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Turning over a new leaf—gongura’s culinary epiphany

Finding itself in a whole range of dishes, drinks and even dessert, gongura or sorrel is enjoying an outing like never before at restaurants and bars across India

Plum-sorrel dessert ot OMO; gongura Martini at Hilton Bangalore Embassy Golf Links.
Plum-sorrel dessert ot OMO; gongura Martini at Hilton Bangalore Embassy Golf Links.

Amidst a bouquet of assorted foreign greens like lollo rosso, mesclun and arugula, the humble sorrel has carved a niche for itself. Though it might seem like another fad, sorrel finds itself in a wide swathe of Indian regional cuisines. In Maharashtra, ambadi (sorrel) is a popular condiment in chutney. In the traditional all-vegetarian Tamil meal served on a banana leaf, the pulicha keerai (sorrel) thokku holds a firm place. The leafy green is best known as gongura, integral to Andhra cuisine. Here, one can find it headlining a host of dishes; some of the most popular being gongura pappu (lentils), gongura mamsam (mutton) and gongura royyalu (prawns).

Also read | Gongura - An ancient leaf for all seasons

Leafing through menus

Imbued with a tangy, herbaceous sour taste, the perennial gongura is the perfect ingredient to jazz up a salad, as Vanshika Bhatia, chef-partner at Omo restaurant in Gurugram, does. She prepares a pomelo salad that prominently features gongura leaves, and has an entremet-style dessert with plum jelly, gongura flower mousse and gongura leaves with grilled plums.

Gongura leaves are very dynamic. They have a sour and herbal taste that no other leaf can match. It elevates any salad and breaks the monotony of the plain old lettuce flavour and texture,” says Bhatia, who says she has noticed the leaf being used elsewhere, too. “I notice more gongura while eating out. Especially this gongura chicken marinade that has entered restaurant menus these days. It is chatpata and the diners are loving it.”

At Smoke House Deli in Mumbai, the leaf takes a supporting role, served on the side of grilled tiger prawns and sweet potato mash accompanied by lime nage. “What makes gongura special is not only its flavour, but also its nutritional value. The leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, and the ability to aid digestion,” says Rollin Lasrado, executive chef of Smoke House Deli’s west region. “A lot of chefs and restaurants have begun to experiment with gongura in a variety of ways—from adding them raw in salads to using the leaves for ferments and everything in between. We will see a lot more use of it as we approach summer when it will be at its best.”

Gongura leaves.
Gongura leaves.

Back to roots

With his Andhra-style gongura mamsam biryani, Chef Jone Fisher of the Taj Holiday Village in Candolim, Goa shows us the versatility of the green leafy vegetable. “Gongura is an integral part of a balanced meal, being rich in vitamins A and C, and iron,” he says. “And thus, it is the perfect superfood for today’s discerning diner who is moving away from synthetic foods to more natural ones.”

At the hotel’s sister property, the Taj Fort Aguada Resort at Sinquerim Beach in Goa, gongura makes an appearance in the gongura dal miloni, which is a traditional Karnataka dish known for its rich flavours.

Gongura’s special flavour and cultural significance make it a cherished ingredient in South Indian cuisines. While it may not be a mainstream ingredient across India at the moment, the evolving culinary scene and growing interest in regional specialties may contribute to its wider recognition and use in the future,” predicts Supriya Bhattacharyya, the hotel’s sous chef.

Into the drink

Also called roselle in north and south America, gongura goes into all sorts of food and drinks, like Caribbean fish stews and a delicious herbal tisane. Distilling the essence of that drink into a rather unique gongura martini is Gaurav Paul, executive chef at the Hilton Bangalore Embassy Golf Links hotel. “For making the martini, we infuse fresh sorrel leaves in gin or vodka for three to seven days. We then use the strained alcohol for making the martini. This drink has a unique earthy, tart flavour with a distinctive aroma and hue from the leaves,” says Paul.

The latest to hitch a ride onto the gongura bandwagon is Mool: Kitchen & Bar in Mumbai. This recently opened restaurant, with a menu celebrating regional cuisines, uses the leaves’ tartness to jazz up the otherwise neutral taste of paneer in their ambadi paneer tikka.

Gongura or as we call it, ambadi, has been used traditionally across the Indian sub-continent, in the form of chutneys and pickles, and served as a vegetable side dish,” says chef Suresh Singh Fartyal of Mool. “I’m hoping the flavour of ambadi will be a reminder of how bountiful our land is, and what culinary excellence can be achieved if one tries to understand these wonderful, often ignored ingredients better.” We couldn’t agree more.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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