Pumpkin seeds form an inextricable part of Tanushree Bhowmik’s childhood memories. While growing up in Assam, the favourite summer pastime for all the cousins was to collect seeds from ripe fleshy pumpkins. “We would keep count of who got how many,” says Bhowmik, now a Delhi-based development professional who documents and revives old recipes through her pop-up Fork Tales. These seeds would be sun-dried and then fried to be served with dal.
Since time immemorial, edible seeds have found a mention in personal and collective memories as flavouring, spices, medicines, and, of course, playthings. In her book Feasts And Fasts: A History Of Food In India, Colleen Taylor Sen discusses the use of mustard, bitter orange and sesame seeds in Vedic times to flavour various dishes.
Today, these have been appropriated by the fitness-driven millennial, who doesn’t mind shelling out ₹900 for a half-kilogram assortment of sunflower and flax seeds at gourmet stores. As Anita Hamilton writes in the piece, “The Truth About 6 ‘Superfood’ Seeds”, in Time magazine, “When it comes to nutrition-dense superfoods, seeds are having a bit of a moment.” It is no wonder then that the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery—an annual weekend event where academics, writers, chefs and others come together to discuss current issues in food history and food studies—themed its 2018 edition on seeds. “Seeds are food in themselves, and they contain or promise multitudes of other foods,” the website says.
In India, of course, these have played a critical role in regional cuisines—from the jakhiya in Garhwal to the posto, or poppy seeds, in Bengal and Bihar. Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, founder, APB Cook Studio, a Mumbai-based culinary studio, came across the jakhiya during her first post-wedding breakfast. On a cold morning in Dehradun, her in-laws served her hari bhujji, a green stir-fry made with local greens. The special touch was the tempering of jakhiya seeds, adding a nutty crunch. “In Kumaon, you will find a lot of bhang seeds, or hemp, being used, and also those of the bhangjeera (beefsteak plant),” says Ghildiyal, who has been creating awareness about seeds through her pop-ups.
The mustard and sesame are perhaps two seeds that are used widely across the country—however, their use varies depending on the different local variants. For instance, in Assam, one can find three kinds of til (sesame)—white, brown and black. Unlike, say, in parts of Uttar Pradesh, where the white ones are roasted and made into laddoos, in Assamese and Khasi cuisines, these are ground and cooked into gravies. Certain seeds, such as of the jamun (black plum), are used for medicinal purposes. “They are available for a short period. So these are dried, pounded and mixed into water, ideally consumed by diabetics in the morning,” says home chef Gitika Saikia, who regularly conducts pop-ups based on the cuisines of the North-East.
In Sylheti cuisine, one can find matured sem (flat bean) seeds being collected through winter and cooked in dal during summers. “They are also cooked with fish head,” says Bhowmik, who was introduced to Sylheti cuisine by her paternal family. Sylhet also has flax-seed chutney, a version of which can be found in Bihar—it’s called the teesi.
Sojourns through the North-East throw up some interesting revelations. For instance, when Bhowmik visited Manipur last year, she found vendors selling fresh lotus seeds as a snack. Similarly, when Saikia visited a village haat during a recent trip, she came across mangosteen seeds, or rupohi thekera. “The fruit is not so widely available in Assam, so I picked up six of these. The farmer told me that while the fruit is very sour, the seed is extremely sweet,” says Saikia, who turned these into a salad with a dash of salt and finely chopped green chillies.
The jackfruit seed has found innovative use in various regional cuisines. For instance, in Tripura, the seeds are roasted and made into a chutney. In Sylhet, the seed is cut into slivers and cooked with dried fish. One of the oldest recipes using these was found in Tamil Sangam literature in the form of jackfruit seeds and green mango kozhambu. The traditional use of these seeds was associated with the ethos of frugality in most households, where seasonal ingredients would be preserved to be used later. Bhowmik says that amongst tribes in western Odisha, the mango kernel is extracted and kept under running water for three days to wash away the alkaloids. The seed is then dried and pound into a powder, to be used during droughts.
“These seeds have had a huge role in diets as protein supplements. Some, such as melon seeds, have been used in Ayurveda and Unani medicine for their cooling properties,” she says.
These days, the rising popularity of seeds as superfoods and the return to sustainable regional cuisines have seen restaurants begin to use these in a big way. At Fabcafé by Fabindia, sesame seed is used in a moong dal hummus, while sunflower seeds can be seen in the crust of the walnut tart. Last year’s menu also featured a salad with local hemp seeds from Uttarakhand.
Mysuru’s Naviluna Artisan Chocolate (formerly Earth Loaf) uses caraway seeds in its Caramelised Mosambi and Caraway Bar. “When chewed, it releases its menthol essential oils, which are great for digestion and are a powerful palate cleanser,” says director and executive chef David Belo.
At Thangabali, Mumbai, which focuses on lesser-known dishes from the southern states, jackfruit seeds are cooked Kerala-style with the pulp. During pre-launch research, co-founder Dharmesh Karmokar reached out to home cooks and found that flax seeds were added to batters to enrich them and methi seeds to aid the fermentation process.
At a time when farmers are moving towards hybrid and modified seeds, collectives and individuals who are conserving indigenous seeds become critical. Restaurants such as AnnaMaya at The Andaz Delhi have been working with farms like Tijara, which is spread across 10 acres in Rajasthan, and grows an assortment of cereals, pulses, spices and oilseeds, among other things. On the farm, founded by Sneh Yadav in 2011, you will find four kinds of mustard, groundnut, flax seeds, coriander, and more. “We are trying to revive centuries-old varieties such as sorghum. As opposed to the white hybrid ones, these are red and the flour looks just like the one milled from ragi,” says Yadav.
Then there is Yarroway Farm, a sustainable family farm and homestead owned by Anjali Rudraraju and Kabir Cariappa, located on the banks of the Nugu reservoir in Karnataka. A biodynamic farm, this is the only one in the country selling organic seeds certified by the IMO, an independent Indian certification body. According to her, seed conservation is one of the most important facets of sustainable farming today.
“It’s not just about building a seed bank—we have 2,000-3,000 varieties (including edible seeds)—but about having open pollinated seeds that are resilient, and will be sustainable for farmers, thus saving them from the GM trap,” says Rudraraju, who has been reviving long-lost varieties such as the dry-land red rice local villagers hadn’t seen in 30 years.