When it comes to food, spring is the season between the nutritious gond ke laddoo and indulgent Alphonso mangoes. It’s the season that bridges the extremities of weather—and this translates into dishes that make the most of the leftover winter harvest and ingredients that prepare the body for hot days ahead. Flowers, leafy greens and raw fruit form the trifecta of ingredients that define spring platters.
Lounge speaks to seven chefs who grew up in different regions of India, asking them to recall their fondest food memories of spring and share a recipe with their favourite ingredient of the season. Their responses embody the spectacular variety of produce and dishes unique to their childhood kitchens. Chef Vishal Shetty, former co-founder of the Bengaluru Oota Company, who grew up in Mumbai but would spend holidays in Mangaluru, recalls watching her grandmother cook prawns in the basale spinach endemic to the region. Chef Monalisa Baruah, who is from Assam, describes her mother’s special scrambled eggs with moringa flowers. For Mani Mohan Pathak, who grew up in Bihar, spring is synonymous with millets. If you are wondering what to do with leftover winter produce, take a leaf out of chef Vanika Choudhary’s recipe and make a kanji with it.
Each of the recipes carries with it a story of how memories shape our taste buds and why we keep returning to our roots to bring the past alive.
CHEF AND CO-FOUNDER, SOUL CHEF GOA
I used to study at a boarding school in Tezpur, which was on the outskirts of Guwahati. Whenever I went home or when my cousins visited us on weekends during school holidays, Ma would make sojina phulor konir bhaji (moringa flower scrambled eggs). It was a Sunday special. The flowers add a flowery, earthy flavour to the eggs. My brother and I would pick the freshest flowers from the backyard and give them to Ma, who would cook the eggs with them, which we would eat with luchi. We still eat it at home and I serve it at my restaurant as well.
Moringa flowers bloom between February-April in Guwahati and are the superfoods of my childhood —the way chia seeds, etc., are today. They are high in vitamins A and C and are known to boost immunity.
Sojina Phulor Konir Bhaji
2 cups sojina flower
3 duck eggs or country eggs
2 tbsp mustard oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green chilli, chopped
Half tsp black pepper, freshly ground
Fresh coriander, chopped
Fresh chives, chopped
Salt to taste
Take a cast-iron pan, add mustard oil and wait till the oil smokes. Add green chillies and onion and sauté till the onions turn slightly golden. Add salt as required.
Add moringa flowers and sauté. Throw in some coriander as well. Add eggs and sauté well.
In the end, season with black peppers, and top off with chives, coriander and chopped chillies.
—As told to Pooja Singh.
CHEF AND ENTREPRENEUR
My dad was born in a small temple town in Mangalore (Mangaluru), the oldest of 10 siblings. He didn’t want anything to do with farming so he ran away to Mumbai, going on to become a restaurateur. I was born in Mumbai but every year, we—my cousins and I—would visit Mangalore after exams. My grandmother, in an attempt to make us eat more vegetables, would cook Mangalore spinach (a green leafy vegetable centric to the coast), adding dried shrimp or prawn to it for extra flavour. I still remember all of us gathering together to eat that dish.
6 cups Malabar spinach, chopped
200g fresh prawns/dried shrimp (optional)
Half cup moong dal
Half cup onion
Lime-sized ball of tamarind
1 tbsp jaggery (optional)
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp split chickpea lentils
1 tsp split black gram lentils
4 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
Half tsp fenugreek seeds
4-5 red chillies
3-4 cups fresh grated coconut
Half-inch piece ginger
A few curry leaves
3 tsp cooking oil
Salt to taste
For the seasoning
1 tsp cooking oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
Half tsp split black gram lentils
1 red chilli
A few curry leaves
A pinch of heeng (asafoetida)
Wash the spinach and separate the leaves and stem. Chop the leaves into chunks and cut the stems into 1-inch-long pieces. Chop the onions. Soak the tamarind in a cup of warm water for 15 minutes and extract the juice by squeezing the pulp. In a cooking vessel, add the chopped leaves, stems, onion, turmeric powder and approximately two cups of water (as required). While it is cooking, add the tamarind water too. Let the vegetables cook till tender. Rinse the moong dal and pressure-cook it for two whistles, adding 1 cup water or as required.
In a heavy-bottomed pan, add oil, red chillies, chickpea and black gram lentils. Sauté for a minute, then add the coriander, cumin, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves and roast well. In a blender, add the coconut, roasted spices and ginger and grind to a coarse paste, adding water as required. Add this paste to the cooked vegetables. Mash the cooked dal and add it to the curry. Combine everything well and add salt. As an optional step, add the fresh prawns/dried shrimp and cook well. Check for seasoning and adjust the consistency by adding a little water and bringing the curry to a boil. Switch off once done; do not overcook the prawns.
Finally, combine all the seasoning ingredients in a pan and cook until it crackles. Add this seasoning to the curry.
Basale gassi is ready to be served. Best paired with hot steamed rice or neer dosas.
—As told to Preeti Zachariah.
CHEF AND CO-FOUNDER, KAPPA CHAKKA KANDHARI
In February, March and April, we Syrian Christians observe Lent and do not consume meat. We fulfil any cravings, though, with dishes made with raw jackfruit or breadfruit, which have a texture similar to meat. Jackfruit is a great source of calories and dietary fibre, and, therefore, ideally suited for a vegetarian diet. Growing up, I remember my mother making curries and cutlets with tender raw jackfruit or idichakka. These cutlets with jackfruit and potato as the base ingredients are an example of the influence of Western missionaries on Kerala’s cuisine.
Most kitchen gardens in Kerala have jackfruit trees. In Pala in Kottayam, where I grew up, each house still has at least three. The sweetest jackfruits are those harvested in March and April. Once it starts raining (the south-west monsoon hits Kerala in June), the fruit gets too watery.
The best thing about jackfruit is that it is versatile. When it is raw, it is used as a meat replacement; when ripe, it is used to make payasams and halwas; and the seeds are often roasted and made into a snack or curry. I just cannot resist jackfruit, especially kumbilappam. With flavours of edana leaves, this steamed ripe jackfruit preparation is an any-time snack for me.
150g tender raw jackfruit without skin
25g onion, chopped
15g ginger, chopped
15g garlic, chopped
10g green chillies, chopped
1 strip curry leaves
2g refined flour
10g pepper powder
10g garam masala
5g turmeric powder
Salt to taste
15ml coconut oil
30g refined flour for the batter
400ml oil to fry
Boil chunks of raw jackfruit in water with a pinch of turmeric and salt until it turns soft. Strain, cool and then flake.
Heat coconut oil in a pan and add chopped ginger, garlic, onion, green chillies and whole curry leaves and sauté well for five minutes. Add turmeric powder and the finely flaked jackfruit. Sauté well so the mixture dries. Add pepper powder, garam masala and salt to this mixture and mix well.
Boil the potatoes in a pressure cooker for three whistles. Mash while still hot.
Add the mashed potato to the jackfruit mixture and mix well. Shape into small cutlets.
Make a thin batter of refined flour and water. Dip the cutlets into the flour batter to coat lightly and then coat in breadcrumbs.
Heat oil in a pan and shallow-fry the cutlets on both sides until golden brown. Drain on a tissue paper to remove the excess oil and serve hot with home-made beetroot chutney.
—As told to Preeti Zachariah.
ANUMITRA GHOSH DASTIDAR
FOUNDER, EDIBLE ARCHIVES AND BENTO BENTO
I grew up in Kolkata in a joint family in the late 1980s-90s. There were separate kitchens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. The widows in the family would eat only vegetarian food and the neem-begun (crispy neem leaves fried in ghee mixed with brinjals cooked in mustard oil) would come from their kitchen. The combination of ghee and mustard oil is a flavour bomb. My cousins would avoid it but I love the taste of bitter foods. Later, when we moved to a nuclear family set-up, my mum and dad started to make it. Now, I live in Goa and there is a neem tree at home. You will find this dish on my table every spring.
There are only two main ingredients in this recipe but you have to choose them carefully. Brinjals can be slightly bitter or slightly sweet and this recipe needs the sweet variety. A good rule of thumb is to pick the big round brinjals, used for bharta, as long as they are light and have few seeds. All neem leaves are not edible. Look for neem trees with leaves that are a little curved on the outer edge—the central vein of the leaf is set a little to the side so that one half is thinner than the other and the shape of the leaf is curved.
25 tender neem leaves; they should be small and dark-coloured (just beginning to turn green)
Half a big brinjal
A pinch of salt
A pinch of turmeric
Half tsp sugar
3 tbsp mustard oil
Three-fourths tbsp ghee
Cut the brinjal into cubes.
Rub in the salt, turmeric and sugar. Set aside for a few minutes.
In a heavy kadhai (wok), heat mustard oil. Fry the brinjal until the sugar caramelises and it turns a golden brown. Remove from kadhai and set aside.
Heat a separate small pan. Add ghee. Immediately add the neem leaves and let them fry till slightly crisp. Remove from the pan into your serving bowl and sprinkle with salt.
Mix in with the brinjal.
Note: Have with hot rice, at the beginning of the meal.
—As told to Jahnabee Borah.
MANI MOHAN PATHAK
EXECUTIVE CHEF, PILIBHIT HOUSE, HARIDWAR
Millets are my favourite ingredient any time of the year, and they are prepared differently in each season. I belong to Bhagalpur, Bihar, and growing up, I would watch my grandmother make a number of dishes using various kinds of millets. During spring, jowar (sorghum) used to be widely available. We would call it jaee. She would make bread out of it, and even a drink for kids. The jowar would be boiled and ground; two-three tablespoons full of this powder would be added to milk and given to children in the family. It is a similar respect for millets that I saw in Garhwal, Uttarakhand, while researching ingredients and dishes for the menu at Pilibhit House, Haridwar.
This year has been declared the International Year of Millets by the UN and it is only apt that we tap into regional wisdom around this wonderful produce.
Ragi (finger millet) is a staple in most Garhwal households. They make bread out of it and eat it with bhang jeera (perilla seeds) chutney. We serve this as part of a Garhwali thali at Pilibhit House. During spring, locals also start using flowers such as buransh (rhododendron). I usually get bagfuls of the flower, which is turned into a paste and used to make popsicles. Then there is the palash (Butea monosperma) flower, which is made into a stir-fry.
Another much loved ingredient is the barnyard millet, which is made into a kheer and upma. One of our signature dishes, inspired by millets, is the paneer ghee roast on a ragi disc. It is a modern Indian dish that brings together the heartiness of millets with aromatic Mangalorean spices, while replacing bruschetta with ragi discs made of steamed batter that are cut into spheres and topped with paneer ghee roast. It is a very contemporary dish using ancient ingredients.
Paneer Ghee Roast on Ragi Discs
2 portions (each makes 4 ragi discs), good for a group of 4
For the ‘paneer ghee’ roast
10g chopped garlic
5g chopped ginger
20g chopped tomato
5g curry leaves
5g tamarind pulp
Salt to taste
For the dry masala; all these spices need to be boiled and powdered
5g methi (fenugreek) seeds
5g cumin seeds
5g fennel seeds
5g black pepper
10g coriander seeds
5g red Byadgi chillies
Heat ghee in a pan. Add chopped ginger, garlic and curry leaf. Tip in the paneer and slow-cook till light golden in colour. Add the chopped tomatoes. Stir for a few minutes and add the dry masala and salt. Cook for another 10 minutes. Season with salt, jaggery and a spoonful of tamarind pulp. Finish the dish with a dash of ghee. Serve hot on a ragi disc.
For the ragi disc
100g ragi flour
200g idli batter
Mix both the ingredients. Add a little bit of water to make a smooth batter. Steam in an idli steamer for 15 minutes. Let it cool and cut in the desired shapes. Season the ragi disc with a sweet-and-sour tempering of chilli, curry leaf and mustard.
—As told to Avantika Bhuyan.
FOUNDER, AAL’S KITCHEN
In Naga kitchens, the vegetables used are quite basic—potatoes, eggplant, cabbage—and there isn’t much complexity to how they are cooked; they are steamed and served as part of a typical meal that would also contain rice and a protein, usually smoked pork or chicken. The kind of edible leaves used in Naga cooking are actually much more interesting in variety and taste. While each of the main tribes of Nagaland has subtle differences in cooking techniques and ingredients, certain things are common, such as the use of all kinds of greens and leaves in the kitchen—as long as the greens are not toxic, they will be used. You have to keep in mind that traditionally, Nagaland has had more of a foraging culture than a harvest culture, so foraged local produce and fermented ingredients like axone (fermented soybean) play a very important role. The use of foraged edible leaves also ties up with this. Pumpkin leaves, cabbage leaves, michinga leaves (from the Zanthoxylum plant), a few types of pennywort and mustard leaves are all used extensively. Of course, one of the star ingredients in the Naga kitchen is anishi (fermented taro leaves). Around spring, a few other, less well-known leaves also show up in the market, such as khanko and pigeon pea.
The ingredient that comes closest to being a spring harvest is mustard leaves, even though they are available pretty much through the year in different parts of Nagaland because of the altitude and temperature differences within the state. In my menu at a forthcoming North-East food pop-up at The Leela Bhartiya City in Bengaluru, I will feature several dishes with fresh mustard leaves, including gahlo, a kind of khichdi, and a smoked pork with mustard greens that has a wonderful earthy taste.
Pork with mustard greens
500g fresh pork, cut into small cubes
100g ginger, roughly crushed
5-6 green chillies
6-7 mustard leaves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp axone
Salt to taste
Add the pork cubes to a heavy-bottomed pot, add salt and cook on high flame for about 10 minutes. Add 50g crushed ginger, three green chillies, axone, and half a cup of water and simmer for about 30 minutes with the lid on. Add the mustard greens, the rest of the green chillies and ginger and cook on high flame for another five-seven minutes. Garnish with chopped spring onions and serve with rice.
—As told to Shrabonti Bagchi.
FOUNDER, SEQUEL AND NOON
I remember being at my nani’s house in Srinagar in the early 1980s—this was before we moved to Jammu— and tasting kale gajar ki kanji for the first time. I was around two and probably tasted umami for the first time. It was a blast of taste.
As I grew up, I would insist on spending time at nani’s house during holidays so that I could go with her to the market and pick up the freshest vegetables, including black carrots, and later drink the kanji. We even used to go by shikara (boats) to buy things like nadru (lotus stem), my other favourite vegetable from Kashmir.
My nani’s kitchen was full of earthen pots filled with fermented vegetables; she used to make 40-50 types of pickles every year—it was her way of preserving winter for spring and summer. Fermenting black carrots was part of this—she would make the kanji in spring; it was meant to cool the body when temperatures increased.
Those moments are the reason I do what I do now. My restaurant, Noon, in Mumbai has crafted cocktails and dishes that use the same nani style of kanji (sourcing black carrots from a Pune greenhouse). It’s my way of preserving the past.
Kali gajar is traditionally a cold-region food but is now available across the country. It’s high on antioxidants and excellent for promoting digestion.
Kali Gajar ki Kanji
55 glasses (150ml each)
4kg black carrots, roughly sliced
12 tsp rock salt
2 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
2 Kashmiri red chillies
2 tbsp roasted cumin powder
8 litres water
Wash the black carrots thoroughly (I normally do not peel the skin if the carrots are organic). Slice the carrots. In a small cast-iron pan, dry-roast the mustard seeds for a minute or two.
Remove from the pan and dry-roast the chillies for just under a minute. Crush them together in a mortar and pestle. In a large bowl, add water, salt, all the spices and the carrots. Stir well with a wooden ladle. Pour the mix into an earthen pot to ferment, cover it with a lid and tie a muslin cloth around the lid.
Ferment it for 7-10 days—the colder the weather, the longer it takes to ferment. Stir the pot at least twice a day to ensure the spices are getting evenly mixed.
Strain the drink once it’s fermented (it should be tangy and slightly spicy). Pour into bottles and refrigerate.
—As told to Pooja Singh.
In a previous version of this story, chef Vishal Shetty was named as co-founder of Bengaluru Oota Company. The story has been updated to reflect her correct designation and the mistake in the name of the restaurant has been rectified.