Located in the eastern Himalayan region, North Bengal is subjected to a humid subtropical climate. The natural vegetation of such region depends on rainfall, which in turn influences its appearance. Plants look all the more greener as it uses rainwater to maximum advantage. Monsoon is highly anticipated, because, come monsoons and there are plenty of reasons to add wild vegetable delicacies on your dining table. It’s a busy time to forage and harvest.
In this blog, we present 8 locally found vegetables during monsoons, that serves as a treat to your palate and also helps maintain health.
We are fortunate enough to be surrounded by forests providing access to different varieties of edible ferns all year round.
With the arrival of monsoons, different wild vegetables spout in the wild, one being fiddlehead ferns. The most common wild fern is Ningro (Fiddlehead). It is a young shoot of edible ferns, harvested for use as a vegetable. These ferns that thrive in moist climatic conditions grow near water springs. It is one of the most popular wild vegetable widely consumed in the hills. The spiral end resembles a fiddle, hence named after it.
The botanical name of Ningro is “Diplazium esculentum” and it is full of antioxidants. It is rich in micronutrients, beta–carotene, folic acid, and minerals (Ca, Fe, and P).
Locally, Ningros are available neatly bundled for sale by the local vegetable vendors. The availability of different varieties of Ningro depends on local weather conditions and elevation.
They are extremely perishable and need to be cooked shortly after plucking. The shoot remains coiled for a few days before they uncurl into lacy leaves. These cannot be cooked as it becomes stringy and bitter.
This super fern with its identifiable spiral crest is considered a delicacy not just here in Kalimpong and the surrounding hills but also consumed in Uttharkhand and the North-East region, where it is called dhekia xaak. In the north east, fiddlehead ferns are cooked with pork and fish, while in Uttarakhand, it is cooked into a curd-based curry, and consumed as a pickle in the Kullu valley.
Here in the hills, everyone loves the flavour of Ningro when cooked with fermented ricotta cheese (Churpi). Churpi added to the Ningro balances its slight tartness and adds volume to the curry. Ningro, can thus be cooked in various ways with different ingredients.
When we hear the word Tama, a hundred different food combinations come rushing in our head. Tama Dalle, Tama Pork Curry, Dry Tama Chicken Curry, Fried Tama, so on and so forth….
For the ones who are not familiar with the word tama, it is the new bamboo culms that sprout from the ground mainly of Bambusa vulgaris and Phyllostachys edulis variety.
Edible bamboo shoots are hard on the outside and soft, faintly sweet and crisp inside. Tama has been a part of our staple diet during the monsoons (June-Sept). They are sold in various processed shapes and are available in fresh forms. Bamboo shoot is a highly prized vegetable in Asian cuisine and ranked among the five most popular healthcare foods.
Varieties of bamboo shoots that are commonly grown and locally known found are choya bans, bhalu bans and karati bans which are edible when young. These bamboo shoots are collected, defoliated and boiled in water with turmeric powder for 10–15 minutes as it contains cyanogenic glycosides and natural toxins. Boiling removes the bitter taste of the bamboo after which the tama is ready for consumption. Tama is commonly sold in local markets from June to September when young bamboo shoots sprout.
Tama can not only be cooked as a vegetable but one could also make pickle out of it. As a seasonal food it can be bottled and used throughout the year. The raw Tama is white and storing it in water retains its freshness. Depending on species and growing conditions, bamboo shoots typically emerge from early spring. Although they can be found in abundance, it needs to be extracted prematurely to avoid bitterness. It is best to harvest bamboo shoots when they reach a height of a foot or so. Bamboo is easy to harvest and prepare, but over-harvesting of bamboo shoots may lead to landslip especially during the rainy season.
Farmers take utmost care to not over harvest for their consumption and sale keeping sustainability in mind. Once the bamboo shoots have been extracted and prepared, they are consumed as vegetables or pickled and also served as a condiment. Bamboo pairs well with almost any protein. In many traditional cuisines, the taste of bamboo shoot is enhanced when cooked with pork or chicken. Bambooshoots abounds in protiens, fibres and minerals. It also haso antibacterical and antiviral effects in the body as it contains phytochemicals.
Tama Pickle SHOP NOW
Nakima (Scientific Name: Tupistra nutans) is a perennial plant with an underground food storage organ with long strap-like leaves up to a metre in length that forms a tall lush clump of evergreen foliage resembling curious ginger. It has an interesting club-like flower. The inflorescences are eaten in Kalimpong and its surrounding hills as a spicy vegetable and pickle. These are available by the end of the monsoons (September-October) denoting the onset of winter. It is usually found in the jungle but is cultivated and harvested in warm sheltered locations, where it benefits from moist humus-rich soil and partial shade. It is not an attention-seeking or overly dramatic plant.
The nutrients present in Nakima are comparable to popular vegetables like a fiddlehead, watercress (simrayo) etc. It has high fibre and protein content which helps in keeping blood sugar levels in check. Commercial utilization of Nakima in our area will be beneficial for farmers as it may help in cost reduction of the present value of this under-utilised vegetable. The flower is collected from jungles and brought to the local market for sale. The rate of this flower goes up to Rs 400- Rs 450 per kilogram, as it is difficult to procure. This flower has a very peculiar taste and smell and is an acquired taste. This flower is widely consumed for its medicinal value by diabetic patients in Kalimpong and neighbouring regions. Nakima is eaten as a vegetable, pickle or with any kind of meat protein to bring out its flavour.
KALUNGAY CHEAU & JHARI CHEAU
Come monsoon in the hilly terrain of North Bengal, and you’ll find locals foraging varieties of ‘vegetarian meat’. Wonder what we’re talking about? Yes, it’s the delectable wild mushrooms- that come in different shapes and sizes. During the rainy season, forests and jungles teem with different varieties of fungi- as mushrooms, mushroom! Not only does it savour your palate, but it also comes with many nutritional values, some we aren’t aware of! Due to the high protein content, it is also referred to as ‘vegetarian meat’. Edibles mushrooms contain vitamin B as well as antioxidants that helps support the immune system.
Assortments of mushrooms sprout with the onset of moist weather conditions. Kalungay, Chamray, Jharey, Kanney, Kotuchae,Giddae are few wild mushrooms that are common to the region. But, the most popular and prized ones are Kaloongae and Jhari.
Kalungay Cheu : (Scientific name : Termitomyces heimiiIt) The taste of which is akin to that of a fried bamboo shoot and is savoured by every household especially in rural pockets of the region. It is not easily available as it is mostly found in clusters around termite nests. Characterised by long stalks, the cap is usually large like an umbrella.
Jhari Cheu : (Scientific name : Termitomyces mammiformis) Found in larger clusters is Jhari, which has a short life hence, it is plucked and consumed immediately. White stalk holds the umbrella-like cap that is white. Jhari is considered to be one of the tastiest mushrooms but quantity shrinks when cooked, as the proteins lose moisture.
Over the years, mushrooms have responded well to home cultivation. It is becoming increasingly popular as it generates income among those populaces with no or insufficient arable land. Button and Oyster mushrooms are two varieties that are gaining popularity and are grown throughout the year.
*An alternative source of food, mushrooms grow on almost all types of soils, on decaying organic matter, wooden stumps, etc. However, some could be deadly. Not all mushrooms are safe for consumption. A popular method used by the locals to distinguish between safe and poisonous mushroom is by cooking the mushrooms with garlic. If garlic turns blue or black, know it isn’t to be consumed!
ISKUSH & ISKUSH KO MUNTA
Kalimpong has been blessed abundantly by nature. All year long, there’s always some fruits and vegetables in the kitchen garden or fields. With the arrival of monsoon, yet another plant can be found, making its way on rooftops and fences. Notoriously famous for its sprawling habit, Iskush is undeniably one of the most popular and commonly available vegetables in the Hills. Chayote, an edible plant, belongs to the gourd family- Cucurbitaceous, and it grows without much care and attention and can be eaten in its entirety. It is consumed raw, baked, fried, boiled or used as fillings in momos- the food ambassador of the hills! The subtle flavour of Iskush benefits from aggressive seasoning, making it a yummy delicacy! The peeling of spiny fruit can be dreadful as it exudes a sticky liquid that can cause a tingling sensation.
The hills have always been a playground for political turmoil and prolonged period of lockdowns. During such periods, this fruit-vegetable that grows wildly without any regard in the backyard receives a lot of attention. The abundance and pocket-friendly cost of chayote in the hills makes it a perfect food not only for human consumption but it also comes to the rescue as popular cattle feed.
This pear-shaped vegetable provides a boost of healthy nutrition. Rich in fibre, folate, Vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin E, Chayote helps maintain heart health, keeps blood sugar levels in control, improves liver health, and the low-calorie content helps keep your body weight in check.
The young tender shoot and vines of the chayote plant that climbs on roofs and fences
commonly known as munta is also consumed. The tender shoots look like archaic telephone wires and its preparation is one of the easiest and simple.
The root of the plant that is commonly referred to as jara also serves as a popular delicacy especially during the winter months of January and February. There is some magic in digging the soil and pulling out brown tubers! It is considered to be the most expensive part of the chayote plant. The boiled jara goes well with dry fish achaar or added in soups during cold weather.
Simrayo/Watercress (Scientific Name:Nasturtium officinale) is a member of the mustard family which is widely cultivated in the hills. It is green and has a distinctive peppery, mustard-like flavour. It is an aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial herb found in the cold, wet and swampy un-polluted environment. As Simrayo is commonly grown wildly and naturally in the hills, plants collected from the wild are washed carefully before consumption to avoid accidental ingestion of microscopic parasites due to its growth in stagnant waters. An interesting fact about watercress is, it can only be grown organically as the use of chemicals hinders it from flourishing.
Watercress is one of the most nutritious cruciferous vegetable that provides many health benefits. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention classified it as a “powerhouse” vegetable. Adding this leafy green to your diet can help protect against diseases, fight inflammation, and promotes better health. It is also known to reduce the risk of cancer, lowers blood pressure, strengthens bone and teeth.
In the bygone days, hospitals were built along streams where watercress was widely available, to treat patients with convenience. It is also believed that Greek soldiers were given watercress as a blood-cleansing tonic before going into battle.
This delicious vegetable is extensively available at the local markets neatly packed into bunches, alongside other leafy greens like spinach, mustard leaves, etc. Growing watercress in your backyard is a no brainer! There are plenty of online guides to grow watercress, even without access to a water body. Although it is generally well-tolerated by most healthy adults, it may trigger side effects like stomach pain, gas and bloating in some people.
People consume Simrayo in many forms. It is a customary method to stir fry, but watercress is best eaten raw. While cooking may lead to losing some of its nutritional content, steaming or making soup is a great way of capturing the nutrient value as well as the exceptional taste of watercress.
GATTA - FARSI KO MUNTA - FARSI KO PHOOL
Farsi, the local name for Pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) is a versatile vegetable like chayote as almost every part of the plant is edible and considered a fruit as it contains seeds, like chayote.
One of the oldest domesticated plants, pumpkin is known for its high nutritional value, good storability and extensive cultivation. Dense in nutrition, it reduces the risk of developing certain types of cancer, protects heart health, regulates blood pressure and decreases age-related macular degeneration.
These are usually consumed in all forms- tender and mature.
The tender fruit or gatta with more flesh makes for a popular food item before the fruit matures. Gatta complements dried shrimps and is a cuisine that everyone looks forward to during the wet spells of monsoon.
The flower of the pumpkin plant or farsi ko phool is yet another edible part. They are plucked before the rainy season. These are covered in batters and is a popular fritter served as a side dish.
Nettle leaves or sisnu is scientifically called Urtica dioica, comes from the Latin word uro, which means “to burn,” because its leaves can cause a temporary burning sensation upon contact. Tender shoots and green leaves are consumed while the lower part is tasteless. These are usually cut with scissors, or plucked using tongs or wearing gloves. The hair-like structures on the leaves contain chemicals like formic acid that can sting and produces itching, redness and swelling. Sisnu that is widely found in moist wetlands and shaded trails is a popular fare among the local people. The leaves, flowers and shoots are used in the preparation of soups and has a slimy texture. Nettle leaves offer many health benefits. It flushes harmful bacteria from the urinary tract, helps relieve arthritis, treats seasonal allergies, and also manages diabetes.
ISHITA RAI DEWAN
For Ishita, food has always been an extensive affair, and this started early on at her home. It’s her family's favourite subject. Her father was a chef and she was exposed to a cooking-learning environment right since her childhood days from her parents as well as her grandparents. (You must definitely try her grandpa's Chicken Curry Rice!). Her torrid love affair with cooking and baking started early on at the age of four and has continued ever since.
After graduating as a nutritionist from J.D. Birla Institute, Kolkata and bypassing the cliché campus recruitment path, she started her journey as an entrepreneur. Food delivery and takeaway enterprise called ISHEE’Z KITCHEN was set up in 2014, which operated for four years.
Ishee'z Kitchen was a one-woman army kitchen which later went on to become one of Kolkata’s Favourite Soul Food Kitchen. Her specialities include the melt in the mouth Pork Chop Hawaii, a variety of homemade sausages and her customisable one-pot meals. Following which, she was appointed as the Assistant General Manager - Operations & Business Development for the Fresh Food Category comprising of Deli Café, Select & The Tuck Shop at Shell Technology Centre, Bengaluru from late 2018.
She returned home to Kalimpong in 2020 to continue and expand her venture. In the month of August 2020 she won the title of Lockdown MasterChef Competition organised by Rockvale Management College, Kalimpong. Follow her Instagram : ISHEE’Z KITCHEN Facebook : ISHEE’Z KITCHEN
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