Many moons ago, during the hot summer months, my grandmother would insist that we drink a small glass of methi-mourir jal on an empty stomach every morning. Each night, she had an urn of water brought to her room to which she added fistfuls of fenugreek and fennel seeds and several lumps of palm candy. The next morning, she tied a muslin cloth to the mouth of the urn and strained the cloudy, golden liquid straight into glasses. “It will cool your stomach,” she would say.
According to Ayurveda, the ancient science of food and medicine, every food item is endowed with either heating or cooling properties which, in turn, dispel or escalate body heat, affecting everything from our metabolism to digestion. Ayurveda recommends seasonal eating focused on foods that help create balance in the body. By that logic the hot summer months call for cooling food.
Across the country, summer tables are filled with foods that not only help beat the heat but also score big on taste and memories.
In the early days of summer, lunches in Bengali homes almost always feature one bitter dish. It could be ruthlessly bitter neem leaves fried with diced brinjal until crisp; steamed or fried bitter gourd; or the illustrious shukto – a light, distinctly bitter stew made with a medley of seasonal vegetables. Elders insist that bitter food helps fortify the body against diseases common at the onset of tropical summers while also being excellent cleansers and working wonders for one’s appetite.
Deeper into summer, the focus shifts to cooling foods. For instance, posto or poppy seeds, a perennial favourite in Bengali kitchens, takes on a more specific role. As food historian Chitrita Banerji pointed out, “In the perishing heat of summer, posto cools the body like few other things. An added bonus is its slightly soporific effect, which deepens the post-lunch siesta of an ease-loving Bengali.” In the summers, my grandmother especially recommended posto baata – poppy seeds ground into a paste and mixed with salt, green chilies and mustard oil.
She liked pairing her posto baata with panta bhaat – cooked rice soaked in water and left to ferment overnight in a covered vessel. Fundamentally a rural breakfast dish, the slightly sour panta, seasoned only with a dash of salt and served with raw onions, green chillies and a splash of mustard oil is what farmers would often eat in the morning to keep their bodies cool in the sweltering heat on the fields. The slightly foggy water in which the rice has been soaked is known to be particularly beneficial. The panta, in fact, enjoys a somewhat exalted culinary status in neighbouring Odisha, where it is known as basi pakhala, or simply pakhala.
Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a passionate promoter of Assamese cuisine, picks the humble tenga – a tangy, soupy curry cooked with summer vegetables, with fish added in sometimes – as her personal summer favourite. “During summers we make the tenga with the tangy thekera, a close cousin of kokum, which is typically dried and stored in most Assamese households,” said Nath. A powerful digestive and a potent cooler, thekera (garcinia pedunculata) also makes for a refreshing summer drink.
The unassuming sattu (roasted gram flour), the uncontested summer hero in Bihar, is also versatile. It keeps the body cool during summers but is warming in the winters. Plus, it is both filling and incredibly light on the stomach. Kneaded into dough with chillies and raw onions – also great at dispelling body heat – or as a sharbat laced with spices or sweetened with jaggery, sattu makes for a complete and quintessential summer meal.
Culinary writer and consultant Saee Koranne-Khandekar fondly remembers childhood summers spent at her maternal aunt’s home in Khanapur, a small town on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. The chief attractions there were chomping on sweet-and-tart cashew apples from the farm, delicious stir-fries made with tender cashew nuts (another summer delicacy) and fresh coconut, and a special kokum concentrate prepared in her aunt’s kitchen. “The syrup would be made with fresh kokum, locally called ratambe,” said Khandekar.
The fruits would first be cut in halves, the flesh scooped out and the shells filled with sugar. These sugar-filled shells was then put into jars and left in the sun for a week. The juice was strained and boiled down with a little salt and roasted cumin powder. “Mixed with water it made for a delicious kokum sharbat,” she added.
Kokum – be it in the form of sharbat or sol kadi made with cold coconut milk and spices – is synonymous with summers in Maharashtra and Goa, a coolant like few other. Interestingly, however, Maharashtrians also make a range of ambils (literally something that’s fermented) for cooling the body. “The nachni chi ambil – malted ragi [finger millet] flour cooked in water with a pinch of asafoetida and green chillies, and mixed with buttermilk – is a filling and cooling breakfast popular along the Konkan belt,” said Khandekar. In the Vidarbha region, jwarichi ambil – whole jowar [sorghum] soaked overnight, ground up and cooked with peanuts and spices, and finally mixed with buttermilk – is more popular.
Next door in Gujarat, old-timers prescribe copious amounts of variyali nu sharbat – a drink made by soaking fennel seeds and black raisins in water – and tall glasses of chaas (thin buttermilk) to fight the oppressive heat. “Besides, summer is also the season for all sorts of gourd vegetables that are light on the stomach,” said culinary consultant Rushina Ghildiyal Munshaw. “My grandmother often made a salad of sorts with ivy gourd, soaked in lime juice, salt and chili powder, and soaked split moong dal.”
In the oppressive heat of Rajasthan or Haryana, a fermented gruel called raab or rabadi is the preferred natural coolant. Typically, wheat, maize or millet flour is fermented with buttermilk in earthen pots for several hours, boiled, salted and drunk as a beverage.
“During summers most homes in Varanasi make a chutney with raw mangoes, mint and raw onions, considered a potent antidote for loo-induced heatstroke,” said Sangeeta Khanna, an evangelist of Banarasi food, while talking about summer food traditions in Uttar Pradesh. For her, a typical Banarasi summer meal would comprise of kacche aam ki khatti daal (dal cooked with raw mangoes), chokha (spiced mash of vegetables), a lightly-cooked summer vegetable and this chutney. Besides, there are absolute summer essentials like aam panna and chilled bael ka sharbat.
Seasonal produce is in focus too. “Mangoes of course, rule the season, but the musk melons that grow on the sandy banks of the Ganga in and around Banaras are especially sweet and fragrant,” said Khanna. “Besides, there are jamun (Indian blackberry), shahtoot (mulberry), phalsa (black currant, which is a brilliant coolant steeped in medicinal properties), badhal (monkey jack) and the golden khirni (mimusops) that you could spot at the mandi from time to time.”
In the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where rhododendron or buransh grows in abundance, its sharbat is a coveted summer drink.
In Sindhi homes, too, homemade sharbat – fragrant concoctions infused with sandalwood or jasmine – are summer essentials. “Every summer my mother would make special syrup – rose petals boiled down with cardamom and sugar, to which she added a smidgen of red colour, a few drops of essence and a hint of silver varq,” said Alka Keswani, who runs the popular food blog Sindhi Rasoi. “Refrigerators were rare at the time, and we would order for ice at the local ice factory to make sharbat with my mother’s rose syrup.”
A unique summer cooler popular in Tamil homes is the paanagam or panakam, a beverage made with jaggery, lime juice, edible camphor and spices like peppercorns and dry ginger. “It is served as a ritual offering on Ram Navami, which coincides with the onset of summers, but we also make it at home a few times during the summers,” said Preetha Sreenivasan, who runs a YouTube channel called Dakshin Curry.
Other summer favourites include neer mor (buttermilk spiced with asafoetida, ginger and chillies); refreshing rasam made with curd and ajwain; and curd rice paired with the delicious mor milagai, which are green chilies soaked in buttermilk brine, sundried and then deep-fried, made fresh every summer. “Besides, we sometimes make a particularly cooling sharbat with the root of nannari or Indian sarsaparilla.”
In the sweltering Telangana heat, on the other hand, a good way to cool down is perhaps over large bowls of the pachi pulusu – a cold, watery soup made with tamarind water, chopped onions, green chilies, fresh coriander leaves, salt, a little jaggery, and a tempering of mustard and cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves.
For Dubai-based blogger Shireen Sequeira, summers at home in Mangalore meant feasting on ponsache patholi – sweet, steamed cakes made with ripe jackfruit, jaggery and ground rice – made in her mother’s kitchen. “My mother would typically steam the cakes wrapped in teak leaves and I would be assigned the job of plucking those leaves from our neighbour’s tree,” said Sequeira. Jackfruit, raw or ripe, frittered or stir-fried, curried or added to sweetened milk, is a summer favourite across the south, and is also known to help dispel body heat.