There’s no denying that the pattering of raindrops pairs best with the crunch of pakoras and adrak wali chai. But the damp monsoon months also bring with them a host of diseases. Kitchens, across the country, for centuries, have whipped up antidotes to these ailments, ranging from medicinal porridges to broths made with seasonal greens.
A centuries-old Bengali verse recommends eating yoghurt in the month of Ashadh—which marks the onset of monsoons—followed by khoi, or popped rice, in the months of Shravana, sugar palm during Bhadra, and cucumber in the month of Ashwin, at the fag end of the rainy season. This verse can be traced to the Dak Tantra, a body of aphorisms attributed to the ancient folk figure of Dak. Composed as a lyrical calendar, it lists food items to be consumed through the 12 months of the Bengali lunar year.
This calendar-like rhyme is part of a genre of folk songs called Baromashi or Baramashya, which translates as ballads or songs of the 12 months. Baromashi is not restricted to Bengal but is part of folk literature across the country. The songs are centred around love and longing, and often speak of the trials and tribulations of a woman, separated from her partner.
But in Bengal, quite a few Baromashi focus on food. As V.P. Dwivedi writes in his 1980 book, Bārahmāsā: The Song of Seasons in Literature & Art, in the classical Baromasi, there is a greater emphasis on depicting sorrows of the deserted woman. However, in the folk Baromasi, the change in nature, and as a consequence changes brought in the routine of farmers and other villagers, is given prime importance.
Seasonality of food and eating practices is a recurrent theme in these songs. Bengal has a strong tradition of harnessing the medicinal virtues of seasonal food, naturally compatible with changes in immunity. These lyrical calendars-guides are nifty ways of remembering what and when to grow and eat, while also passing on this culinary wisdom to generations to come.
In this Baromashi, attributed to yet another important ancient folk figure Khona, in the month of Chaitra, bitter leaves of gima, or Glinus oppositifolius, are a must-have. Incidentally, gima is a kind of carpetweed, considered particularly efficacious for skin disorders that the month of Chaitra brings with it. In Bengal, it is customary to eat gima shak on Chaitra Sankranti. To combat the sweltering heat of Baishakh, the ballad recommends eating the leaves of nalita, or tender jute leaves, which turn particularly sweet at the time.
For the rainy months of Ashadh and Shravan, this Baromashi recommends popped rice and curd respectively (interestingly, a reversal of Dak’s recommendation). During Bhadra, when the air is heavy with the sweet smell of ripe Palmyra palm, people must enjoy rice cakes made with its pulp. During Kartik, the song suggests eating a soupy curry made with khoilsha fish. And in the cold month of Pousha, when the digestive fire is believed to be weak, a bowl of fortifying kanji, or fermented rice-water, is recommended.
There are numerous such Baromashi-style seasonal eating guides in the Bengali folk repertoire. But their recommendations may vary. A particular Baromashi may have multiple versions, each one slightly altered as it travelled through the region and picked up local accents, dialects and preferences. Or, a Baromashi could roll out a completely different set of food items for each month of the year, depending on the region it belongs to.
In rice-growing Bengal, where paddy is a symbol of abundance, quite a few such songs are dedicated to the life cycle of rice. One Baromashi, documented in Charlotte Vaudeville’s Bārahmāsā in Indian Literatures: Songs of the Twelve Months in Indo-Aryan Literatures, for instance, illustrates the monthly stages of autumn rice cultivation. “In Phalgun, I took the plough, in Chaitra the seed, in Baišakh, (the paddy) shines, in Jaishtha, it has ears. In Asharh, the paddy is gold, the golden harvest is ripe, In Šrăban, the farmers gather the autumn-rice.” Other Baromashis suggest eating fish like chyang, magur or shol–usually caught in inundated paddy fields–with newly harvested rice in the month of Agrahayan.
Even the Baromashis, which are not centred around food, are strewn with clues to the culinary culture of a region. A particularly good example is Fullara’s Baromashya, often dubbed as one of the most important and popular Baromashi in Bengali literature. Part of the 16th century-lyrical prose, Chandimangal, composed by Kabikankan Mukundaram Chakrabarti, the ballad describes the sufferings of Fullara, the wife of the hunter Kalketu. Food, or the lack of it, is a recurrent motif.
Fullarar Baramasya reveals how, in 17th century Rarh Bengal, meat was verboten in the month of Baisakh and everyone turned vegetarian for the whole month. In sharp contrast, during Ambika Puja, in the month of Ashwin, goats, buffalo and rams would be sacrificed and the meat distributed to every home.
Through the tale of Fullara’s hardships, the verse also tells the story of how the poor of the land survived periods of scarcity. For instance, when there’s no food to eat at home, Fullara survives on tart bainchi fruits, a kind of indigenous plum that grows in the wild.
In her book Thhod Bori Khanra, Bengali writer Kalyani Datta, archived yet another old poem that specifies the tattwo, or gifts, traditionally sent by a girl’s parents to her in-laws through the year. The idea is to send gifts of the best seasonal produce and items of use. So, the bounty includes summer fruits like mangoes and ripe jackfruit in the month of Jaishtha, silvery hilsa in the rainy month of Ashadh, gifts of sweet-smelling, ripe sugar palm in the month of Bhadra and in the month of Pousha, clay pots or nagri full of jaggery.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer who divides her time between Kolkata and Mumbai.