Steaming mugs of ginger-infused chai and piping hot pakoras might be all that come to mind, as you soak in the rain-drenched surroundings and the shifting greys of the monsoon skies, but Indian culinary traditions in the monsoon are far more rich and diverse. Unique seasonal produce and culinary rituals, regional specialties and luxurious festive treats – the monsoon months bring along an exciting smorgasbord of flavours.
In most parts of the country, food habits follow the seasons – this is also what Ayurveda, the ancient science of food and medicine, recommends. A change in season is supposed to indicate a change in the elements of nature, which in turn have a direct bearing upon the three elements or doshas – vata (air/wind), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth and water) – that constitute the human body. Seasonal diets prescribed in Ayurvedic texts are designed to create a balance in the body and pacify the dosha aggravated during a particular season. The strict stipulations of Ritucharya (seasonal guidelines in Ayurvedic texts), don’t hamper the flavour or diversity of the season’s culinary catalog.
During the rains, Ayurveda recommends food that pacify the aggravated vata dosha, and strengthen the weakened digestive fire. In simpler terms, the dark, damp months of monsoon are prone to diseases (especially those related to the stomach) and it’s a good idea to consume food that fortifies the immune system.
Warm, spicy, tangy and oily food (known to balance the vata dosha), spices that aid digestion, and medicinal concoctions like the trikatu (a mix of dry ginger, black pepper and long pepper), or even a mix of amla and rock salt, are encouraged.
In Kerala, traditional monsoon fare includes medicinal porridges and gruels like the Karakadaka Kanji – a rice gruel cooked in coconut milk, infused with medicinal herbs and spices like fenugreek, coriander and cumin seeds, dry ginger, cardamom, cloves, caraway and other rarer ingredients. Only the GI-tagged Njavara rice, known for its curative virtues, is used for this recipe.
Seasonal staples and regional flourishes
In several parts of the country, gourds, cucumbers and squashes are the most easily available vegetables in monsoon. A unique seasonal vegetable is the spiky teasel gourd that makes for tasty stir-fries, curries and crisp fritters. Known as kakrol in Bengal, it’s stuffed with fresh grated coconut spiked with pungent mustard or spicy minced prawns, dipped in batter and fried.
The long shelf life of edible roots and tubers like yam or suran, tapioca and raw bananas makes them suitable for the monsoon pantry, because food preservation is difficult in the monsoon.
Foraged food has always been an integral part of Indian cuisine and during monsoon, herbs and greens like the fiddle head fern that grow in the wild often make it into household kitchens, adding a touch of the exotic to mundane meals. A rainy season staple, especially in the hills, is the fiddle head fern that grows wild in these months. “We cook it in mustard oil tempered with jakhiya, a local herb used extensively in Uttarakhandi kitchens,” said Mumbai-based culinary consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal.
“Called Dhekia Xaakin Assam, the fiddlehead fern is added to fish curries cooked with elephant apples, stir fired with chunks of fatty pork, or cooked with kala chana,” added Gitika Saikia, best known for her popular rural Assamese food pop-ups.
Despite the mandate against leafy vegetables during the rainy season, Colocasia leaves, abundant in the season are turned into patra – colocasia leaf rolls, typically layered with spiced chickpea or rice flour batter and steamed or fried, spicy curries or cooked with in spicy coconut gravies or simmered with prawns. A particularly interesting monsoon dish turned out of the Mangalorean kitchen is the Theryacheyo Ganti – colocasia leaves are tied into knots, one at a time, and left to wilt for a whole day, before being cooked into a tangy curry.
“In Maharashtra, wild greens like Shewla and Phodshi that have very distinct flavours grow in abundance in the forests and are turned into bhajis which are stir fried and fritters,” said Ghildiyal. In neighbouring Gujarat, the flowers of Leptadenia Reticulata, locally known as Varsha Dori, is a coveted monsoon delicacy.
“Another herb that grows wild in the Konkan region every monsoon is the Taikulo,” said blogger Shireen Sequeira who runs the food blog Ruchik Randhap. Another Sequeira-tested recipe is the spicy Mangalorean traditional curry made with Taikulo, hog plums and jackfruit seeds. Jack fruit seeds, perhaps stored from the summer’s yield of jack fruits as buffer for the rainy days, are a prized ingredient in many a monsoon pantry.
Wild seasonal mushrooms, like the gud gud alambe from the Konkan coast, the nutty alami mushrooms that grow untamed in the Goan hinterland every monsoon or the wild mushrooms of the Khasi hills in the North East – these are worthy monsoon repasts.
But above all, the rains make one crave comfort food and every region has their rainy day favourites – malpua and meetha pura up North, spicy Mirchi Badas in Rajasthan, and chai-pakoras elsewhere. In Bengal, an entire spread has been invented around the unanimous monsoon favourite – the khichuri.
Far from the sickbed gruel khichdi is often dubbed as, the spicy Bengal-style khichuri is loaded with generous splashes of ghee and is the chef-d’œuvre on a rainy-day lunch table. Khichuri is typically served with an array of accompaniments – fried vegetables, fritters, curries made with a medley of vegetables and fried fish (ideally the Hilsa, synonymous with monsoon in Bengal).
While consumption of fish is strictly discouraged in most parts of the country during monsoon (so the fish stock can replenish during breeding season) the archetypal Bengali braves water-logged streets and mud-filled puddles on rainy mornings for a share of the best Ilish or hilsa in the fish market. The mandatory Sunday mutton curry often makes way for entire meals trumped up with hilsa, where no part of the fish is spared.
In Goa, on the other hand, the fall in fresh catch during the rainy season means a rise in demand for dried fish – prawns, mackerels, shark fish, a variety of small fishes – that go into curries and relishes. A particularly favourite rainy-day treat is kismur, a muddled mix of dried fish, fresh grated coconut, kokum, tamarind and spices, preferable made with either sungta or large prawns, or golmo, tiny prawns.
“In Konkani kitchens we also make patholi, sweet rice dumplings stuffed with coconut and jaggery and steamed in fragrant turmeric leaves that grow in abundance during the monsoon months” said Sequeira. Turmeric leaves also make their way into other Konkan specialties like the kheeri, a rice pudding of sorts cooked with coconut milk and turmeric leaves.
Interestingly, further south, the Malabar Coast is famous for the coveted specialty coffee – the Monsoon Malabar. Harvested coffee beans are exposed to moisture-laden monsoon air for six weeks. The beans swell up, lose some of their acidity and acquire their signature mellow notes.
The monsoon months are full of festivals and celebrations, each with their own special celebratory or ritualistic food.
“Among Mangalorean Catholics, a coconut-based curry made with green amaranth stalks, Colocasia stems and hog plums, called Alun Dento, is a seasonal specialty,” said Sequeira. “It is cooked for the feast of the Birth of Virgin Mary, which falls on September 8.”
In Tamil Nadu, Adi Perukku falls on the 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi (July-August) and involves the ritual worship of heaving water bodies. A typical Adi Perukku feast packs in a variety of sweet and savoury rice dishes like coconut rice, tamarind rice, pepper rice, lemon rice and sweet pongal, in addition to the ritualistic offering of kapparisi, a dish made with hand-pounded rice and gooey jaggery, perked up with sesame seeds and nuts. Teej celebrations in Rajasthan are incomplete without Ghevar and Sattu, a sweet dish made with chana dal and loads of dry fruits and nuts.
In Bengal, Janmashtami or Lord Krishna’s birthday is synonymous with the fragrant fritters made by extracting the pulp of Palmyra palm fruit that ripens during monsoon. Fortified with freshly grated coconut, semolina and a dash of rice flour for a crisp finish, the Taal Phuluri or Taal’er bora is a seasonal favourite.
Many Bengali homes celebrate another curious monsoon festival, the Ranna Pujo which translates as the worship of cooking, in the month of Bhadra (mid-September). A folk festival with tribal roots, Ranna Puja is observed to appease the snake goddess Manasa and seek protection from snakes during the wet, rainy season. On this day the hearth is not lit, and no food is cooked in the household observing the ritual.
A massive ritualistic spread comprising panta bhaat (cooked rice left to ferment in water overnight), fried vegetables, yellow pigeon peas cooked with elephant apples, curried ash gourd and fried Hilsa is prepared the previous night and eaten cold the next day after being offered to the snake deity.
The highlight of the monsoon calendar in culinary terms is the Onam Sadhya – the massive spread served on the last day of the eponymous harvest festival of Kerala. The exhaustive range of traditional dishes beautifully showcases seasonal ingredients like yam, ash gourd, pumpkin, pineapple and bitter gourd in the form of stir fries, sambhar, rasam, coconut or yoghurt based curries and a lot more.