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How dill is used in regional Indian kitchens

Known as sowa in Bengali, shepu in Konkani and sabsige soppu in Kannada, the cooling herb is embedded in regional cuisines and traditional medicine

A fresh bunch of dill leaves ready to be cooked.
A fresh bunch of dill leaves ready to be cooked. (Istockphoto)

A few years ago, my friend Angona, and I decided to wow the world with our culinary skills by hosting a pop-up meal. We urged a few friends to convince their friends and book seats at our pop-up table. We were to serve Greek food and on the menu were classics like stifado or a traditional Greek stew rich with red wine and distinct notes of cinnamon, fresh salad topped with crumbled feta and warm honey cakes served with soft peaks of whipped cream. I was particularly excited about the stuffed tomatoes - plump ones scooped hollow and packed with a filling of minced meat and rice flavoured with spices and fresh dill. Grassy, fresh, a hint of citrus anise-like undertones.

But where was I to find dill—a herb that in my mind resolutely belonged to Mediterranean and Eastern European cooking—in Kolkata? The only place I could think of was good old New Market. New Market didn’t disappoint but I was surprised to learn that dill in fact had a Bengali name—shulpha shaak or sowa shaak.

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I would eventually learn that while dill or Anethum graveolens L. is native, a variant of dill—Anethum sowa or Indian dill, bolder in flavour than European dill, is indigenous to the subcontinent. Indian dill is in fact grown in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, with Rajasthan accounting for the largest share. Called sowa in general, dill has numerous indigenous names across the country, and is embedded in regional cuisines and traditional medicine.

In Sanskrit, it is called shatapushpa that literally translates to a hundred blossoms, after its tiny flowers arranged in umbels or flat-topped clusters. As development professional and food historian Tanushree Bhowmik points out that the earliest mention of dill seeds is actually found in medical treatises like the Kashyapa Samhita and Charaka Samhita. Rich in micro-nutrients, dill has been used in traditional medicine across the world. More recently, EV Nybe writes in the book Spices, that dill seed “is used in medicine mainly as an aromatic carminative, antipyretic and anthelmintic.” Ancient Indian mathematician and philosopher Varahamihira’s Brihata Samhita mentions it among ingredients that make excellent perfumes.

But the sweet-scented dill also features in recipes spanning centuries. The fifteenth-century recipe book, Nimatnama, compiled by the Sultans of Mandu, features recipes featuring dill greens or suva. A mixed vegetable dish comprising gourd, pumpkin and aubergine, flavoured with ghee and asafoetida, or ghee-soaked wheat and meat khichri flavoured with dill and even meatballs or kufta elevated infused with the aromatic vapours of mint, dill, sorrel and orris, steamed together. Similarly the Mughal kitchen that took their culinary cues from Turkey and Persia turned out delicate pulao studded with chunks of lamb redolent of dill and used dill to add green colour to various dishes to elevate their visual appeal.

Outside royal matbaks, dill appears in more humble, but equally wholesome preparation. In Bengal, shulfa shaak is typically added to daal, moong or masoor, right at the end to retain the fresh aroma, stir fried with a chunks of potatoes or added to light fish curries. Besides there are heirloom recipes like food historian Pritha Sen’s ash gourd and red pumpkin cooked with dill, or a friend’s mother’s shulfa chingri boracrunchy fritters made with dill and tiny prawns.

In neighbouring Odisha too fresh dill leaves are cooked into spirited stir-fries along with potatoes or added too spiced lentils,” says Shweta Mohapatra. PR professional Sweta Mohanty talks stir fried dill finished with a robust tadka of onions and garlic or moong or tuvar daal cooked in her maternal grandmother’s kitchen. “Besides she cooked the aromatic saaga with dried shrimp or sukhua, with lots of coriander powder and a tempering of onions, garlic and cumin, a dish I often recreate in my Mumbai kitchen,” says Mohanty.

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“The Sylhetis too use dill prolifically in their food,” says Bhowmik. “The herb is ground up into a paste and added to fish curries or ground up with garlic and nigella seeds to make a bata best eaten with simple boiled rice,” she adds. Dill, Bhowmik points out, is also a component in the bagane moshla - a mix of fresh herbs like parsley, celery, mint, etc - born out of the interactions and exchange between Bengali and Anglo-Indian kitchens of the British colonisers.

Dill is often cooked in combination with other leafy greens. In UP, for instance it could be paired with fenugreek leaves, while “the Rajbongshi community of Northern Bengal makes a dish called pelka that uses a mix of leafy greens, predominantly lafa shak. The leaves cooked down in an alkaline solution of water and baking soda, and flavoured with lots of garlic and chilies,” says food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra. Across the country in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, dill leaves are added to a traditional one-pot winter dish called ghuto. A lightly seasoned dish of mixed vegetables, beans and lentils are cooked together and muddled with a masher. In Gujarat, dill, locally called suva ni bhaji, is also added to spiced lentils, stirred into bubbling pots of kadhi (yoghurt and gram flour soup) and in more adventurous kitchens kneaded into dough for thepla.

“In Goan Hindu households shepuche pole or dill-flavoured pancakes tinged green is a breakfast,” says Goa-based caterer Shubhra Shankhwalkar. In neighbouring Maharashtra, shepuchi bhaji is a simple dish of stir-fried dillweed or speckled with yellow moong beans that give the dish a textural counterpoint. “A few sprigs of dill also go into the sai bhaji, the iconic Sindhi mixed greens and lentil dish, too. Or we make sua(dill in Sindhi) patata or dill stir fried with potatoes,” says blogger Alka Keswani, a champion of Sindhi food.

Parsi kitchens on the other hand turn out dishes like bhaji dana no gosh—once mandatory at Parsi wedding—is a robust dish of mutton cooked with fenugreek greens, spinach and dill, and dill-flavoured rice. In Parsi homes, dill seeds or suvadana (these are actually the whole fruits) goes into medicinal or fortifying preparations like vasanu or the katlu batrisu powder. A special preparation typically fed to lactating mothers called suva is a mix of dill seeds, considered a potent galactagogue, fennel, flattened rice, poppy seeds and cashews, mixed seeds and chironji, etc. Down south in Kerala, dill seeds are also added to the medicinal blend of spices and herbs added to the karikadaka kanji—a fortifying gruel consumed during the monsoonal month of Karikadaka.

But none perhaps cooks with dill as prolifically as kitchens in Karnataka, where dill—called sabsige soppu—is added to huli (sambar) and deeply savoury saaru or rasam, stirred into pots of koottu rich with coconut and peanuts and ground up into spicy chutneys. Besides, there are crisp-edged akki rotis (rice flour flatbreads) freckled with thin strands of dill. Besides there are crisp pakoras made with dill and spiced lentil dumplings that are steamed called ambode. In fact, few kitchens in the country could lay claim to such a dill-icious spread.

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Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer who divides her time between Kolkata and Mumbai.

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