At the first hint of rains, our timelines on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are quickly updated with how much, how long and how heavy the rains were, to be quickly followed by a wishlist of foods that make a good side order to the rains, and eventually, the angry comments about water logging and choked roads.
Today, we’ll go straight to the second and most fun aspect of rains –foods that complement petrichor and warm our hearts and souls.
Unlike the British who are quite happy to offer tea and sympathy as a cure to all ills, Indians love to go beyond just tea. Tea or coffee or a hot beverage can take the sting out of being caught in a sudden downpour but something crunchy to bite into is most welcome. Indian homes have for years had a separate monsoon menu, the prep for which starts well in advance. The tradition of making fritters in summer to stock up for months when vegetables are not always plentiful is now the stuff of sepia-tinted memories, in which our grandmothers dried fritters and papads on the terrace, on old cotton saris.
Pakodas probably rate as the hot favorites as rainy season snacks and restaurants offer their take on these fried traditional favorites with many improvisations. From dishing out palak pakodas sprinkled with chaat masala (spinach leaves dipped in spiced chickpea flour and deep fried) to onion bajjis, (as they’re called down South) slivers of onions mixed with cumin, asafoetida and chickpea flour and deep fried, to beer batter prawns, wontons, falafel, Tempura battered onion rings or squid, stuffed chilli pakodas or capsicum fritters, there are crunchy treats from every cuisine. These snacky foods offer instant gratification, whether they are chicken wings or steaming hot boas filled with spicy centers of meat and vegetables.
A well-balanced starter menu will have finger foods from each of the non-veg groups, one each from poultry, pork, beef, fish, seafood and at least 5 varieties of vegetarian starters, favorites among this being paneer and onions. Piping hot and straight off the stove, these crunchy treats, with your beverage of choice, won’t let the monsoons be the damper that they threaten to be. Chefs also make use of the fast petering out mango season. Since the best of the mango crop is behind us, chefs at restaurants start trying out dips and relishes with the last crop of mango, to go with the starters. Mango salsa, mango chunda or mango chutneys are favorites as relishes for their sweet and tangy flavors. Adding innovative flavors, Chefs are spicing up mango relishes with star anise or basil leaves and letting the starters sparkle on your palate with sweet-spicy-tangy dips.
An analysis of items sold during the monsoon season indicates a sudden upsurge in sales of hot beverages like coffee and tea. A lot of restaurants offer these comforting beverages from our childhood too, Horlicks or Bourn vita or even hot chocolate, as a seasonal menu addition. Coffee shops know that they’re often sought out as resting places when a sudden downpour catches commuters by surprise. Hence a lot of coffee shop menus are planned to offer a wider selection of beverages. Apple cider is becoming a hot favorite during the monsoons and stays through the winter season on some café menus. Other monsoon favorites in the beverage category are spiced lattes and caramel lattes with a fat swirl of fresh cream, dark chocolate drinks, masala teas and even Kashmiri kawa.
Whatever the cuisine, restaurants make sure hearty, filling, and soupy dishes appear on their monsoon menus. Think about it. When it’s wet, grey and cold, there’s nothing more your heart desires than a warm broth that courses through your veins, and warms your soul. Thick and clear soups, broths, soupy dishes like ramen, laksa, mildly flavored stews and flavourful steaming curries with an assortment of meats and vegetables are hot favorites during the monsoons.
Oriental cuisine lends itself well to hot, soupy dishes. Steaming dim sums, those flavourful parcels stuffed with meat or vegetables, dipped in spicy tangy relishes and paired with soups are an all-time favorite for the monsoon. Many restaurants offering Chinese and Indo-Chinese and Oriental cuisine have dim sums on their menu now. Light, clear soups like lemon and ginger or pokchoy and glass noodles in a clear broth become seasonal stars during the monsoon season. Dishes like Pho; the one-pot Vietnamese meal with slivers of beef, rice, a flavourful broth and noodles is a filling dish that will keep you warm and happy for long. Oriental restaurants also pull out their specialty teas during the rainy season. Jasmine tea, premium green teas and imported Chinese teas are made for the monsoons. Served in dainty cups, these teas can be had alone or as an accompaniment to food.
Monsoon menus are chiefly about comfort foods. There’s something about a cold, wet and rainy evening that creates a vacuum in the pit of your stomach that can only be filled by the comforting bowl of carbohydrates. So a large variety of pastas generously drenched in sauces with vegetables and meat are high of the list of monsoon foods. Then comes the risottos – creamy Arborio rice dishes flavored with ham and mushrooms or cheese and mushrooms. This is baby food for adults – mildly flavored, cheesy, slow-cooked and infused with flavors. Risottos are again one-pot wonders that can be washed down with a glass or two of Riesling or Chardonnay.
When it comes to Indian food, there’s not much that can stay off the monsoon menu. Again, the biryanis with either meat or vegetables do well in providing the much-needed crab comfort. Kebabs and grilled vegetables are equally preferred to the crunchy fried pakodas. The sizzling warmth of a grill as the rain beats down is strangely comforting. Many restaurants have the concept of live grills at your table. This not only becomes a part of your dining entertainment but also provides a comforting warmth from the wet and cold outside.
Food, you will agree, has a cure for almost everything – from broken hearts to mercurial weather. And if it can add magic to the monsoons too, then why not.