Monsoon Food Rituals
In India food production and harvesting are still deeply seasonal. Here the gods of seasons — wind, rain, and sunshine — are ushered in and celebrated with pageant and ritual. In the South India state of Kerala, the heavy downpours of the monsoon are welcomed with ceremonies and special foods.
The arrival of monsoon clouds over the Arabian Sea in June every year is an eagerly awaited event in Kerala. From June through August the sea becomes a turbulent pool of water and rumbling thunder, heavy downpours, streaks of lightning and swaying palms all add to the spectacle. Monsoon mornings bring a refreshing smell of earth, crisp air, washed streets and ominous clouds rolling across the sky.
This climatic shift in the elements is considered nothing less than a holy event, because with monsoon comes a renewal of the life cycle of farming. Monsoon is the seasonal reversal of wind direction, caused by temperature differences between the land and the sea. It is not exclusive to India. It occurs at different times over northern Australia, western and eastern Africa and the southern United States. But none of them are as well pronounced as the Indian monsoon.
At the onset of the monsoon, Kerala Hindus welcome Sridevi, the goddess of plenty and prosperity to their midst. A special place is set up in the home to honor the goddess and every day before dawn, she is invoked and worshipped with lighted bronze oil lamps and platters of fruits and flowers. There also is a bronze bowl filled with popped rice mixed with fresh coconut and jaggery (Indian brown sugar) to propitiate the goddess.
Monsoon therapy diet
Monsoon season is also about cleansing and regeneration. According to the ancient Indian herbal medicine practice known as Ayurveda, the wet, dark months of the monsoon are the perfect time for rejuvenation of the mind and body. Ayurvedic massages and a diet of medicinal porridges are part of this rejuvenation therapy.
From mid-July through mid-August, a medicinal porridge called Marunnu kanji is taken either early in the morning on an empty stomach or at night as dinner, or at both times if possible, for a minimum of seven days. It is prepared with a special nutritious variety of rice called njavara (Oryza sativa Linn), which is said to have both medicinal and nutritive properties. This rice porridge is made by cooking njavara rice with cow’s milk, coconut milk and variety of spices and several locally grown herbs. It is garnished with a small amount of jaggery and thinly sliced shallots sautéed in ghee.
Even everyday meals follow this therapeutic pattern. All vegetables are boiled to eliminate any floodwater-borne contaminants before consumption; and both oil and salt are taken in limited quantities. Any meat is prepared as soup with black pepper, cumin and ginger to help easy digestion. Drinking water is boiled with dry ginger, cumin seeds and cardamom — spices that enhance digestion.
On every new moon during the monsoon season a simple thick rice soup or porridge is prepared for supper. It is cooked with broken parboiled (converted) rice in a copper pot lined with tin. The structure of the copper pot helps to increase the convection current of the air inside, thus helping to cook any food quickly. Apart from its advantages of heat conductivity, copper also has medicinal values that these pots impart to the dishes cooked in them.
Rice porridge is often served with toasted coconut chutney. Chunks of fresh coconut are wrapped in banana leaves and fire-roasted over the embers of a wood-burning stove, and ground along with toasted dry red chili peppers, tamarind, asafetida and salt and garnished with mustard seeds and curry leaves fried in coconut oil.
During the monsoon season on the first Tuesday and Friday of the month a special rice bran cake made with fresh coconut and jaggery is a must. Rice bran is the layer between the inner rice grain and the outer hull and it accounts for 60 percent of the nutrients found in each rice kernel. It is low in fat and calories and a good source of fiber, Iron, magnesium and phosphorus. These bran flour cakes are cooked in folded banana leaves over a hot cast iron griddle. As it cooks, the toasting banana leaves impart a delicate aroma to the bran cakes. Since most of the oil is applied over the banana leaves, the bran cakes are not greasy. It is always a treat to munch these warm sweet cakes while monsoon rains fall relentlessly outside.
Bran Cakes With Fresh Coconut and Jaggery
- Combine the bran, coconut, salt and jaggery.
- Sprinkle just enough water and mix it to a dough-like consistency.
- Smear a piece of banana leaf with half a teaspoon of oil, and place two tablespoons of the mixture in the middle.
- Spread it with your fingers into a thin layer, and fold the banana leaf in the middle.
- Repeat the process until all of the dough is used.
- Heat a griddle to medium heat, and spread half a tablespoon of oil.
- Place the folded banana leaf piece on the griddle, and cook on both sides for three to four minutes.
- The leaves will change color as they cook. Remove from the griddle.
- Peel off the banana leaves, and serve warm.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.Photos, from top:
Broken rice porridge and toasted coconut chutney.
Rice bran cakes.
Credits: R.V. Ramachandran