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The colder months offer up an array of fresh vegetables that are flavourful and nutritious
Winter in India brings forth some familiar favourites: there’s a nip in the air, time spent soaking up the winter sun, masala chai on the hob, and all kinds of seasonal produce that makes mealtimes colourful and more delicious.
While gourmet food stores and hydroponics give us year-round access to pretty much any kind of vegetable we desire, it’s still wise to get to know your local, seasonal ingredients so that you can enjoy them at their peak. From the North to the Northeast, these are the desi in-season veggies and dishes you shouldn’t miss out on.
The North is home to lots and lots of leafy greens this time of year. Whether you’re in Delhi or Punjab, sarson ka saag is a dish that shows up on the menu in dhabas and fine-dining establishments. Contrary to popular perception, sarson ka saag (or just saag as its often called) isn’t just mustard greens.
Food writer Vernika Awal, specialises in Punjabi vegetarian cuisine and says saag is a made with a number of winter greens. “It’s a combination of mustard, radish greens, methi, (fenugreek) and bathua (lamb’s quarter). Punjabi families do variations at home and the greens are used in different proportions.”
She also says that saag is never cooked in ghee, but in mustard oil. “We top things with ghee, we don’t necessarily cook everything in ghee!” She also adds that the mustard stems (dandlaan) are what give the dish its distinct peppery flavour. So sarson ka saag isn’t just seasonal, its also makes the most of the vegetable, from root to tip.
If leafy greens are widely available in the North, down South, seasonal tubers pop up for a short period in the market.
In Kerala, the Malayalam month of “Vrishchikam” which runs during the last two months of the calendar year is known for the availability of root vegetables like yams, purple yams, Chinese potato (called koorka in Malayalam), sweet potatoes and colocasia. These vegetables are cooked together to make both sweet and savoury dishes for the festival of Thiruvathira, believed to be the birth star of Lord Shiva. Some of these seasonal yams are also added to aviyal, a vegetable dish made with a ground coconut, spices, and yogurt.
But it’s not all starchy roots. Radishes make an appearance down South, too. In Punjab, if radish leaves are added to saag and the bulbs are used in salad, in the South, they become a part of the medley of vegetables in sambar.
Lawyer and food blogger Kamala Anand, who documents step-by-step South Indian vegetarian recipes on her much-followed Instagram handle, says that winter in her childhood home meant radish sambar. “Like any South Indian homes, sambar has always been an integral part of our meals. With the coming of winter, we could make mullangi or radish sambar. This was a welcome variant, taking the flavour of the sambar a few notches higher!”
What sambar and aviyal are to Kerala, undhiyo is to Gujarati cuisine. Undhiyo may not be as widely recognised as dhokla and thepla, but in Gujarati homes, winter is incomplete without it.
Yams, unripe bananas, sweet potatoes, fresh pigeon peas, baby eggplant and fried methi muthias (fenugreek dough balls) are combined with local broad beans like surti papdi and val papdi and slow cooked in one pot. There’s also plenty of fresh grated coconut, green chillies and coriander, which gives the dish a green hue. It’s a true celebration of seasonal produce. Another key ingredient in undhiyo is fresh green garlic, which is available only during the cold months.
Green garlic or “leela lasan” finds its way into other regional and community cuisines from the West. Parsis add it to their eggs (leela lasan, leelo kando ne kothimir par eedu, or eggs with green garlic, green onion and coriander). Maharashtrians use it to make spicy thecha (a chunky chutney that pairs well with roti) and add it to popular dishes like pithla (a curry made from besan/gram flour) and thalipeeth (a healthy multi-grain flatbread).
Ajeet Kalbag, a Pune-based chef and culinary consultant, who makes a mean green garlic and chive chutney himself, says that winter is when produce abounds, making the season a cook’s delight. “Ideally there’s a lot of produce that comes in winter… lots of fresh greens, cauliflower and peas. In our Chitrapur Saraswat community, we make a dish called ambit—a gravy with tamarind, coconut, red chillies, and fenugreek seeds or methi daana. These ingredients are made into a paste and boiled with fresh green peas.”
He adds that if you move further North to UP you’ll find the seasonal favourite matar ka nimona, a dish of spiced mash peas cooked with lentils or potatoes. Sure, you can make it with frozen peas, but Chef Kalbag says there’s nothing to beat the taste of fresh green peas. “In-season peas have a sweetness that cannot be replicated. When you get them fresh, buy them!”
Peas are a seasonal favourite in the East and Northeast as well. In West Bengal, winter peas are stuffed into dough to make fried peas chops (koraishutir chops) and puris (koraishutir kochuri). Manipuri cuisine has the lightly spiced curries of mangal ooti and mangal kangtak, where winter peas is the hero ingredient.
Eating in-season peas isn’t just a tastier option, but also a healthier one. Delhi-based celebrity nutritionist Lovneet Batra champions local ingredients and produce in her nutrition plans and encourages all her patients to eat locally and seasonally.
“I have always believed in the power of going back to the basics and appreciating the benefits of the food we grew up with, to embrace forgotten ingredients that nurture health.”
Here, she shares a recipe for a nourishing, protein-rich soup, using a combination of sattu flour and fresh green peas. (Sattu, a flour made from roasted and ground Bengal gram, is a staple in the Central and Eastern belt, particularly Bihar and Jharkhand.)
In addition to two rich sources of plant-based protein, the fresh peas provide extra fibre and give the soup a beautiful, pastel-green hue. And what could be more comforting in winter than a warm bowl of soup?
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