My Madurai Summers: Of Coconuts, Buttermilk & ‘Trucks’ of Mangoes!
Indian summers evoke very strong reactions – ones bordering on agony. But for people who grew up in certain south Indian towns in the pre-refrigerator era, the memories of the summers are nostalgic. It is the tastes – unique to the season and region – that made the otherwise unbearable summer days manageable.
What winter threw up in bountiful, summer made up with its frugal but exotic food items and recipes.
The city of Madurai, where I grew up, is famous for its unique food culture, assimilating the produce and recipes of regions around the city. It was magical to see it transforming under the scorching sun to sprout delightful produce in the summers.
Neem flowers are the harbingers of summer. By March, the huge neem tree in front of our house would blossom with the fragile neem flowers. For a couple of months, our front yard would be carpeted with these beautiful greenish-white flowers.
As a child, the culinary uses of neem flowers never tempted me, but I loved collecting them. The signature dish with neem flowers made on the Tamil New Year’s Day in April is the jaggery-raw mango-neem flower stew. It would taste both sweet and sour – like the sweet chaat chutney of north India – but the similarity ends there. The simple seasoning of neem flowers fried in ghee not only imparts the dish an unusual look but also a sharp bitter tang.
Come summer, similar seasoning with neem flowers was done for the rasam, the ubiquitous south Indian thin soup that is had with rice.
Recipes made with neem flowers are an acquired taste because of the bitter flavour. But there was a secret to reduce the bitter taste. Nature yields the best when she is ready!
The Icy Cold...
As our summer vacation started, the coconut vendor would become a regular visitor to our colony. His bell would call everyone to crowd around him and while we discussed how today was hotter than yesterday, orders would get placed. He knew who wanted the coconuts with only water and who wanted them with the ‘flesh’ and he wouldn’t ever mix them up.
Sometimes, he would get the Palmyra fruit (or Nungu in Tamil). Watching those translucent jelly-like fruits emerge from within the hard black shell was fascinating. True to its English name – Ice apple – the fruit was as cool as ice on the tongue, despite having transported on a cycle under the hot sun.
The Homemade ‘Mocktails’...
As the temperatures climbed, we would look at the calendar, waiting for Ram Navami –and the panakam and spiced buttermilk prepared on that day!
The panakam is an epitome of classic deliciousness with simple ingredients such as jaggery, lemon juice and cardamom powder. I would watch as these simple items mysteriously came together – with water from an earthen pot – and create a mocktail that today’s fancy syrups and ice-cones simply can’t compete with!
The buttermilk, always a favourite in south India, acquired a spicier taste in summer with crushed green chillies, ginger, curry leaves along with salt and asafoetida. It sounds oxymoronic but the heat of the chilly beats the heat of the summer.
The Hamlet of Cucumbers...
As summer progressed, the small ponds around our locality would dry out – opening short cuts to a nearly farming village. My cousins and I would walk this short distance to a huge banyan tree in the hamlet, near where villagers would stand, selling the most tender cucumbers.
Madurai was famous for its indigenous variety of small wiry cucumbers that packed incredible freshness in each bite. Its humble older sibling, the cucumber fruit, just needed a sprinkle of the palm sugar to make it taste divine.
The Way We Ate Mangoes...
Mangoes are, of course, great favourites in most Indian families. However, the whole exercise of buying and consuming them was a different experience in those days.
Each year, a group of people from our colony would volunteer to source 'truck loads' of mangoes from regions known for their superior varieties – like Rajapalayam near Madurai. The load of baskets would then be split among the families – and thus began the long treat of mangoes. While one would be fleshy and plump, the other would be lean and mean, but ripe with juice. And none of your knife-slicing business, either; one ate them whole and the best part was saved for the end, when one licked the seed clean!
Who needed food porn?