The edible inflorescence of the banana tree is a culinary gem. Bengali kitchens, for instance, turn out a phenomenal assortment of dishes with it – simple mocha bhaate (steamed banana blossom) mashed up with pungent mustard oil and green chilies; ghee-soaked mocha ghonto (a dry curry) topped with freshly grated coconut; crumb-fried croquettes filled with fried peanuts; and a tangy chutney flavoured with roasted spices.

In Assam, banana blossoms cooked with pigeon meat is a coveted delicacy. Kitchens down south drum up a delicious variety of curries, stir-fries, fritters and chutney with it. This is not the only flower, though, that is cooked in kitchens across India. An extraordinary variety of indigenous edible flowers have traditionally been used here as vegetable or spice, to add colour or to infuse flavours, or for their medicinal properties.

While edible flowers are now a growing global trend, multiple works of ancient and medieval Indian literature reference them. One example is yoghurt and buttermilk flavoured with spices such black pepper, dry ginger and cumin, and ironwood flowers, which is mentioned in Lokapakara, a book written in the 11th century.

Moringa flower. Credit: Harvey McDaniel/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

The Ni’matnama – a fascinating and quirky book of recipes put together in the late 15th century by the eccentric epicure Ghiyath Shah, the Sultan of Malwa, and his son Nasir Shah – details how a variety of flowers, including roses, jasmine, water lilies, champa, jujube and trumpet flowers can put to a variety of culinary uses such as flavouring oils and brewing unique spirits and fragrant essences. There are recipes for blue water lilies stuffed with plain boiled rice, tied with a string and cooked in a pot; pickles made with horseradish flowers and mango flowers; and meat cooked in a ditch whose walls have first been rubbed with flowers of various kinds.

Supa Shastra, which was written around the same time by King Mangarasa III, documents the culinary traditions of medieval Karnataka and mentions a preparation called chuchhuroti, which is flavoured with ghee, sugar, edible camphor and fragrant palmyra flowers. More recently, in his book Cooking Delights of the Maharajas, Digvijay Singh, the former maharaja of Sailana in Madhya Pradesh, archives a recipe for tesukaphool or palash flowers, which are also known as flame of the forest. The petals are first boiled and then cooked in sesame oil with onion, garlic and spices such as cumin and mango powder to make a dry curry of sorts.

Food writer Saee Koranne-Khandekar points to an intricate recipe for guravali, or deep-fried dough, with a sweet filling, from Ruchira, Kamlabai Ogale’s iconic Marathi cookbook. The exacting recipe calls for jasmine buds to be inserted into the guravali in a painstaking process so that when the dish is served the next morning, the buds would have bloomed and infused it with their fragrance. “It’s a fine example of sophisticated traditional cooking,” she said.

Regional, seasonal and ritualistic

In Assam, xewali or the night jasmine is a favourite and is used to make stir-fries and fritters, to flavour a traditional dish called khar and it is added to fish curries or tossed with plain rice. “We also eat something called teetaphool, [which are] these bright orange flowers that are quite bitter in taste,” said chef Kashmiri Barkakti Nath. “A personal favourite is khar cooked with dried teetaphool and jackfruit seeds.”

Night jasmine. Photo credit: Deepjyoti/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

A less common rendition of Bengal’s iconic shukto – a slightly bitter stew made with a medley of vegetables – calls for the distinctly bitter juktiphool, the tiny green flowers of the green milkweed climber, instead of the regular bitter gourd or neem leaves. The green milkweed flowers could also be tossed up for a quick stir-fry to start your meal with.

Rakesh Raghunathan, who runs the immensely popular blog Puliyogare Travels, talked about the delicious rasam made with the flowers of the neem tree in Tamil kitchens. Typically, a clean cloth would be spread under the tree to collect the flowers that fall. “The flowers are first dried and then roasted until almost charred to bring out the best flavour, before being added to the rasam,” he said. Neem flowers, like the ruthlessly bitter leaves, are fantastic cleansers and blood purifiers and make for a particularly good addition to one’s diet at the onset of tropical summers.

Neem tree. Photo credit: Thendral Muthusami/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

Neem leaves and flowers are also used in Saraswat homes – they are fried in ghee, mixed with pepper, cumin seeds and sugar and offered to the gods on Gudi Padwa, or the new year. It is later eaten by all the members of the family. Similarly, on Ashok Shashti, which falls around the same time, Hindu women in Bengal eat six buds of the ashok tree (ashok means without sorrow) to guard their children against grief. Incidentally, the ashok tree is steeped in medicinal properties and the flowers are especially useful in treating gynecological problems.

Another springtime favourite is the moringa, or drumstick, flower. In Bengali homes these are made into delicious fritters or cooked with diced potatoes and a paste of poppy seeds. In fact, in many homes, moringa flowers are added to gotasheddho, a dish made with pulses and whole vegetables and consumed cold on Shital Shashti, the day after Vasant Panchami.

“In Bundelkhand, moringa flowers cooked with adhar daal is a delicacy,” said food researcher Ruchi Shrivastava. “They are also cooked with other vegetables.” Besides, Shrivastava added, there is kachnar ke phool (the buds of the camel’s foot tree) which was once abundant in the region. “The buds…were made into a quick stir-fry in case there were no vegetables at home,” said Shrivastava. Kachnar trees were once common in Delhi, too. In her book Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi, Sadia Dehlvi includes a couple of interesting recipes such as kachnarkali salan, a curry made with mutton; and spiced kachnar bharta.

Unusual ingredients

Culinary writer Sangeeta Khanna, a champion of Banarasi food, has vivid memories of her grandmother cooking with sanai ke phool. “Sanai buds are added to curries and stir fries, and made into koftas and pakodas,” said Khanna, whose grandmother often made a special effort to procure rare seasonal ingredients to use in her cooking. “Besides, the tender buds of the semal or red silk cotton tree made for delicious curry, which is a tribal specialty.”

And there are several other regional favourites. In Rajasthan, the flowers of the phog (a desert shrub) are used to make raitas or kadhi. Documents from the late 19thcentury mention the flowers of the phog as food for the underprivileged in northern India. The flowers would either be mixed with flour or with salt and condiments along with a dash of ghee.

Again, in Gujarat, the flowers of Leptadenia Reticulata or jivanti, which grows wild during rains, is a coveted monsoon delicacy. Tender leaves and flowers of the tamarind, called chigoor, cooked with mutton is a rare Andhra delicacy. Turmeric flowers are cooked with pork in some Naga kitchens. And in the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal, sherbet made with syrups made with buransh or rhododendron is popular in the summers.

Turmeric flower. Photo credit: Sankarshansen/Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain]

Another delicious flower is that of the roselle. Known as gongura in Andhra Pradesh, the leaves are used extensively in the region’s food. The flowers, however, are best used to make jams and jellies, or traditional chutney. “Recently, I discovered whole sun-dried roselle flowers from the Nagpur area, at a farmer’s market in Mumbai,” said Koranne-Khandekar. “They were lightly salted and sweetened, and fun to munch on like churangolis. The cooperative that makes these also make chaat masala of sorts with the flowers – its blushing pink in colour.”

Deliriously sweet

No discussion on edible flowers is complete without the deliriously sweet-smelling flowers of the mahua or Indian butter tree. As Nanditha Krishna writes in her book Sacred Plants of India, according to a Tamil proverb, “in a village without a sugar mill, the flower of the Indian butter tree is the sugar”. But the mahua is perhaps best known for its intoxicating virtues and the eponymous liquor made from its hallucinogenic flowers that are indispensible to tribal festivals and celebrations like Sarhul and Chaitra Parva.

For adivasi tribes across the country – Gond and Korwa to Bhil and Baiga – the Mahua flower is not merely the source of their favourite liquor. It is also a major source of food, especially during months of scarcity. In his book The Indian cuisine, Krishna Gopal Dubey writes about yet another tribal specialty from Chhotanagpur called the asur khichdi, a rice dish spiked with flour made from dried Mahua flowers. Besides, mahua flour is also used to make an assortment of steamed cakes and sweet breads.

KT Achaya writes about latta, a dish made with mahua flour, molasses and parched grains, while mahua flower mixed with wheat flour, besan or linseed yields another tribal dish called mahaur “In Bundelkhand, dried mahua flowers are deep fried and eaten as a snack,” added Shrivastava. In Odisha, the Mahua Poda Pitha is a tribal delicacy to die for.