Gongura - An ancient leaf for all seasons
- ‘Gongura is famous across Andhra Pradesh as a versatile leaf that is used in pickles, stir fries and vegetarian and non vegetarian preparations
- This edible green has also been an accessible source of food for the historically oppressed
Growing up, my nayanamma (grandmother) would often feed us gongura pachadi (pickle) since we could not afford expensive vegetables and ingredients. It was a wonderful addition to many of our meals. And this was not just the case in our home but in villages, towns and cities across Telugu-speaking states.
So much so that any Telugu-speaking person is likely to throw the phrase, “Enti neeku gongura telida? (How do you not know about gongura!)", at you if you seem unfamiliar with it.
From gongura pachadi and gongura royyalu (with shrimps) to gongura pappu (with lentils), this tangy green leafy vegetable can be had both as a main and as a condiment. Gongura, or sorrel, leaves are, in fact, ubiquitous across the country—variously called ambaadi (Marathi), pulichakeerai (Tamil), mestapata (Bengali), anthur (Mizo), sougri (Manipuri), sankokda (Punjabi), samelli (Chakma), mwitha (Bodo). And the gongura leaf’s unique taste and ability to flavour both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes has given it numerous interpretations across kitchens.
Food historian and cookbook author Pushpesh Pant says on email: “I think it is pointless spending time ‘dating’ the origins of gongura as it has always been a widely used perennial herb which is believed to be ‘as old as the hills’. It has been foraged for centuries, if not millennia, by inhabitants of the Andhra region. It has time-tested nutritional value, and adds distinct sourness and pleasant enough pungency to food."
Pant adds that the affordability of gongura makes it accessible to all classes. Historically, upper castes controlled access to markets stocking fresh produce and nutritious ingredients, especially for Adivasis and the so-called lower castes. The concept of pickle-making in Adivasi and other marginalized households is reflective of this—those had on a daily basis have chillies and onions as a base. Occasionally, peanuts and fresh herbs like coriander are added for flavour and crushed in a mortar and pestle for a quick-fix meal with steamed rice and ghee.
Gongura can be consumed raw, as a chutney, or with minimal cooking, using basic ingredients like salt, green chillies and a dash of oil.
Both the green-stemmed and red-stemmed varieties are used in cooking. The red sorrel leaves are more sour than the green varietal and are widely planted as a summer crop—higher temperatures are believed to intensify the sourness. The seasonal red sorrel flowers, or roselle, are also edible—they usually bloom during Christmas.
The roselle flower is also made into a pickle in south India, pretty much like the gongura pachadi, and is consumed with hot ghee rice or ragi mudde (thick balls of steam-cooked finger millet). Syrups, jams and crushes made with the vitamin-C-rich roselle flowers are used as a home remedy for colds.
Gongura leaves and flowers help cool the body and reduce inflammation. They also contain moderate levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium, which help strengthen the bones and are very useful in relieving symptoms of fever. The juice from sorrel leaves mixed with buttermilk is also believed to treat indigestion, colds, even jaundice.
‘Gongura’ for all courses
Nayanamma’s Gongura Pachadi
Gongura leaves, 1 bunch
100g green chillies
4-5 garlic pods
Salt to taste
Separate the gongura leaves from the stalks and clean thoroughly. Heat the pan, add gongura leaves. Steam-cook the leaves until wilted. Keep aside.
Add 3-4 tbsp of oil, cumin seeds, Bengal gram, mustard seeds, tomato and green chillies. Fry until brown. Add the fried mixture to the cooked gongura leaves, garlic and onion and grind in a mortar pestle. Serve with hot rice and ghee.
Gongura Mamsam Curry
Rayalaseema Ruchulu, a Hyderabad-based restaurant, is famous for its authentic Andhra food and the Gongura Mamsam (mutton) is a signature dish.
K kg mutton (with or without bone)
10 big bunches of gongura, cleaned
3 big onions, finely chopped
4 red chillies
5-6 garlic pods
N tsp turmeric
1-2 tsp red chilli powder
1-2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
5 pods cardamom
1 bunch coriander
1 tsp dhania (coriander) powder
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a pan. Add coarsely crushed cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, red chillies and garlic. Add onions and fry on low flame till brown. Add the ginger-garlic paste, turmeric powder and fry for a few minutes. Add the chilli powder and fry some more. Add the mutton and salt and cook on a low flame until the water evaporates (you can also pressure-cook the mutton). Once the mutton is tender, add the gongura leaves, cover with a lid and let it simmer until the leaves become soft and are cooked. Now add the dhania powder and remove from flame. Garnish with fresh coriander.