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 slumber that lasts four months – a period known as Chaturmasa or Chau masa. In Maharashtra, many homes, especially in rural areas, offer a fruit called vaghate or Govind phal to Vitthal, a manifestation of Vishnu. The fruit, gravid with seeds, is typically crushed and cooked with fresh coconut, coriander, peanuts and a host of spices to make vaghateyachi bhaji. Alternatively, it is chopped and cooked into a spirited curry with mot dal or simply fried to a crisp. It is generally held that the green vaghate, which is abundant early in the rains, possesses medicinal virtues that keep typical monsoonal diseases at bay.
The custom of offering vaghate to Vitthal and then serving it to the household is rooted in India’s tradition of seasonal eating and harnessing the nutraceutical benefits of food. Across the country, all year round, seasonal foods and dietary practices have been codified into rituals. The monsoon is no different. During the rains, rituals and festivals celebrate the season’s natural bounty and showcase the robust flavours and healing powers of a panoply of wild foods such as roots, fruits, weeds and leaves. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, at the onset of monsoon, indigenous agrarian communities celebrate Hareli – a ceremony to propitiate Kutki Dai, the goddess of crops – when it is customary to partake in a medicinal brew of herbs and roots foraged from the forests.
Down south, for Malayali Hindus, the period of Karkidakam – spanning the months of July and August – is marked by rituals and dietary practices rooted in traditional wisdom. “Different kinds of kashayam (medicinal decoctions made with herbs and spices), medicinal kanji and other dishes constructed to boost the immunity are a part of the Karkidakam diet,” said herbalist Shruthi Tharayil, the founder of Forgotten Greens, an initiative focused on wild foods and foraging practices.
Many herbs and leafy vegetables consumed by Malayali Hindus during Karkidakam are neither cultivated nor domesticated. “Karkidakam brings heavy rainfall in Kerala, which makes it impossible to step out of home to source fresh vegetables,” said Tharayil. “So, traditionally, people depended on wild greens that grew in their backyards.” A classic Karkidakam dish is the Pathila Thoran, a stir fry of 10 leafy greens, often finished with freshly grated coconut. “Every family has a different mix of wild greens depending on what grows in their backyard,” said Tharayil, although there are staples such as wild colocasia, tender pumpkin leaves, leaves of cowpea and elephant yam leaves.
With the rains arrive other ritualistic uses of medicinal greens and flowers in Malayali Hindu homes. For instance, “the leaves of mukoti are crushed into a crude paste and applied on the forehead,” said Tharayil. “People also make bouquets of 10 wildflowers used in folk medicine called Dasapushpam.” Tharayil considers these ritualised practices a clever way of preserving traditional knowledge systems: “When you forage for these wildflowers and greens, you learn to identify the species and their uses.”
It’s in the monsoons 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-scented curry made with iron-rich colocasia leaves that grow untamed in the season. On this occasion, you may also find these homes making gajbaje ambat, a coconut- and tamarind-based curry, with monsoon vegetables such as yam, bread fruit, Mangalorean cucumbers called magge and okra.
Moving east, Janmashtami is announced in Bengali homes by the heady, sugary aroma of taal or palmyra palm. August and September are the months when taal ripens in Bengal under sporadic rains and sunny spells. This is when its sugary 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, flavoured with cardamom and deep fried to make plump fritters called taaler bora or taal phuluri.
According to legend, on discovering baby Krishna is his cradle, his foster 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 Goan homes, it is customary on Ganesh Chaturthi to build a matoli, a type of herbarium, that showcases monsoon’s bounty. Suspended canopy-like over the idol of Ganesha, the matoli is made up of a wooden grid with seasonal fruits and vegetables such as the ridge gourd, hog plum, colocasia leaves, local red amaranth, turmeric leaves and areca nuts. Under the matoli, many believers offer the deity a dish comprising of 21 local vegetables found in the rainy season.
A day before Ganesh Chaturthi, Goan Saraswat families propitiate Gouri with an offering of sweet patoli or patoleo – medicinal turmeric leaves (which grow wild in the region during the monsoon) dipped in rice batter and steamed. “The story goes that a pregnant Gouri craves the steamed rice cakes on this day,” said Shubhra Shankhwalker, a Goan caterer. Also offered to Gauri on this day, Shankhwalker says, is a dish made of five leafy vegetables: tambi bhaji (red amaranth), maskachi bhaji (moringa leaves), dhavi bhaji (local green amaranth), alsandyachi bhaji (cowpea leaves) and dhudyachi bhaji (tender pumpkin leaves).
Across the border from Goa, in Maharashtra, foraging lies at the heart of Rushi Panchami, which is celebrated a day after Ganesh Chaturthi. On this occasion, many Maharashtrian homes make Rushi chi Bhaji or Hermit’s stew with a mix of uncultivated vegetables and foraged leafy greens. As the name suggests, the dish commemorates the foraging lifestyles of sages who lived in the wild, but at the same time, it is a one-pot celebration of monsoon’s verdant wealth.
Wild monsoon greens, steeped in curative virtues, are also used during Ganesh Chaturthi ceremonies. One offering made on the day is patri, a bunch of 21 leaves, wild and medicinal, abundant during the rains. In Uttar Kannada, some indigenous forest-dwelling communities worship Gauri in the form of colocasia leaf. They pack two colocasia leaf parcels with medicinal herbs and fresh tender paddy plant and then secure them with the thorn of naaga bala. “The parcels 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 featuring typical wild monsoon greens like fresh bamboo shoots and colocasia leaves or saaru. Another must on Nuakhai is ambil, a sour, soupy dish made with vegetables like pumpkin, eggplants and okra “that gets its tongue-curling tang from fresh bamboo shoots,” said writer and home chef Sujata Dehury. “Some people also make a mouth-puckering dish of tomatoes and okra perked up with bamboo shoots.”
Sweta Biswal, a champion of Oriya cuisine, speaks of a Nuakhai dish made with colocasia leaves and tender pumpkin leaves that are cooked to a velvety finish along with fresh bamboo shoots. It’s quite irresistible, she says.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.