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As a young child, Megha Deokule’s summers were all about visiting her grandparents’ home in Coorg and filling up on kulae puttu (steamed jackfruit cake). Her grandfather would bring in the ripest jackfruit, de-seed it and hand over the pulp to her grandmother. She would then prepare a batter of the pulp, ground rice, shredded coconut and jaggery and steam it in banana leaves. “We would eat the kulae puttu straight out of the steamer, with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter)," says Deokule, founder of the online organic store i2cook.

Most of us can remember eating certain vegetables and fruits only in the summer months, when spectacular dishes would be made with seemingly humble ingredients. Besides scoring on the freshness factor, they countered the blistering heat of Indian summers with their high water content, tantalized sleepy taste buds and added a welcome touch of variety to our plates.

While many of these fruits and vegetables are not readily available today beyond the hinterland, the intrepid urban consumer tracks them down for the pleasure of recreating remembered recipes, even tweaking some of them to suit current lifestyles.

Going green

Colocasia leaves
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Colocasia leaves

On a recent visit to the vegetable market at Matunga, Mumbai, Shetty was surprised to see a number of summer vegetables she had eaten back home: White bamboo shoots, the insides of which were cooked with coconut; lotus stems, usually stir-fried with chilli, cumin powder, salt and coconut slivers; and red cucumbers, which were turned into a curry.

Shetty recently started her own vegan outreach programme to document seasonal fruits and vegetables and convert traditional dishes into vegan preparations. For example, her family makes a mildly spicy gravy dish with green pumpkin, coconut milk and curd. Shetty replaces the curd with amchur (dry mango powder) for a not-dissimilar tartness.

At Ashima Borkakoty’s home in Mumbai, the onset of summer can be gauged by the different varieties of curries called tenga (literally, sour) that she prepares. “For us, tenga equals summer. It is a light dish, easily digestible and very healthy. We make it with whatever vegetables are available," says the founder of The Home Kitchen, a catering service. Some of the vegetables she uses are dhekia xaak, a green fern-like vegetable loaded with iron that is either baked with fish or steamed and made into a mash (pitika), and komora (white gourd or white melon), a sour vegetable valued for its high water content.

While Borkakoty sources the vegetables from her family in Assam, regular shoppers may find themselves at a loss when confronted with unfamiliar produce at the local market. That is where bloggers, with their disparate sources of reference, come in handy.

“Karam saag is a water plant with a hollow stem that makes tasty curries and stir-fries. But I barely see it in the markets," says Sangeeta Khanna, a New Delhi-based food and nutrition consultant. Khanna runs the blog HealthFood DesiVideshi, where she discusses fruits and vegetables she grew up eating in Varanasi: the buds and roots of the kachnar tree, which are blanched and then cooked to make a curry or pakoda; agasti flowers, also used in pakodas; and poi saag (Malabar spinach), rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which is a summer replacement for spinach.

Fruity flavour

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Squashes

“Quince (chhoth or bumchooth) is a fruit that grows in the Himalayan foothills and is used to make a curry with brinjals. Wild Indian figs (goolar) are tender green fruits used to make curries and kebabs. My grandmother loved goolar ki subzi or chokha (mash). Boiled and mashed goolar (with chilli, garlic, mustard oil and salt) is considered a tonic," says Khanna. Lasoda, a sticky berry also called gum berry, is used to treat arthritis and related joint problems. Nimboli or nimkouri, the ripe fruit of the neem tree, is slightly sweet but has a strong bitter aroma and is considered a good blood purifier.

One very popular summer fruit that is used in cooking all over the country is the jackfruit. “The raw jackfruit is used to make curries or kebabs and tastes just like chicken," says the Bangalore-based Deokule. The seeds of the jackfruit are cooked as a vegetable and, along the Konkan coast and Goa, jackfruit pulp is sun-dried and then used in curries.

The unripe fruit of a variety of jackfruit called badhal (monkey jack), usually found only in north India, is used to make pickle, while the ripe fruit is sometimes used as a substitute for tamarind. The fruit—aromatic, sweet and lightly tart—is a good source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. “There is also the wild jack, a small fruit that resembles the jackfruit but with a different taste and texture. The ripe fruit is edible while raw ones are pickled in brine to make chutneys and curries," says Rajnikanth Shenoy Kudpi, who runs the blog Kudpiraj’s Garam Tawa, which details traditional recipes from Mangalore and Goa. One of Kudpi’s favourite summer dishes is a curry made using the bibbe (tender cashew nut). Bibbe is believed to be a very healthy seed and is a popular summer snack along the Konkan coast.

The North-Eastern states, too, love their fruits. Elephant apple is a fibrous, coconut-like fruit that the Assamese use to make ou tenga curry. At Borkakoty’s home, they also eat amora, a juicy fruit that looks like a mango; ramphal, a fleshy fruit similar to the custard apple; and leteku, a fleshy fruit resembling the lychee that is eaten raw, stewed or made into wine. Borkakoty’s favourite fruit, however, is the Assamese olive or jolphai. “They are big, green and sour and used in chutneys, pickles and dals. (There is) Nothing that tastes better than jolphai in summer," she says.

Borkakoty is lucky. If she needs some information or a recipe or even an ingredient, she can call home and have them send it to her.

This summer, if you want to eat healthy, go back to your childhood memories. Or call home.

Also read | Soul food

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