March is the month for the cumin harvest on the salt flats of the Little Rann, the smaller of the Indian state of Gujarat’s two deserts. Cumin is used in vast quantities throughout India, the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe and Africa, valued for its digestive properties as well as an essential element in spice mixes.
Cumin from Rann stands out
Cumin from the Little Rann commands a high price among those who know their spices, being unusually fragrant, slow to lose its savor and rarely attacked by insect infestations. This might be because the salty desert breeze has a preservative effect, or because any plant stressed by similarly harsh conditions sets particularly robust seed — or it might even be that the romance of a desert harvest adds a savor of its own.
Salt and cumin are not the only cash crop available to the inhabitants of the mud-walled villages dotted across the acacia scrubland of the Little Rann. Local entrepreneurs organize 4-wheel safaris to inspect the herds of wild asses for which the Rann is famous; others come to watch nesting flamingos, ibis and demoiselle cranes — myself among them. Alongside the shimmering salt pans on the day of my visit, a bright March morning at the start of the dry season, are golden heaps of what looks like hay. Among them are scattered pairs of harvesters, women and children, tossing chaff and catching the seed in baskets.
A diverse harvest
They are working the cumin crop, explains our guide. Cumin — a pink-flowered member of the carrot family — is harvested once a year through February and March. Planting takes place in November, after the first rains have filled a series of man-made square pans formed by low mud ramparts rebuilt each year. The cropping of the cumin and the raking of the adjacent salt flats is the ancestral right of a single family who live in ramshackle huts by the pans for six months at a time, rotating their duties with relatives in a nearby village. The state, says the guide, also provides money to dig water holes for the wild ass which, though well-adapted to desert conditions, are endangered by the draining of the waterways used to irrigate farmland and supply the cities. Conservation is not just for tourists, he adds, but because the people themselves don’t want to lose what they have.
Gujarat is not an easy ride. As the home of Mahatma Gandhi, the state is dry and the majority of the population, 50 million and growing, conforms to Hindu dietary rules and doesn’t eat meat. Gandhi’s spirit remains. His ashram is a place of pilgrimage, his name invoked in the presidential palace in Delhi whenever government steps out of line, and his views on the influence of diet on politics — that meat-eating encourages aggression and vegetable-eaters have no choice but to achieve without violence what they cannot win by force — reflects the way the people choose to live.
Here, home cooks rule
The result is a sophisticated vegetarian cuisine developed along Ayurvedic principals, a system of eating for well-being as well as sustenance; it is subtle and nuanced, intended to seduce the eye as well as the palate, pleasing both mind and body. All this is something of a tall order for even the most accomplished restaurant chef, and yet the domestic cooks of Gujarat, many of them women who leave home for the workplace every day, have evolved a way of preparing meals mid-morning and evening from scratch in the time it would take to heat up a takeaway. Leftovers are never saved, but recycled to sacred cows, urban wanderers whose minders return the favor with milk for chai and fresh curds.
In the countryside, traditions of hospitality are so strong that outsiders can always count on being fed. Only those who come into contact with tourists will accept money for meals, ensuring that beyond the cities, restaurants are almost nonexistent. There are, however, roadside stalls and pull-ins where the choice is limited, but the food is as freshly cooked as it would be at home. Service comes in the form of a thali, a tray with little dishes of dhal and spiced vegetables (one soupy, one dry) to eat with a freshly cooked scooping-bread, roti. Nuts — usually cashews — or crumbled curd-cheese are provided for protein, with a glass of milky chai to wash it all down.
It’s in these modest eateries that you’re most likely to find traditional Gujarati dishes spiced in the old way, with cumin for flavor, and pepper and ginger for heat, leaving the fiery chile — that New World interloper brought in by the Portuguese — to those who can’t leave a good thing alone.
Unleavened bread cooked to order and eaten hot from the bakestone serves as a scoop for soft foods as well as providing the central element in a meal. Water is always provided for people to wash their fingers before eating, a public demonstration of cleanliness that ensures your own eating-implement (right hand only) is clean while reassuring your companions it’s safe to dip in the same dish. For the same reason, no one shakes hands with anyone else while eating.
- Mix the flour in a bowl with the salt, and work in enough water to make a softish dough. Oil your hand and knead the dough ball till smooth. Divide it into 16 pieces. Dust a board with flour, and roll out each piece into a thin round about the size of a side-plate.
- Heat a bakestone or griddle or heavy frying pan and bake the breads one at a time till the edges curl. Flip it over and bake the other side till air-bubbles form. Remove with tongs and hold in a gas flame for a few seconds till it puffs and splits. Serve with soupy dhal and little dishes of curried vegetables.
You can make this with green beans, sugar peas, diced courgettes, young broad beans in pods, potato, carrot, pumpkin or a mixture. Hindu dietary rules, if strictly applied, replace onion as a flavoring with asafoetida, which is also known as hing.
For the flavoring paste:
- Top and tail the okra, and chop into short lengths. Heat the butter or oil in a saucepan. Add the cumin, asafoetida and pepper. Stir for half a minute, then add the okra, a pinch of salt and a glassful of water. Bring to a boil.
- Meanwhile, pound the ingredients for the flavoring paste till mushy.
- As soon as the okra comes to a boil, stir in the paste. Turn down the heat, cover loosely and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, till the okra is tender. Boil uncovered for a few moments to thicken the juices.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Image: The cumin harvest rendered in watercolor. Credit: Elisabeth Luard