Life Desk :
When the sun beams brighter than the dazzling amaltas in the sub-continent, it cues the onset of sultry days. Those who have spent summertime in India know that it doesn't cede its hold up till nearly September; its spell broken only by fleeting dust storms and showers. The Indian summer has always been unrelenting, and with climate change and soaring temperatures, how does one keep cool in a season whose vagaries claim lives every year and whose less dire consequences include exhaustion, dehydration, diarrhoea, syncope (fainting) or rashes?
The answer, perhaps, lies in our ancient texts which have detailed accounts of season-appropriate fare in a land where the cuisines morph from region to region. "The Charakasamhita, an Ayurvedic text written by Charaka around the first century BC, contains detailed instructions on eating and keeping healthy," writes Chitrita Banerji in Life and Food in Bengal (Penguin, 2005). Easy ways to circumvent India's torrid temperatures are prescribed in Ayurveda, which ascribes an innate potency or taseer to every food. Gauged by its impact on the body, the food may either be cooling or heat-inducing. Unlike in the West, where the concept of cold food largely encompasses salads and cold cuts, in India, food characterised as cold is considered as such, and thought as apt for the summer months, not only for their cooling effect on the body, but also because they are easy on the digestive system and effectual detoxifiers.
Nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer Kavita Devgan, says, "While Ayurveda goes deeper into the study of a particular food's natural properties, we follow a few guiding principles based on traditional wisdom to identify which food will be cooling to the body - it should be hydrating, easily digestible and detoxifying." The summer months suck electrolytes from our bodies and foods considered detoxifying, such as the summer specials watermelon, cucumber and berries, "not only help avoid diseases due to a toxic overload but also gets perspiration going, enabling our body to cool down on its own," she adds.
This concept of "cold" food has trickled down to most Indian kitchens. "I remember my grandmother, and later, my mother, often saying that certain foods heat up or cool the stomach. Things that cooled the stomach were not necessarily cool themselves - ice-cream and too much mango, we were told, in the summer could give you pet gorom (upset stomach)," says author Devapriya Roy. Her summer memories include a light fish stew or a patla maachher jhol - even the unforgiving heat doesn't deter a Bengali's obsession with fish - that was consumed with a dash of lime. "This was made with rohu in my house and was a summer staple. There was also this aamer jhol - a light, watery dish made with raw mangoes - that my mother recommended, and, as a child, I always ignored. But now, I yearn for that taste. There was also the classic combination of kalaier dal and alu posto, made especially during the summer months. Urad dal and posto (poppy seeds), are both cooling. The latter no doubt helped with an after-lunch nap," says Roy. Roy's mother, Manidipa, grew up eating the "classic combination" at her grandmothers' homes. "In the '60s, the time when I was growing up, there were no ACs and houses had one or two fans. I remember many summer lunches comprising these two dishes - kalaier dal with aloo posto. They were delicious and light and easy to digest," she says.
Indeed, most argue that making the most of seasonal produce is the best way to keep illnesses at bay. And summer's bounty ensures that there is much to pick from - watermelons, berries, plums, peaches, tomatoes and cucumber, are all high in water content and aid digestion. Taken with curd or flattened rice, it's a desi version of the Western fruit salad.
Summer is also the season for a variety of vegetables - pumpkin, ash gourd, snake gourd, ridged gourd are all known to be cooling. "Ayurvedic practitioners recommend patol (pointed gourd) and two varieties of gourds, karola (bitter gourd) and uchchhe (a variant of bitter gourd)," further writes Banerji. Easy on the digestive system, they are fibrous and protect against heat exhaustion. "We integrate these into our staples such as sambar, parippu curry & erissery.
Sambhaaram (spiced buttermilk with curry leaves & ginger) was a regular during summers at home. In fact, we always had a litre or two in the fridge as a refresher given how easy it is to prepare," says Thomas Fenn, co-owner, Mahabelly.
Regional cuisine in India has always been shaped not just by the topography of the land but also by its history and its climatic conditions. In most regions of India, summer coolers find a place on tables, as tackling dehydration in these months is paramount. In Kottayam, Kerala, where Fenn grew up, the heat was countered with tall glasses brimming with "sambhaaram, kulkil sharbath (lemon-based drink with tulsi seeds, a natural cooling ingredient) and nannari sharbath (made from the naruneedi root, also a natural coolant). Tender coconut water followed closely," he says.
Rickety thelas, barely upright under the oppressive sun, begin to dole out glasses of water, lemonade and the popular chaas or chhaachh on Delhi's streets. "Chhaachh, made by churning yoghurt, which is known to be cooling for the body, is primarily made two ways - with roasted cumin seeds and salt, and the other is plain. Most of the vendors in Delhi come from Haryana and as the summer gets worse, you begin to see more and more of them - from Old Delhi to outside government offices," says Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walks.
In chef and food consultant Gunjan Goela's home in Delhi, sattu sherbet drinks took predominance. Though most popular in Bihar, sattu is made by powdering roasted gram flour, flavoured with black salt, mint leaves, roasted cumin powder and salt, and is consumed across the state. However, in Goela's mother's kitchen, a variation was concocted with pearl millet or bajra instead of black chickpea flour. "My mother is from Rajasthan where bajra is very popular. She would give us bajre ka sattu when it got extremely hot. It was soaked, strained and mixed with boora or khaand (unrefined sugar). Those were the days when refined sugar was not popular in Indian homes and Delhi's proximity to UP, which has several khaand factories, ensured its availability," she says. Rich in iron, manganese, magnesium and high on insoluble fibre, sattu is also stuffed into parathas or made into the Bihar favourite - litti.
In Rajasthan, where the mercury regularly soars up to 45 degrees celsius in the summer, sherbet of bael or Bengal quince is a household staple. The globose fruit with a hard rind yields a laxative pulp, sweet and aromatic. "We soak the pulp overnight in water and sieve it the next morning to make a cooler. Sometimes, we add sugar and cardamom to the drink but its sweet enough on its own too. It's something I have two-three glasses of in a day and it keeps the stomach in check," says Mita Kapur, founder and CEO, Siyahi, and author of the food memoir, F-Word (HarperCollins, 2013). Found widely across the country, the tree is considered sacred among Hindus, and lends itself to a variety of preparations including the bela pana from Odisha, prepared on the Odia new year. A mix of the fruit's pulp, milk, fresh cheese, sugar, cardamom and pepper, and sometimes a small amount of camphor, the ambrosia is diluted with water and offered to the gods before downing.
Aam panna, a raw mango cooler, is well-regarded for the stout defence it puts up against the intense Indian summer. Relished across India, raw mango which makes its way into chutneys and raitas, is not only heat-resistant but is also believed to have medicinal properties. But aam panna leads to a twist in the otherwise uncomplicated tale of cold foods: Why is raw mango a cooling agent when it is considered heat-inducing when ripe? "The nature and effect of the food change by the way it is treated," says Ayurveda expert BN Sinha.
Food changes its properties according to the way it is cooked and has differing effects on the body at different times of the day. Further, each body type as distinguished in Ayurveda - vata (wind), kapha (water) and pitta (fire) - will react differently to the food," he adds. "Almonds soaked overnight develop a thandi taseer or cooler properties but if you eat them dry, as we do in the winter, they are considered to have the opposite effect on the body. The technique of using the ingredient and the stage at which it is added to the dish need to be kept in mind," says Goela, adding, "My mother would order chaar magaz ke beej - essentially seeds of muskmelon, watermelon, cucumber and pumpkin and would grind them with almonds, khus khus (poppy seeds) and black pepper to make thandai, which is a summer cooler. The same ingredients, barring the seeds, were fried in ghee and given to us in winter for the opposite reason."
Basil seeds, Mahabelly A summer cooler made of basil seeds at Mahabelly, Saket. (Photo by Abhinav Saha)
This theory extends to spices as well. While cinnamon, mustard and coriander seeds are avoided in summer, cardamom, fennel and cumin seeds are infused into drinks and dishes. Another spice, that can be found in most well-stocked department stores, is the tart sumac - ground drupes of the rhus tree, used extensively in the Middle East. Irani cafe SodaBottleOpenerWala's chef, Anahita Dhondy, first encountered the spice while in Dubai a few years ago. The spice is prescribed to those suffering from fluid loss. "It is used extensively in Iranian food so we thought of introducing a salad of vegetables stir-fried in garlic and sumac with a dash of lemon juice," she says.
Rice too, like many other ingredients, needs to be treated with caution. Uncooked rice is considered to be heat-inducing, while cooked rice is endorsed as cold food. High in minerals and easily digestible, rice is fermented into a kanji or gruel and consumed in the southern and eastern regions of India. In West Bengal, and its neighbours, Assam and Odisha, panta bhaat or fermented rice congee - cooked rice soaked overnight and flavoured with mustard oil, green chillies and lemon juice - is a popular dish. The residual water acquires a slight piquantness and is often mixed with salt before drinking to prevent heat strokes and stomach ulcers.
It is argued by some that fermented foods such as yoghurt, pickles and cheese should be avoided during the summer months. "This is a myth. Summer kills our appetite so it is essential that we eat foods that have high nutritional value. Fermentation enables the production of good bacteria and enzymes which further help absorb the nutrients we get from the food that we eat," says Devgan. Kurush Dalal recalls how his mother, Mumbai-based caterer, food writer and nutritionist Dr Katy Dalal would serve "brinjal that was heated on a fire, peeled, mashed and cooked with onions, tomatoes, green chillies, coriander and mixed with curd."
Down south, curd rice gains in popularity in summer. Made across homes in the region, Tamil Nadu's thayir sadam becomes Karnataka's mosaranna and Andhra Pradesh's dadyodanam. A simple mix of rice and yoghurt, it acquires its zing from a temper of urad dal, cumin seeds, curry leaves, green chillies and asafoetida. Sometimes, ginger is added.
Milk's offerings lend themselves to varied culinary uses across regions. Even the humble coagulated malai is a coolant and an indispensable component of many Indian desserts - ras malai, kulfi, malai pedha, among others. In some homes, like in Goela's, "malai was the prasad offered to the gods. Once the puja was over, the malai would either be added to the food cooked that day, or, sometimes, she would add khaand or bananas to it and keep it aside for the family. She rarely got a chance to distribute it as my sisters and I would polish it off," she says, with a laugh.