From sweet yellow pumpkins to jungli ber, peach, plum and mulberries, the spring season brings in some of the finest foods known for their sweet, tangy tartness, say chefs.
A few months ago, when Chef Dhruv Oberoi of Olive Bar & Kitchen chanced upon a bundle of fiddlehead ferns and Bengali olives on an impromptu visit to his local vegetable vendor, the idea was to explore something new that could prove to be “this proverbial kick that would get me out of my culinary slumber.” It did more. What started as an experiment to know a new local ingredient soon transformed into a quest — not just to know local, seasonal produce but also understand them better. And the one season that attracted the European cuisine expert most was spring.
“It isn’t a season of plenty as winters are in India, but the beauty of spring,” says Chef Oberoi, “is that it is a time of great food muses. You get to watch the prep work for summers — the start of mangoes, watermelons, musk melons, love apples, ice apples and the like — while enjoying the perks of foraging mulberries, cherries, ber, a variety of edible flowers and, of course, lembu or lemon including galgal, a citron variety from Himachal Pradesh.”
The Andaman-born chef isn’t the only one who seems to be smitten by spring that plays differently across the country when one region gets starfruit earlier (Odisha as compared to Kerala), or says Chef Sandeep Sadanandan, Head Chef, Byg Brewski, “when, pan-India, you will find different varieties of lemons and limes sprouting, be it late season tangelos or jaffa oranges, gol nimbu that grows in Assam to the rough lemons of the hills, kagzi lembu to Nagpuri kinnow and the versatile Eureka. Even though lemons are available through the year, it is around this time that you get ones that have an interesting balance of sweet and tartness, which makes them great to use for all kinds of food, desserts included.”
Spring citrons and flowers
Much like the natives, spring season citrons, especially lemons, are a bartenders’ bounty. Says seasoned bartender Aman Dua, “Limes and lemons make for great bitter infusions and bitters. The rind and the zest have this amazing pre-summer quality about them that can elevate a simple cocktail with both fragrance and that spring taste.”
This is why, continues Dua, “rhododendron and hibiscus growing this season are preferred for making drinks as well”.
Concurs locavore advocate Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, who finds the spring hibiscus used in creating Mexico’s popular summer drink, Agua de Jamaica, by far the finest. “A distant cousin of the Gurhal Ka Sherbat, the best thing about spring hibiscus is its rich colour and that nice, subtle flavour,” says Chef Seth for whom spring, thanks to its bounty of berries, limes, yams, jackfruit, ice apple and others, is the perfect season to play Mexican with local ingredients.
The gameplan is also endorsed by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, who finds the exceptional collection of berries that are available during the season — mostly foraged as they grow wild — nature’s best tastemaker. “Most berries that grow wild in the north are used to make pickles and relishes, which add a nice summery feel to any dish.”
In fact, traditionally, adds Chef Gorai, “the spring basket, which comprises of fruits from both winter and early summer, often helped design the eating habits of the next season, as most of the food was foraged and much of it was eventually preserved for summers, both for the flavours as well as wellness”.
Spring food’s wellness quotient Most springtime food, says nutritional therapist Shveta Bhassin, “have a good combination of vitamins A, B, C, and K while also being an excellent source of dietary fibre and potassium, niacin, magnesium and calcium, and that not only makes them a good eat during the weather change, but also the best antioxidant-rich antidote that helps prep the body for a long period of summer as well.”
It is the nutritive matrix that is also the reason behind a lot of the fruits, especially springtime berries, says Bhassin, “being preserved to play condiments during the summers”. A good example of this is the koli achar made of jungli ber in Odisha and the galgal adrak achar that is often found in hilly areas.
Adds Chef Seth, “Most of them still grow in the wild and need to be foraged. Thus, they are tree-ripened and are packed with flavours and fragrance, often making them a better choice to work with. Take lasoda (glue berry) for instance, the berry that announces the coming of spring when it transforms into this bright green globe of goodness with a sweet aroma. Unlike bael that falls once ready, plucking lasoda has to be done when it is still green, which is then transformed into a delicious dish like the Rajasthani lasoda subzi with kairi or into this spicy pickle.”
Karonda (Bengal currant) is popular for its subtly sweet and prominent sour, bitter, tart, and acidic notes. “This berry”, says Chef Ravi Tokas of Parat, “makes for a great tenderiser and tastemaker in meat curries and is often preserved as a spicy pickle that helps crank up the flavour quotient of any meal, especially bitter, while delivering the needed dosage of nutrition.”
The tetta phool in Assam is known for its acute bitterness, much like neem and moringa tender leaves in Odisha. These shrubs-like flowers, says Assamese culinary researcher Geeta Dutta, “are used in various stir fries and along with meat and pork. It is, in fact, an amazing flavourant that compliments meat brilliantly”.
Yet another fascinating springtime fruit is the mulberry or shahtoot that needs to be still foraged. because the tree often flourishes well in the wild, and grows independently where it can find the right climate. In fact, the berry, says Chef Sadanandan, “which is found across every state in India thanks to the tropical climate it needs, is perhaps nature’s perfect blend of notes. It is sweet with that hint of tartness which makes it an amazing addition to desserts, especially those made of chocolate.
Chef Sadanandan, who sources his stock from different farms across India often uses mulberries along with Kashmiri cherries to create a contrasting element in desserts, especially mousses. “A mulberry relish gives an otherwise chocolate-dense treat the lightness and contrast that makes it summery.”
That ability to instantly transform a dish is something that Chef Kedar Bobde, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Chandigarh, also looks for while working with spring fruits. “The spring fruit basked often consists local kinnow, a late winter harvest that is known for its amazing sweetness, and ice apple or tadgola that makes its debut just about now.” The brilliance, says Chef Bobde, “lies in their natural flavour composition, which is adapted for a palate looking for something citrusy, light and sweet. These qualities make the fruits not just a preferred pick as spring food, but also as additions to clever dishes in which they do most of the tastemaking.”
A fine example of the latter is Chef Bobde’s ice three ways in which the tender palm fruit is presented in three different ways: Au naturale, Tamil Nungu Payasam, and as Bengali bara.