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What makes colocasia leaves the stars of the monsoon

This is the season when the fibrous, iron-rich leaves are whipped into savoury curries, fried snacks and mouth-puckering chutneys

Pinwheel fritters made with colocasia leaves layered with spiced Bengal gram or rice flour batter are a popular monsoon snack in many parts. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Pinwheel fritters made with colocasia leaves layered with spiced Bengal gram or rice flour batter are a popular monsoon snack in many parts. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

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Hindus in Kerala mark the month of Karkidakam (July-August) with spiritual and ritualistic practices and a restorative diet to fortify the body against diseases that the wet, damp months of the monsoon bring. A panoply of medicinal herbs and leafy greens, traditionally foraged in the wild, are Karkidakam essentials in Malayali Hindu homes—added to porridges, gruels, stir-fries and curries typical of the season. A star among the greens is thhalu or chembu—wild colocasia leaves—whose nutritive and curative properties are extolled in folk wisdom and traditional medicine.

In the monsoons, the heart-shaped leaves of Colocasia esculenta, also called taro leaves, grow untamed across the country, especially in swampy regions. They crowd forest floors, throng the shorelines of ponds and marshes, sprout out of hoary tree trunks and infest mossy walls. The fibrous, iron-rich leaves are cooked into savoury curries, deep-fried snacks and mouth-puckering chutneys. The oxalate-laden leaves can typically lead to an itchy throat and tongue and must be washed rigorously and cooked thoroughly. A souring agent is usually added to mellow the irritability.

In Kerala, the fresh, tender leaves are a mandatory ingredient in pathila thoran, a Karikadakam dish made with 10 leafy vegetables. The leaves are also cooked into curries with coconut and tamarind, or made into fritters.

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In Assam, wild leaves are cooked with hukoti, or dried fish, and lentils. Chopped with the stalks, they are mixed with small river fish like mua maas, raw onions, chillies and a drizzle of mustard oil, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted on the griddle, or added to light soupy tenga, soured with thekera (Garcinia pedunculata). In fact, across the North-East, colocasia leaves, fresh, dried or fermented, are prized pantry staples. Nagaland’s storied condiment, anishi, is nothing but fermented colocasia leaves, harvested between May-September, pounded to a pulp with seasoning, shaped into round discs and dried over a kitchen fire.

In the Konkan belt, colocasia’s tender leaves and petioles are combined with monsoon produce like tender bamboo shoots, hog plums, field marrow or young corn cobs, and cooked into curries with freshly grated coconut, ground peanuts and a mix of spices. Jackfruit seeds preserved from the summer’s stock also pair well. Mangalurean kitchens, says Dubai-based food blogger Shireen Sequeira, turn out a dish called theryacheyo ganti. Colocasia leaves are rolled into slender cigars and tied into knots, one at a time, and left to wilt for a day before being cooked into a tangy curry.

In Coorg, says Bengaluru-based culinary entrepreneur Radhica Muthappa, “we make a chutney, or pajji, with colocasia leaves roasted on the dying embers of a charcoal fire, or on a griddle. The leaves are then ground up with green chillies and garlic”. Tempered with finely chopped onions, garlic, curry leaves and mustard seeds, the chutney is finished with a generous squeeze of lime and served with soft akki rotis or rice.

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Savita Uday, founder of BuDa Folklore, an organisation dedicated to “conserve, educate and promote the folklore and natural environment of the Uttar Kannada region in Karnataka”, points out that there are in fact numerous varieties of colocasia leaves, both edible and inedible, some perennial, others stridently pluvial, available only during the monsoon, and used for specific preparations. “For instance, in the Uttar Kannada region, the wild kaadu kesu is considered apt for dishes like kargali, a tongue-curling chutney made with tender kaadu kesu, coconut oil, garlic and tamarind. A particular variety of colocasia leaf that grows only on old tree trunks during the monsoon, called mara kesu in Kannada, is the preferred variety for pathrode, or colocasia leaf rolls,” she adds.

Pinwheel fritters made with colocasia leaves layered with spiced Bengal gram or rice flour batter—called patra, patrel, alu chi vadi, rikwach—are a popular monsoon snack in many parts. Recipes vary. The Parsi patrel, for instance, is layered with a spiced blend of rice, wheat, gram flour and overripe bananas that get a sweet and tangy lift from jaggery and tamarind. Maharashtra’s Pathare Prabhu community versions could come layered with spiced shrimps, mashed bombil (Bombay duck) or even keema (minced meat). Chef Hussain Shahzad, executive chef at Hunger Inc., which owns The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai, shares memories of patveliya gosht—colocasia leaf rolls cooked with meat, minced or cubed, in an unctuous gravy—from Mumbai’s Bohri Muslim homes.

In Odisha, food chronicler Sweta Biswal says, “colocasia leaf rolls layered with a batter of spiced urad dal are called saru patra magura to mark its resemblance with pavés (a cut) of magura, or Indian catfish. These are often cooked in a gravy made with mustard paste, garlic and tart, dried mangoes, or ambula”. Prawns, fish or even the wild mushrooms that grow in the forests of western Odisha during the monsoon are laced with spices, wrapped in colocasia leaves and roasted on the dying embers of a charcoal fire.

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The leaves are also cooked with tender pumpkin leaves. “In coastal Odisha, lots of coconut is added to the dish, while in the forested belts of western Odisha, fresh bamboo shoots are chopped and added for a hint of tang and texture,” says Biswal. It’s typically cooked during the Nuakhai festival that celebrates the harvest of early maturing highland rice varieties, Biswal adds.

In Bengali kitchens, especially those with roots in riverine East Bengal (Bangladesh), colocasia leaves and stems are cooked in a myriad ways: chopped with prawns in mustard gravy; boiled or toasted leaves pulverised and cooked in mustard oil tempered with nigella seeds and garlic to make a bhorta or bata; cooked into tangy ambol with tart tamarind pulp; wrapped around mustard-laced hilsa, the queen of monsoons, to make an edible parcel for steamed ilish paturi; or kochur shak, cooked with black gram and coconut or the head of hilsa fish.

In Bengal, kochur shak is also inextricably tied to memories of hunger and tales of survival. During the Bengal famine of 1943, thousands of famine-stricken rural Bengalis survived on kochuri pana (water hyacinth), googly (periwinkle) and kochu shak, foraged from swamps and ponds. A similar story played out during the Japanese occupation of the Andaman Islands a year earlier, where colocasia leaves, locally called ghuinya patti, cooked with tamarind or, in its absence, tamarind leaves, were the prime source of sustenance in the face of scarcity and starvation. Poets and wordsmiths have often likened the ephemeral nature of life to raindrops on fiercely hydrophobic colocasia leaves, yet colocasia leaves remain a life-giving force.

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The leaf in rituals

On Rishi Panchami, after Ganesh Chaturthi, Maharashtrian homes make a curry with foraged veggies, including colocasia leaves, called rushichi bhaji, or hermit’s stew. It’s a one-pot celebration of monsoon bounty and the foraging lifestyle.

Uttar Kannada celebrates Gouri Ganesha, with Gouri being worshipped in the form of the colocasia leaf. Two colocasia leaf parcels packed with medicinal herbs and fresh paddy plant with tender grains and secured with thorn of nagabala (Sida veronicaefolia) represent Shiva and Parvati or Gouri, says Savita Uday. Her mother Shanthi Nayak has put together a book on colocasia, Kesu Purana, in Kannada.

In Bengal too, the colocasia leaf is part of nabapatrika, or nine leaves, each representing nine forms of the divine feminine. Colocasia leaves represent the fierce Goddess Kali.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.

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