The true monsoon foods of India

The monsoon is here. From fried fish to Anarsa and butternut squash & barley, seasoned chefs on their favourite dishes to ring the rainy day blues away.

Fact: Monsoon is best enjoyed with chai and pakora, also called vada or bhajia in different parts of the country.

Also a fact: Both chai and pakoras were not curated as monsoon specials, albeit over the years the duo earned the stripes thanks to their composition and deliciousness that made them the effortless go-to snack combo to wash away the rainy blues.

Then what really are the monsoon eats?

The monsoon fritter platter at sonar tori.
The monsoon fritter platter at Sonar Tori.

Of fish eggs & bold flavours

Like most seasons in India, the monsoon too comes with its own set of ingredients and a plethora of dishes that celebrate them. Take for instance, plantain, mushrooms, and a variety of root vegetables, and, of course, greens too. In fact, the first flush of rains in East India often means the season for indigenous fungi that tend to mushroom everywhere — from the haystack to the trunk of the tree and even in clean, wetlands. And the variety ranges from the portobello style to the delicate oyster and olmi too. Likewise, is the case with greens. In fact, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai of Fabrica By Saby, “Monsoon is the season when one can truly experience not just an interesting flush of produce especially when it comes to root vegetables, dried fish, greens and ’shrooms, but also some of the most robust flavours across the country with spicy mustard, chillies, pepper and fermented paste coming to the fore of cooking.” One such dish that the chef immensely enjoys during monsoon is the Mudhi Ghonto — both the Bengali as well as the Odia style. While both use the fish head and tail for flavouring, the beauty of each, says the culinary anthropologist, “is that while one is made with rice peppered with a few seasonal vegetables, the latter is a classic case of using traditional ingredients, especially root vegetables like elephant foot. Then, of course, is the interesting world of patuas and paturi that instead of using fresh fish, use rehydrated dried fish and mushroom that are flavoured with either the bold besara (Odia mustard paste) or the rustic garlic and ginger to give the palate the right kick to feel alive.”

Fish roe fritters from the might slice (left); and ilish paturi (right), both traditional monsoon favourites.
Fish roe fritters from The Might Slice (left); and ilish paturi (right), both traditional monsoon favourites.

Concurs Pritivish Chakravarti, Founder of The Mighty Slice, whose go-to dish during the monsoon is the fish roe fritter. For most Bengalis (and Odias), says Chakravarti, “monsoon is synonymous to this fast-disappearing delicacy, which tastes the best during this time of year. A simple fritter by appearance, making the fish roe, which needs a homemaker’s acumen and a cook’s skill, is an art, as working with the gelatinous ingredient while voraciously seasoning it needs practice. For the most part the fritter is seasoned with finely chopped onions, coriander leaves, green chillies, loads of garlic, a bit of besan or rice for binding and then shallow fried to a crisp exterior. But, as per regions, there are new additions to it as well.”

Had mostly as a drink accompaniment, the mark of a well-done fish roe fritter is that it is crisp on the outside with a bite on the inside with that distinct, says the culinary explorer, “paté kind of aftertaste.” In fact, curiously, the fish roe fritter isn’t limited to West Bengal and Odisha only. One finds similar creations, of course with different seasonings, across the coastal areas of Maharashtra and Goa too.

Of wild greens, seeds and roots

Says Chef Kedar Bobde, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Chandigarh, “It is one of the monsoon specials one finds along with pithode and Bombay duck across the length and breadth of this erstwhile Maratha kingdom. However, the one dish, which is a rarity today, that monsoon is most famous for is Shelva or Junglee Suran.”

“Still foraged from the jungles, this yam though,” continues the cuisine specialist, “is laborious to work with — the cleaning itself takes practice and expertise — but makes for a delicious treat whether as a bhaji or when paired with dried prawns.”

Pathrode (left); and the muradabadi suba seekh by parat.
Pathrode (left); and the Muradabadi suba seekh by Parat.

The place of this seasonal produce in the seasonal plate, says Chef Bobde, “is next only to Phodshi Bhaji or mulsi that appears for just two weeks during the rainy season and is preferred over other greens to make sabzi or fritters.”

In Assam, says culinary researcher Geeta Dutta, “that place is for not only moringa leaves and mustard greens but also pumpkin leaves, jackfruit seeds, elephant apple, fiddlehead ferns and the small Boriala fish. In fact, through the season, these produces continue to be a part of our daily food, whether as this light, tangy fish curry, stir fry or when cooked along with pork. One of the all-time favourites, of course, is pork cooked with greens like moringa, fiddle ferns and wild spinach.”

Of lady finger and squash

The idea of crunchy seafood is also high on the list for Adith Fernandes, Co-owner, Fresh Catch. Says the Fernandes scion, “It is a rainy day ritual at our house to make jackfruit or phanas crisps that are served with either a masala fry or rava fry. Both are extremely crispy and flavourful. And the best part is that they’re not deep fried. Another dish that would be served regularly is Sungta Ane Bhende Kodi (prawn and lady finger curry) served with Goan rice, a perfect comfort food.”

Jackfruit crisps (left); and sungta ane bhende kodi (right) are hot monsoon favourites for adith fernandes, co-founder, fresh catch.
Jackfruit crisps (left); and Sungta Ane Bhende Kodi (right) are hot monsoon favourites for Adith Fernandes, Co-Founder, Fresh Catch.

Comfort food is also what defines Chef Dane Fernandes, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, monsoon time. “One of my fondest memories of the rains would be this low-calorie, delicious Roasted Butternut Squash with Barley. A creamy, tasty broth made by my mother, it was originally made with rice and was a staple on days when one would crave something warm and balmy. It was the first dish I learnt and I make it every time I need that burst of energy and a hug on a dull day.”

Roasted butternut squash with barley spells comfort for chef dane fernandes.
Roasted Butternut Squash with Barley spells comfort for Chef Dane Fernandes.

Concurs Chef Gracian de Souza. Chefpreneur, The Village Bistro, who although finds the classic Chicken Veloute soup one of the best ways to beat the rainy blues, is all for the rosary Goan sausage when it comes to making a hearty meal for the monsoon. His preferred version is Goan Chourico with confit potatoes. A French-style take on a traditional favourite, this dish, says Chef Gracian, “has every single flavour that the palate desires, just cranked up. Served with a warm poee, it is a match made in heaven during a downpour.”

Of ’shrooms, flowers and pathiri

That balmy feeling of warmth and comfort is what also makes Chef Srijith Gopinath, Chefpreneur, Ettan, recreate his childhood favourite pathiri. A Mappila speciality, this fluffy pancake is a signature monsoon special at his award-winning restaurant today and is served exactly the way the chef fell in love with it — filled with black pepper-seasoned cauliflower. The beauty of pathiri that is traditionally fried in ghee, says Chef Gopinath, “is the flavour profile. It has the sweetness from the rice, the spiciness of the black pepper, the umaminess from the pickled cauliflower and, of course, the tartness from the Meyer lemon, which makes it this delicious bite that the palate will crave again and again.”

Pathiri (left) is a monsoon mappila speciality; while pasera garelu (right) is a favourite in telangana.
Pathiri (left) is a monsoon Mappila speciality; while Pasera Garelu (right) is a favourite in Telangana.

For Chef Regi Mathew of Kappa Chakka Kandhari, that magic happens with two of his favourites. One, says Chef Mathew, “is Koon Kizhi made with mushroom flavoured with coconut masala and kodampuli, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, while another is Vazahapoo cutlet made with banana flower. Not only were these seasonal in nature, but are my childhood favourites too. I still remember, for Koon Kizhi, we had to wait for the rainy season to get the right kind of mushroom to prepare this delicious treat, as much of the flavour of the dish comes from the mushroom, and also because it was my mother’s speciality. In case of Vazhapoo cutlet, this Syrian Christian dish is usually reserved for the wedding with one exception, the monsoon. During this time, the banana flower grows in abundance and is at hand when one wants to cook something delicious and filling. The dish that saw the light of day during the colonial era is today a must-have during the monsoon purely because of that pick-me-up kind of aliveness this treat leaves one with.”

That tiramisu kind of comfort is what takes Chef Gaurav Gidwani, F&B Director, Brewdog India Bars, to his last two years’ beloved Pasera Garelu from Telangana. Made like a mathri with a dough that has been vigorously seasoned with asafoetida and the Gujarati spicy, tangy methi masala, this fritter has just the right amount of texture and taste that can fill you up, says Chef Gidwani, “while preventing you from overeating. In fact, served with an equally spicy tomato chutney, it makes for the perfect side dish or snack.” 

Roots and seekh

When it comes to the perfect monsoon snack, nothing quite whets the appetite of motorhead Chef Sandeep Sadanandan, Head Chef, Byg Brewski, who finds much of the food and snacks on the highway including goji bhaji, the best celebration of the monsoon. Think of it, he says, “most of these treats are made to bring in this instant cheer that is akin to having a bowl of warm kheer in the morning. But the one aspect that I like most about the monsoon is its array of chips — from banana to jackfruit to yam and sandige, each crisp is made to not only enjoy the fruits of the season but in the tastiest form.” Such is the love with the crisp that it is a standard feature on the Byg Brewski menu, especially the Sunday brunch.

Interestingly, while most monsoon eats across India have a dominating nostalgic presence and are savoury like the Muradabadi Suba Seekh that, adds Chef Ravi Tokas of Parat, “gets its crunch from roasted dal and taste profile from the melange of seasonal produce and tandoor”, there are a few sweets ones too.

The warm sweet gooeyness

Biki max evokes nostalgia for its creator, chef dhruv oberoi, who is reminded of sweets had during the monsoon in his childhood.
Biki Max evokes nostalgia for its creator, Chef Dhruv Oberoi, who is reminded of sweets had during the monsoon in his childhood.

Take, for instance, the Biki Max created by Chef Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen. The idea, says the dessert specialist, “behind this sandwich comes from the delicious fried sweets like khaja and malpua that marked my childhood along with the rich, velvety rabri that was a must with hot jalebis during the rainy season made by my mother or grandmother. It was almost a family ritual to have something sweet to perk up the dull days. The Biki Max with its pistachio and rose flavouring and burnt phyllo sheets is an ode to those rainy days when a bowl of warm sweet treats could cure anything, even a downpour that often locked me at home.”

For chef manish mehrotra, monsoon is all about anarsa.
For Chef Manish Mehrotra, monsoon is all about anarsa.

It is a feeling that is all too familiar to Chef Manish Mehrotra, Culinary Director, Indian Accent. “For me,” says the culinary specialist, “monsoon reminds me of my hometown, Patna, and the sweet called Anarsa. Essentially, it’s a rice dumpling stuffed with khoya coated with sesame seeds and deep fried and sweetened with jaggery — much like Ariselu in Andhra Pradesh and Arisa Pitha in Odisha. I simply loved the texture and taste, especially when served hot. Such is my association with good rains and Anarsa that even today when someone is coming from Bihar, I ensure they carry a box of this delicious sweet that could both warm the soul and fill your heart.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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