Jun 23, 2016
Monsoon is by far the most awaited season in the Indian subcontinent. Reams of romantic poetry have been written in all regional languages, and the Petrichor has been romanticised so much that a perfume-maker in Kannouj actually distills this peculiar aroma of rain-soaked earth, the Petrichor that is.
The first torrent of rain changes the rural and urban landscapes of India considerably. For us city folks, monsoon means wading through waterlogged roads and eating hot pakodas with chai. But, is the pakoda a right choice during the rainy season, health wise of course?
There are a few old sayings in Hindi about eating seasonal foods, and one of those prohibit consuming saag (leafy greens) in the month of Shravan and dahi (yoghurt) during Bhadrapad. According to the Hindu calendar, both the months fall during monsoon. The reason being leafy greens get contaminated easily when the fields are waterlogged. Same is the case with homemade yoghurt, which gets contaminated with Streptococci (causes strep throat and several other infections) and becomes gluey during this time.
I believe in the anthropology of food and cuisines, and have observed that if a certain pattern of eating food has developed and survived in a certain region, it is because of the symbiotic relationship between seasons, local produce and human health. Anything that would not suit either of these would be discarded from the cuisine unceremoniously. Note that the staple food ingredients were local by default, the spices and fineries were always the reasons for trade and transport.
Well, that was the case when food and cuisine were the function of local culture, with an obligatory dependence on climate, seasons and produce. Our festivals kept the tradition of seasonal food alive by cooking and celebrating seasonal produce. The ritualistic foods for festivals have not changed much and have great significance.
Back in the day seasonal eating was almost intuitive, and in smaller towns, it still is. But, for folks living in cities, it is almost like a distant reality. Today, ‘fresh’ produce is mostly procured from air-conditioned or climate-controlled market chains. It is difficult to know what produce comes from where and what was the season they grew in. Knowing what is good for the body in a particular season feels like a puzzle.
What TO eat during monsoon
1. Pakodas and fried food are alright if the consumption is in small portions and the oil is of good quality. The go-to chutney is the sonth imli ki chutney simply because it is cooked, hot and astringent, which are some of the preferred tastes during monsoon. It also fires up a dull appetite and builds up immunity.
2. Hot-brewed teas and tisanes are great right now. Lime, pepper, mint, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, lemon balm, cloves, cardamoms and cinnamon are great spices and herbs for monsoon. Indian masala chai or ginger chai is great too.
3. When it comes to vegetables, monsoon is when fresh produce is not readily available. Reason why people in olden times depended on sun-dried vegetables and spiced lentil badis or wadis or bori (in Bengali).
Interestingly, spiced lentil badis are made with spices and chillies suitable for soupy vegetables such as a pyaz badiyon ki subzi. An immunity building soupy curry, it is prepared by cooking fried and crushed badis with lots of sliced onions. Served with plain wheat rotis, this curry can actually cure a cold just like chicken soup!
4. Use of garam masala, turmeric and ginger, garlic and onion, chillies et al are highly recommended during monsoon. All these spices provide immunity and keep the metabolic rate high. Khade masale ka stew or whole spices cooked with chicken or meat is a monsoon favourite of many for the right reasons.
5. Citrus fruits are good, especially lime as vitmain C provides immunity from seasonal infections. Pineapple, papaya and kiwi can be eaten as they improve digestive fire.
6. Khichdi is great during monsoon as it is light on the stomach and has everything the body needs. The classic khichdi accompaniments of spiced papads, ghee, chokha (or other roasted mashed vegetables) and Indian pickles make for a great meal to brace for the rains.
7. Astringent, sour, hot and bitter foods in general are recommended by Ayurveda to combat health issues in monsoon.
What NOT to eat during monsoon
1. Leafy greens should be avoided not only because they get contaminated easily, but also because they lead to a bloated feeling. The raw green chutney that comes with the pakoda is better to be given a miss.
2. Raw vegetables and greens are out, so salads are not a good option. Freshly cooked hot foods are a better choice any day.
3. Stay away from fruit-based smoothies, granitas and gelatos.
4. Fruits like melons and cucumbers are not good as they take time to digest.
5. Yoghurt and yoghurt-based dips should be a no-no. Warm milk and milk-based drinks are better in moderate amounts.
6. Seafood is also prohibited due to contamination and because most species breed during this season. Go for chicken and meat stews instead.
It is wise to restore a sense of natural rhythm of the seasons, and eat intuitively throughout the year. If you feel bloated or sluggish after eating something, you might try and eliminate that for some time and see if it helps. Do not wait for allergies and ingredient intolerances (like gluten or lactose) to tell you the signs of discomfort or sickness. Smaller signs like bloating, mild headaches, throat infections and indigestion give enough indication if we eat mindfully.
(Ayurveda inputs from Ayurvedic Healing by Dr. David Frawley)
The author is a food and nutrition consultant, a food writer who likes to document regional culinary traditions. Her interest stems from her education of Botany, and later research experience in Microbial Biotechnology. She blogs at Banaras ka khana.