How Immunity-Boosting Foods Became Part of Monsoon Festivals in India
On the eleventh day of shukla paksha (bright fortnight) of the Hindu month of Ashadh, many adherents observe Ashadhi Ekadashi. It is believed that on this day Vishnu slips into his divine sleep which lasts for four months – a period known as Chaturmasa or Chau masa. In Maharashtra, many households, especially in rural areas, offer a fruit called vaghate or Govind phal to Vitthal, a manifestation of Vishnu. The fruit, full of seeds, is usually crushed and cooked with fresh coconut, coriander, peanuts and a host of spices to make vaghateyachi bhaji. Alternatively, it is chopped and cooked in a crisp curry with word dal or simply fried into a crisp. The green wanderer, abundant at the onset of the rains, is generally considered to have medicinal properties that ward off typical monsoon diseases.
The custom of offering vaghate to Vitthal and then serving it at home is rooted in the Indian tradition of eating in season and harnessing the nutraceutical benefits of food. Throughout the country, throughout the year, seasonal foods and eating practices have been codified into rituals. The monsoon is no different. During the rains, rituals and festivals celebrate the natural bounty of the season and showcase the robust flavors and healing powers of an array of wild foods such as roots, fruits, weeds and leaves. For example, in Chhattisgarh, at the onset of the monsoon, indigenous agrarian communities celebrate Hareli – a ceremony to conciliate Kutki Dai, the goddess of harvests – when it is customary to take part in a medicinal brew of herbs and roots gathered in the forests.
In the south, for Malayali Hindus, the Karkidakam period – which spans the months of July and August – is marked by rituals and dietary practices rooted in traditional wisdom. “Various types of kashayam (medicinal decoctions made from herbs and spices), medicinal kanji and other dishes designed to boost immunity are part of the Karkidakam diet,” said herbalist Shruthi Tharayil, the founder of Forgotten Greens, a nature-based initiative. foods and foraging practices.
Many herbs and leafy vegetables eaten by Malayali Hindus during Karkidakam are neither cultivated nor domesticated. “Karkidakam brings heavy rains to Kerala which makes it impossible to go outside to stock up on fresh vegetables,” Tharayil said. “So traditionally people depended on wild greens growing in their backyards.” A classic Karkidakam dish is Pathila Thoran, a stir-fry of 10 leafy greens, often finished with freshly grated coconut. “Each family has a different mix of wild greens depending on what grows in their garden,” Tharayil said, although there are staples such as wild colocasia, tender pumpkin leaves, cowpea and elephant yam leaves.
With the rains come other ritual uses of medicinal plants and flowers in Malayali Hindu homes. For example, “mukoti leaves are ground into a rough paste and applied to the forehead,” Tharayil said. “People also make bouquets of 10 wildflowers used in folk medicine called Dasapushpam.” Tharayil sees these ritualized practices as a clever way to preserve traditional knowledge systems: “When you search for these wildflowers and greens, you learn to identify the species and their uses. »
It is during the monsoon that Hindus celebrate the birth of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. In Mangalorean Hindu homes, a typical Janmashtami dish is alvati, a ginger-flavored curry made with iron-rich colocasia leaves that grow untamed during the season. On this occasion, you can also find these houses making gajbaje ambat, a curry made from coconut and tamarind, with monsoon vegetables like yams, breadfruit, mangalorian cucumbers called magge and okra .
Moving east, Janmashtami is heralded in Bengali homes by the heady, sweet aroma of taal or palmyra palm. August and September are the months when taal ripens in Bengal with sporadic rains and sunny spells. This is when its sweet pulp is extracted from the fibrous core and used to make a variety of sweet dishes offered to Krishna. Alternatively, its pulp is mixed with grated coconut and rice flour, flavored with cardamom and fried to make plump fritters called taaler bora or taal phuluri.
According to legend, on discovering that baby Krishna is his cradle, his adoptive father Nanda feasted on taaler bora and danced with joy. “Ki ananda holo Braj-e, ki ananda holo/Gopal-e payiya Braj e ki ananda holo/Taaler Bora kheye Nanda nachite lagilo,” goes a Bengali folk song. What joy in Braj, oh what joy / Nanda eats palm fritters and dances with joy.
On the west coast, in many houses in Goa, it is customary for Ganesh Chaturthi to build a matoli, a type of herbarium, which showcases the bounty of the monsoon. Suspended in the form of a canopy above the idol of Ganesha, the matoli is made of a wooden grid with seasonal fruits and vegetables such as calabash, pork plum, colocasia leaves, amaranth local red wine, turmeric leaves and areca nuts. Under the matoli, many believers offer the deity a dish made from 21 local vegetables found in the rainy season.
A day before Ganesh Chaturthi, families in Goan Saraswat reconcile Gouri with an offering of sweet patoli or patoleo – medicinal turmeric leaves (which grow wild in the region during the monsoon) dipped in rice paste and steamed. “The story goes that a pregnant Gouri craves steamed rice cakes on this day,” said Shubhra Shankhwalker, a caterer from Goa. Also offered to Gauri that day, Shankhwalker says, is a dish of five leafy vegetables: tambi bhaji (red amaranth), maskachi bhaji (moringa leaves), dhavi bhaji (local green amaranth), alsandyachi bhaji (moringa leaves), cowpea) and dhudyachi bhaji (tender pumpkin leaves).
Across the border from Goa, Maharashtra, foraging is at the heart of Rushi Panchami, which is celebrated a day after Ganesh Chaturthi. On this occasion, many Maharashtrian houses prepare Rushi chi Bhaji or Hermit’s Stew with a mixture of uncultivated vegetables and stuffed leafy greens. As the name suggests, the dish commemorates the foraging lifestyles of the sages who lived in nature, but at the same time, it is a unique celebration of the verdant richness of the monsoon.
Wild monsoon leaves, steeped in healing properties, are also used in Ganesh Chaturthi ceremonies. An offering made during the day is the patri, a bouquet of 21 leaves, wild and medicinal, abundant during the rains. In Uttar Kannada, some indigenous communities living in the forest worship Gauri in the form of a colocasia leaf. They wrap two bundles of colocasia leaves with medicinal herbs and a fresh tender paddy plant, then secure them with the naaga bala thorn. “The plots represent Shiva and Parvati or Gouri,” said folklorist Savita Uday.
In the forested belt of western Odisha, an agricultural festival called Nuakhai is celebrated with dishes made from wild monsoon vegetables like fresh bamboo shoots and colocasia or saaru leaves. Another Nuakhai staple is ambil, a sour and chewy dish made with vegetables like pumpkin, eggplant and okra “that sticks its tongue out from fresh bamboo shoots,” said writer and home chef Sujata. Dehury. “Some people also make a dish of tomatoes and okra with bamboo shoots.”
Sweta Biswal, a champion of Oriya cuisine, talks about a Nuakhai dish made with colocasia leaves and tender pumpkin leaves that are cooked to a velvety finish with fresh bamboo shoots. It’s pretty irresistible, she says.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writing for 2022.