Eating the monsoon
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“Aav re varsad, dhebariyo parsad, uni uni rotli ne karela nu shak.” When the rains finally arrived in Gujarat, after weeks of teasing clouds, darkening skies and rolling thunder, this monsoon rhyme – something many Gujaratis of my generation grew up reciting—made an inadvertent comeback in my memory. Roughly translated, it means, “Allow the rains to pour and come serve the delicious bitter gourd with hot rotlis.”
Every state in India has a different monsoon food culture but, in Gujarat, it coincides with Shravan, the auspicious fifth month of the Hindu lunar calendar, when many people observe fasts for various reasons. Alongside, there are festivals such as Haryali Teej, Naga-Panchami, Rishi Panchami, Raksha Bandhan, Ganesh Utsav, Paryushan and many more. No matter: The enterprising Gujarati marries the rains and the ritual fasts with a vast range of foods, more snacks than full meals. Go ahead, make fun of the ‘snakes’ if you want to, but monsoon nastas are enough to put tastebuds on high alert – as are the long weekends, when the inevitable travel is always accompanied by khakhra (thin crackers of lentils and wheat), thepla (thin wheat flour pancakes), chevdo (deep-fried snack mix) and more.
On the roadside, carts do brisk business with their patilas (large vessels) full of sweet American corn, boiled or roasted on embers, smeared with butter and lime and dipped in salt and chilli pepper. Kamrej, near Surat, is the source of this monsoon special: The fields around here are overrun with corn.
Alongside, street vendors do brisk business in monsoon vegetables: karela (bitter gourd), kankoda/kantola (spine gourd), ears of desi and American sweet corn, colocasia leaves (used to make patra) and even a rare monsoon delicacy called varsha dori na phool (flowers of the Leptadenia reticulata creeper), known as Jivanti in Sanskrit. This vine grows wild on hedges, but as urbanisation takes its toll on the green cover of the surrounding rural areas, it is becoming increasingly difficult to source it.
Anywhere else, ritual fasting might have denied you all this deliciousness, but not in Gujarat. Many will eat a single meal, others will go off onion and garlic and even salt, but most will feast while they fast. “Fasting in Gujarat is like a food festival,” says Hina Gautam, a celebrity cook. “Even while we are fasting, we don’t want to give up on our pizzas and bhel. So, we started inventing ways to make it possible to eat all these dishes during a fast. We make the pizza base out of rajgira (amaranth) and cookies out of crushed peanuts.”
Fasting fare for Shravan also includes sabudana (sago) khichdi, suran khichu (jimikand or elephant foot yam porridge), fried purple yam slices sprinkled with sendha namak (rock salt), amaranth flour puris and other flat breads and a fast-friendly dhokla with moriya or barnyard millet (Echinochloa frumentacea).
For the non-fasters, glasses of aromatic cutting chai spiked with ginger and cardamom are a wonderful accompaniment to crispy-fried pakoras, the quintessential monsoon snack. Makai no chevdo (deep-fried corn mix), makai na bhajiya or khichu – khichu is usually made with rice flour and topped with loads of oil and methiya no masalo, a Gujarati pickling spice – can send a Gujjubhai and ben straight to seventh heaven.
There is something so special about the monsoon bhutta and all the snacks of the season and I love them all. So here’s a delicious, healthy and easy Gujarati monsoon snack:
Makai no Chevdo
1 and half cups grated American sweet corn kernels
Half cup grated desi corn kernels
(If using frozen kernels run them through a blender/food processor just so they are roughly crushed.)
1 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp grated ginger
1 or 2 whole dry red chillies
1 pinch asafoetida
1 or 2 green chillies, finely chopped
One fourth or half cup of milk
1 tsp lime juice
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves to garnish
2 tbsp freshly grated coconut to garnish
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds and once they pop, add the whole red chilli. Once the chilli changes colour, add the green chilli and ginger, mix well and add the asafoetida.
Then add the corn and salt and mix well.
Add the milk and mix well. Cover and cook on medium flame for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Once the corn is cooked and the liquid has dried up, switch off the flame and add the lime juice and mix well. Garnish with coriander leaves and mix gently. Pour into a serving bowl and garnish with grated coconut.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.