Xewali: The taste of a cursed flower
When the rains pour after a scorching October day, my khuri’s (paternal aunt’s) courtyard is a spectacular sight. Her four-year-old daughter enthusiastically picks up bunches of fallen scented xewali (night jasmine) in the early morning and floats them in small puddles of water. I had spent years in this house, walking in khuri’s courtyard and helping her collect the freshly fallen xewali. Winter lunches in her home would be incomplete without a touch of the xewali. She was the one who taught me that dried xewali was a vital kitchen essential, especially when there was a scarcity of vegetables as the flower lent itself well to a quick stir-fry. Today, this plot of land is the subject of dispute between three families and is demarcated accordingly. The three xewali trees on the property have been equally divided as well. Yet, when the evenings are suffused with the xewali’s intense perfume, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which tree and which side of this divided piece of land the scent comes from.
Xewali (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) is a common name in Assamese households for the flower, which is also known as shiuli in Bengali and parijat in Hindi. The flower blooms around late autumn during the time of Durga Puja. In Assam, the xewali is as much a delicacy as it is an ornamental flower. It finds its way into a variety of dishes and both the flower and its leaves are believed to have myriad health benefits. Although bitter in taste, it is beneficial to the gut and is said to improve digestion. It is added to fish curries or cooked as a stir fry with vegetables and fish heads. The flowers need to be picked very carefully so as not to damage the delicate petals and gently washed till they are clean. The bitter taste of the xewali is complemented by pairing them with ingredients like sweet potato. Another interesting and easy way of using the xewali is to make boras (fritters) with its leaves, which are dipped into a mix of besan, water, turmeric and salt and deep fried.
When the xewali is in season, they are usually collected in bulk, sun-dried all through winter and stored in tight containers for use through the year. They are used to flavour the unique khar (traditionally made by passing water through banana peel ashes which is then added to a variety of preparations of vegetables, fish and xaak, or greens). In some homes, breakfasts comprise boiled rice mixed with xewali flowers, oil and salt. Sometimes fried onions and chillies are also added. This dish is believed to improve immunity and prevent the onset of seasonal flus. Folk remedies for fever in both Assam and Manipur recommend a xewali decoction. The flower is also used as a natural food colouring as an alternative to the more expensive saffron and is often used in home-made pulaos.
Apart from food, the xewali also has rich mythological associations, but in most cases this beautiful flower is either cursed or linked to tragedies and great sorrow. Perhaps that is why the xewali tree is also known as the tree of sorrow. The xewali or parijat tree is believed to have emerged during the Samudra Manthan or the great churning of the ocean. Bestowed with divine powers and an earth-shattering fragrance, the tree was immediately coveted by the gods Indra and Krishna. They fought long and hard to lay claim to it and consequently, the tree was cursed to never produce any fruit.
There is the legend of a princess who was in love with the sun god and since it was unrequited, she killed herself in grief. It is believed that the xewali tree rose from her ashes and since she couldn’t bear to see her erstwhile love, she blossomed at night and shed all her flowers the moment the day broke. The rivalry between Krishna’s wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, for the possession of the sacred xewali tree is another local legend.
The flower symbolizes various things from freedom to loss and romance and this is immortalized in music as well. One of the best known songs of Assamese singer Jyotish Bhattacharjee (1937-1991) is the poignant Juwar Porot—Juwar porot xora xewali butoli/Ki hobo kua/Nai je xomoi ubhoti sua/Etia bidaai dia (What shall come of/Picking up night jasmine/At the time of leaving/This is not the hour of turning back/Let us wave farewell). In Bhupen Hazarika’s melody, Sorotor Xewali, the flowers are imagined singing of freedom as they fall to the ground.
Some days when I make little garlands of xewali phool for my khuri’s daughter I am reminded of the simple joys of picking flowers when I was younger. Even now, there is a container of sun-dried xewali in my kitchen and its perfume helps me relive the essence of the seasons that have passed by.
Xewali Phool Aru Masor Jul
(Fish curry with sun-dried night jasmine flowers)
150g sun-dried xewali flowers
4 rohu pieces
1 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 green chillies
1 tsp khar (an alkaline liquid which is made by passing water through the ashes of dried banana peels)
Stir-fry the rohu pieces with turmeric, salt and oil and keep aside. Soak the sun-dried flowers for about 1-2 hours to tenderize them. Gently press the flowers and get rid of the reddish-brown water. Now add 1 tbsp oil to the wok and fry the soft flowers. Add salt, turmeric and chillies as per taste. Add 1 tsp khar, which will cook the flowers well. Put a cup of water and upon simmering, add the fish pieces. If you want to thicken the gravy, cook on slow flame till it is done. Serve with steamed rice. If khar is not used, you can add ginger-garlic paste and a few masalas too.
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