel Duia of Tribes Table, Meghalaya, and Aren Longkumer of Naga Belly, Mumbai
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.