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Spring in the kitchens of east India

The foods that define regional dishes in Orissa, Bengal and the Northeast when trees break buds

(From left) Nimakadhi baigana bhaja, chuda ghasa and nima pithau bhaja. (Photos courtesy: Sweta Biswal)
(From left) Nimakadhi baigana bhaja, chuda ghasa and nima pithau bhaja. (Photos courtesy: Sweta Biswal)

When my brother got chicken pox, a neighbour advised my mother to cook shojne phool, or the bitter moringa blossoms for me lest I get infected. “Bitter foods are good for you this season.” She had recommended them as a precaution. Chicken pox is common during boshonto kal or spring as per the Bengali calendar, and therefore the moniker boshonto rog. The turning of the seasons means illnesses, and fortifying the immune system is the best bet. Enter bitter-tasting foods that are believed to do the job.

Ritucharya, the ancient Ayurvedic practice, lays down season-specific rules for diet and lifestyle. It advocates the consumption of bitter foods during vasant ritu to cleanse the body, thereby preparing the body for summer. It is said the seasonal transition can cause digestive imbalance, and bitter foods can aid the process of building immunity.

Moringa oleifera, commonly known as the drumstick tree, is indigenous to the subcontinent. Its fruit, flowers and leaves are edible, and believed to have curative properties. The moringa tree blooms at the height of spring, and subsequently enters regional kitchens in the form of unique preparations. In Bengal, they are used to make bora or fritters, and chorchori or mishmash.

Like so, the Indian lilac or neem tree begins to sprout new leaves around the same time. Bengali mothers arm-twist their children to eat neem begun, a stir fry of the bitter leaves with cubed brinjals, to ward off any diseases. The practice is prevalent even in Odisha, says Bhubaneshwar-based culinary researcher Sweta Biswal. The dish nimakadhi baigana bhaja uses neem blossoms instead of the leaves in a stir fry along with brinjals, onions and tomato. “It is a culinary gem especially because of the explosion of various textures and flavours,” she says. So is the dish nima pithau bhaja, where the blossoms are mixed with freshly-ground rice paste and pan-fried to a crisp.

In Manipur, yongchak, a local variety of bitter beans arrive in winter, and continue until late spring. Pushpita Aheibam, who runs a pickle brand called Pushpita’s Artisanal, grew up in Tripura, and belongs to the indigenous Meitei community. “Its strong aroma and characteristic flavour are much favoured by the locals in Manipur, including the diaspora in other parts of the North-East,” she says. Yongchak is abundantly used in the regional delicacy eromba, a dish cooked with boiled vegetables and ngari or fermented fish, and in the spicy salad-like singju.

Food and festivities

In the 12th century Shri Jagannath temple in Puri, the onset of spring is marked by a unique custom. On the day of Basant Panchami, the trio of deities—Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra—change their winter clothes into their usual colourful attire. The day also marks the beginning of the preparations for the biggest event of the year—ratha jatra or the chariot festival. Since no festivities are complete without food, the feast is fit for a king.

The traditional bhog or offering comprises a selection of fried dough pancakes, typically made of rice flour, wheat, lentils, ghee and jaggery or molasses. Biswal lists down a few such as arisa, kakara, sana kanti, and a wheat-based laddoo called adhika manohara as part of the temple feast.

Basant Panchami is also celebrated as Saraswati Puja across eastern India. Apart from the usual khichdi bhog, Biswal remembers the dish chuda ghasa from her childhood, where chuda or flattened rice would be rubbed with ghee, sugar and freshly-grated coconut using both palms. “The friction and heat break the chuda into a wet sand-like consistency. There is no cooking involved, and a powdered blend of green cardamom, black pepper and edible camphor is added in the end,” she says. The goddess of wisdom is also treated to the season's first harvest of sweet and sour jujubes, barakoli in Odia and kul in Bengali.

Spring festivities across the region culminate in the biggest festival of Holi. In Manipur, Yaoshang is celebrated for five days with folk songs, dance, community feasting and colours by the Hindu Meiteis. In a predominantly non-vegetarian community, the offering made to Sri Sri Radha Madhab is vegetarian sans onion and garlic. The menu is standard, and features local favourites, suggests Aheibam. Some of the items are mangan ooti, an alkaline dish made with white peas; hawai thongba, moong dal tempered with native garlic chives; champhut or boiled vegetables; singju, a vegetarian eromba; fritters, a tangy relish called hei thongba and sanggom kheer or rice kheer. Community meals are incomplete without fish typically local freshwater carp including a dish made with fish innards called ngaringkha kanghou.

In the district town of Barpeta in Lower Assam, Holi or doul is a spectacular affair with people flocking from all over the state. Being the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam, temple rituals restrict non-vegetarian food. “But, the streets outside present a rather unusual sight of vendors with carts piled up with boiled eggs!” says Kashmiri Barkakati-Nath, an exponent of Assamese cuisine from Guwahati. She says the eggs are unusually red in colour due to the spice coating, and are locally called ronga deem. At home, people treat themselves to newly-harvested potatoes by frying them in massive quantities. “It is practical considering potatoes are in abundance around that time,” she adds.

Eating bitter moringa flowers to fight the dreaded pox is debatable. But, there is no doubt that when fried as fritters, they make for a delicious side with daal-bhaat.

Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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