Every monsoon, my Marathi mother-in-law, Anuradha Deshpande, has mixed emotions about what to cook. There are days when she laments the unavailability of fish due to the ban on fishing. On other days, she is charged up about the edible greens and vegetables the change of season has to offer. But nothing can compare with her joy at finding shevala (dragon stalk yam), a tuberous vegetable integral to her cuisine. In the 12 years of my marriage, not one monsoon has gone by without watching aai toil in the kitchen, her small frame bent over the stove for hours, to prepare shevalachi bhaji.
Shevala, or sheval, is an uncultivated, wild vegetable that pops up with the first showers of the season. It grows sporadically in the forested and hilly tracts around Maharashtra’s Palghar, Thane and Raigad districts. The colourful stalk has an outer leafy sheath that is peeled to reveal a mix of maroon, pale yellow or green hollow pods. Prized for its earthy, meaty flavour, it is typically cooked with prawns or meat. Though shevalachi bhaji is synonymous with the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP) community, shevala is also cooked by the Saraswat Brahmin, Pachkalshi and Pathare Prabhu communities.
Shevala is also a raan bhaji, a diverse world of wild forest produce that remains at the heart of the culinary culture of Adivasi communities, who forage them during the rainy months for the nourishment and nutrition tribal wisdom suggests they offer.
Members of the CKP community, known as voracious fish- and meat-eaters, swoon over the arrival of shevala. The fuss is real, says aai. On the Facebook group “CKP Khavayye”, which has over 27,000 members, the community celebrates lesser-known household recipes, along with unusual hacks and techniques. When it is time for shevala, women discuss not just how to cook it but also tips on how to prep and store it. Some even unite over paeans: There’s one that draws parallels between the striking features of the vegetable and a beautiful woman. There are also stories of mothers who lovingly pack the bhaji in dabbas (boxes) for children who may no longer live with them.
In Mumbai, procuring shevala is in itself a hit-and-miss affair. Given its hyperlocal nature, and the fact that it is available usually only from mid-June to late July, it is never sold by the regular vegetable vendors. Wild foods such as these are ferried to urban markets from Vasai and Palghar by women who are known for selling native produce. Aai calls her trusted vendor when the city receives its first spell of showers and gets a stack of shevala at her doorstep in a couple of days or so.
Cooking shevala is an act of discipline, a ritual. Aai tells me vegetables like shevala are slowly disappearing from urban kitchens because of the tedious prep. For one, shevala has an itchy quality, and, therefore, is always sold and cooked with kakad, an amla-like fruit that removes the itchiness. Souring agents like kokum and tamarind balance out the flavours. What makes shevala stand out from everyday vegetables are the offbeat additions—from sode, or dried prawns, to mutton keema (mince), the possibilities often seem far more intriguing than the actual ingredient.
Every community has its own recipe to cook shevala. Swapneel Prabhu, who runs the food blog and Instagram page The Missing Drumstick, says his family learnt the recipe from a neighbour in Mumbai more than two decades ago. He belongs to the Saraswat Brahmin community and chooses to poach the shevala in tamarind water to get rid of the itchiness. He prefers to add keema, tender cashews of the season, sprouted vaal, or field beans, and even green peas to shevala. “I love the umami that keema adds to the flavour and texture of shevala,” he says.
The Pachkalshis of Mumbai and Alibaug too relish it. Dhanashree Goregaonkar, co-founder of the Paisley Experience, a dining experience based in Alibaug, forages shevala in and around her farm for her monsoon menus. She prepares an amti, a category of sweet, tangy and spicy curries that can be made either with lentils or fish. Fresh coconut, tamarind or kokum, along with dried or fresh prawns, are the other ingredients that make a delicious shevalachi amti, she says.
Community-specific spice blends too make a difference. Pathare Prabhus, who are amongst the original settlers of Mumbai, look forward to shevala every year. In shevalache sambhar, a mix of ground spices unique to the community called the Parbhi sambar masala is key. Fresh prawns are the preferred choice, says Soumitra Velkar, a food consultant and partner at The Hungry Cat Kitchen in Mumbai. Velkar watched his mother and aunts and has been cooking it in his own kitchen for over 20 years, although “my wife doesn’t enjoy shevala as much as it is an acquired flavour”, he says.
Aai always adds sode. “Not just any sode. It has to be sourced from Murud in Konkan.” She stocks up dried fish around February-March to make a variety of dishes but shevala tops the list. But why dried fish? It is to do with the fishing ban during the monsoon. The home-made talala masala, consisting of onions, coconut and whole spices, takes up the dish a few notches. She serves it usually with hand-pressed bhakris or chapati.
Last year, OOO Farms, a community farming movement that promotes and retails indigenous foods online through its work in Maharashtra and Gujarat, and The Locavore, a platform that champions regional Indian food through interesting models, had organised the Wild Food Festival in Mumbai. Shevala was part of the spectacular showcase of local and rare vegetables that were foraged from in and around Palghar.
Curious about how the forest-dwellers cook it, I asked OOO Farms co-founder Shailesh Awate. “They almost always cook it with fish, either freshwater prawns or the tiny species that proliferate in the paddy fields during this time of the year. Apart from kakad, they also use the leaves of ambada, a variety of wild plum mango,” he says.
Shevala is an emotion, says aai, as she fries the last lot of the season to a crisp and seals it in ziplock bags to be frozen for a year. She also packs some for her sister-in-law, who will carry it to her daughter’s home in the US next month.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.