Food Writing

Seasonality

Am really enjoy seasonal fruits now. We drink watermelon and musk melon juice everyday. These are the pleasures of seasonality. Thankfully, watching NDTV with my father in law about being “Single in the City” with Vikram Chandra. From Mint Lounge this week

Sat, Mar 30 2013. 11 22 AM IST

Luxury in food is about being seasonal
Seasonality is a concept that was understood instinctively by people of the previous generation, regardless of country
Shoba Narayan

Seasonal fruits, like mangoes, are popular for their health benefits. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times.
The watermelons are here now. Glorious green round balls with dark green veins piled a block high in Cox Town, Bangalore. Chop them open for translucent flesh the colour of nail polish—pockmarked with pits that children spit while imagining whole orchards sprouting up around them.
The grapes are here too. Fruit vendors roll carts piled high with that single fruit—one harvest’s bounty. Summer will soon be here—the relentless march of grapes, melons and watermelons, all culminating in the marvellous swansong that is the Indian mango. In two months, we will see mounds of golden mangoes—one variety after another till the hot season ends. I wait for the Imam Pasand and think the Alphonso is overrated, but you are welcome to your opinion too.
Years ago, I interviewed iconic chef Alice Waters about her cooking philosophy at Chez Panisse, California. Waters, who revolutionized the way American chefs cooked, said simplicity and seasonality were her bywords. This same word—seasonal—was repeated by uber-chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. At the time, I didn’t understand this word or the concept. Why was a seasonal menu so important to them? What did it even mean in the US, where you could buy luscious mangoes imported from Mexico at the Korean deli down the street in the dead of winter? Wasn’t luxury the ability to eat anything anywhere anytime? Wasn’t there a particular pleasure in buying grapes from Chile; sugar snap peas from Georgia; pomegranates from West Asia; and mangoes from India all through the year at New York grocery stores such as Zabar’s, Citarella or Kalustyan’s?
Let me explain this overused foodie word as it plays out in the Indian context. Seasonal is what you cannot have. In Bangalore today, you cannot have chikoos for love or for money. Papayas too are waning, as are pomegranates and oranges. You still get them but they aren’t ubiquitous. The humble mosambi (sweet lime) is coming into season, while loose-jacket oranges are slowly going off. Grapes are in their prime now and will last a week, tops, before the watermelons have their aria. This specificity is the luxury of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
It has to do with taste, time and geography. To eat a cauliflower in Delhi in the winter is to experience this vegetable in its prime. Certain fruits and vegetables are delicacies that make their appearance like shy heroines at the behest of nature and climate.
Macrobiotics formalized these concepts by suggesting that people ought to eat only those foods that were indigenous, local and seasonal, for health reasons. Among the elders in my family, it was traditional to eat agasti leaves or agathi keerai (Sesbania grandiflora) on the 12th lunar day or dwadasi—after the previous day’s ekadasi fast—because it had vermicidal qualities. So you’d fast on one day, and detox on the next. These days, we go to Ananda in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand, or Canyon Ranch in the US to achieve the same effect.
Perhaps because of norms such as these, seasonality is a concept that was understood instinctively by people of the previous generation, regardless of country. Americans who grew up in the Depression era of the 1930s understood the concept of seasonality because they were used to forgoing certain types of food. Indians even to this day understand seasonality and how it is linked with taste and cost. Fresh figs will arrive in Delhi during certain times of the year and it is best to devour them before they disappear. Strawberries from Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar will arrive in Mumbai, drawing envy from down-southers like me. Mumbaikars will devour them and soon they’ll be gone.
Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, seasonality is interpreted as eating the choicest game at the perfect time. So says Harsh Vardhan Singh, who runs Chhatra Sagar, a luxury tented camp in Nimaj. Ducks are most flavourful after their migration from Siberia. Foie gras was eaten before the geese migrated back because their livers would triple in size in preparation for the trip. In neighbouring Deogarh Mahal, Shatrunjai Singh Deogarh told me that venison tasted best in spring because that was when the four-horned deer, famous for its saddle meat, would have eaten fresh berries and fruits, lending its meat a lovely tartness. “And most of Rajasthan will not eat meat in the monsoon or during breeding season,” said Singh.
This interplay between feasting and fasting is the essence of living seasonally. Today, we do both. We go to Le Cirque in Delhi or Wasabi by Morimoto in Mumbai to dine on Wagyu beef or Parma ham that has flown thousands of kilometres to graze our plate and palate. We also come home and slurp on some strawberries, figs or grapes in the peak of their ripeness to enjoy local, seasonal, low-impact foods that don’t require us to buy carbon credits.
Shoba Narayan is eating local green grapes to offset the carbon credits of her Kesselstatt Riesling that has flown in all the way from Mosel, Germany.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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