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How green is your monsoon kitchen?

On a monsoon food trail with immunity-boosting dishes, herbs and vegetables from all corners of India

Bitter vegetables, like bitter gourd, are considered liver cleansers.
Bitter vegetables, like bitter gourd, are considered liver cleansers. (Alamy )

It was an overcast Tuesday afternoon when a much anticipated parcel from Kerala arrived for home chef Marina Balakrishnan in Juhu, Mumbai. It contained the ingredients of karkidaka kanji (pronounced as kanni in Malayalam), a herb-infused red rice gruel from Kerala, and the mainstay of her monsoon offering in a seasonally changing menu.

Balakrishnan runs Oottupura, a vegetarian Malabar delivery kitchen launched during the lockdown in May. After completing her chef’s training at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute and working at the Michelin-starred Gaa in Bangkok, Balakrishnan deep-dived into food from her home state, Kerala, and modified her culinary approach based on Ayurvedic principles. Karkidakakanji embodies her philosophy. “This dish is a factory of medicines for your body," she says over the phone.

The herb-infused red rice gruel is famed for its curative properties. In the traditional Malayalam calendar, Karkidakam is the month that witnesses heavy rainfall. Seasons define traditional food practices, so the kanji gets its name from this month.

The parcel contained key ingredients of the dish, including the native red rice njavara, spices and a powdered mix of 10 herbs, dasapushpam, indigenous to Kerala. The herbs, such as bringharaj, cheroola and mukkuty, are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. “Their medicinal properties are so potent that they are treated as auspicious," says Balakrishnan. It is believed that the body goes through a restorative process in the weeks following the harsh summer. In Kerala, this is typically the season when Ayurvedic centres are overbooked and the kanji is served during meals. The njavara rice fortifies bones and the kanji is spiced with cumin, peppercorn and fenugreek,with a seasoning of coconut milk and jaggery to balance the bitterness.

‘Njavara’ rice at Oottupura.
‘Njavara’ rice at Oottupura.

Bitter foods, considered to be detoxifying, dominate the monsoon palate. Although giving in to the comfort of crisp pakoras may be irresistible, it is helpful to maintain balance with bitter-tasting but liver-strengthening foods like neem leaves and moringa. Their powdered versions can be sprinkled on salads and smoothies, and if one can tolerate the bitter flavours, it can be had as a tonic mixed with water.

When cumulonimbus clouds crowd the sky, bitter gourdis in season. Gourds grow off the ground and they are the readily available fresh produce now. There’s the mildly bitter teasel gourd (kantola in Gujarati) that is turned into a simple stir-fried dish named kantola nu shak, pointed gourd, or potol in Bengali, is shallow fried in mustard oil, while bitter gourd can be sautéed in a little oil with turmeric and cumin, or turned into a superlative stuffed vegetable preparation like the Andhra-style gutti kakarakaya. Whole slit bitter gourds are filled with roasted and ground chana and urad dal flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and coconut. The result is a complex delicacy and even if your palate shuns acrid foods, the dish will turn you into a bitter gourd fan.

Living through a pandemic in the midst of the monsoon, regarded as a season where bacteria and germs thrive, calls for greater attention to immunity-boosting measures. This is the time Ayurvedic herbs such as ashwagandha, brahmi and giloy are consumed. “Giloy is one of the best natural anti-diabetic herbs," says Manoj Kutteri, wellness director at Atmantan, a health and wellness resort in Mulshi, near Mumbai. In combination with herbs like ashwagandha and brahmi, it not only boosts immunity but is also considered a potent brain tonic.

Balakrishnan is, however, concerned about the practice of popping Ashwangandha tablets that have not been prescribed, to aid sleep and reduce anxiety. She says, “It’s like going through inspirational quotes and saying you feel good but the real problem has not been addressed." An accepted way to include such herbs in your diet is to reach out for herb-infused honey or condiments like spreads and jams. Here again, watch out for the sugar content. You should not take any of these herbs without consulting a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.

While raw foods and greens like spinach and fenugreek are avoided in this season, some leafy greens do remain part of regional cuisine. “In Assam, hardy wild greens like the creeper bhedailota (skunk vine) and the primitive fern dhekia xaak (a type of fiddlehead fern) grow naturally in the wild as well as in the backyards of people’s homes," says Aditya Kiran Kakati, a Guwahati-based historian who does ethno-histories of indigenous cuisines of the North-East. When the Brahmaputra valley is flooded, these greens survive under the forest cover and are foraged. “Our diet is dependent on the ecology," he adds.

A thin gravy of bhedailota and potatoes, generously seasoned with garlic and pepper, is a monsoon favourite. Bhedailota is chopped finely to make fritters too. The easy-to-cook dhekia xaak is stir-fried in mustard oil, seasoned with a simple combination of turmeric, fresh ginger and whole cumin and served with rice and dal. It is often combined with protein-rich, pre-soaked brown Bengal gram for a wholesome preparation.

Another variety of fiddlehead ferns, locally known as lingur, can be found in Uttarakhand and Pahari kitchens. It is seasoned with the essential Garhwali spice jakhiya for a unique vegetable preparation.

In Kerala, Balakrishnan says, there is a belief that the rewards of good health multiply if you take care of your body during the monsoon. What is the one thing she would advise? Instead of food tips, she offers philosophical wisdom—“Connect with what nourishes your body ."

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