Friday, July 10, 2009
While India's Monsoon Brings Marvellous Mangoes, Bhujia and Namkeen Remain Faithful Snacks All-Year Round
April showers inaugurate India’s annual monsoon that lasts roughly three months. While the relentless downpour drowns most of the country’s metropolitan cities due to inferior infrastructure, agricultural areas benefit immensely. Although India is famed as the rice bowl of the world – the biggest exporter of the grain, the seasonal mango, the ‘king of fruit’ is far more prized and precious. India’s monsoon yields three months of plump, delicious, sweet-as-honey and smooth-as-custard mangoes, unparalleled to anything you have ever tasted.
Come April, the Indian subcontinent celebrates – mango madness abounds, it is almost infectious. It is at this time of year that I most long to be back home in Bangalore, buying Alphonso, Kesar, Dussheri or a Khajri (varieties of Indian mangoes), carefully burying them in cardboard boxes filled with straw in a dark corner of the pantry (this helps ripen them completely) and excitedly waking every morning, racing to their hidden place in the pantry to feel whether the skins had softened enough, indicating their readiness.
In India, the preferable, and perhaps the best way of truly relishing a mango to its full potential is simply by slurping the ripe buttery flesh through a slit cut at the top of the mango skin. Author Sona Pai in Mangoes, Motorcycles – and Memories, describes childhood memories of the same. Pai’s divulges her foodways as a first generation Indian-American, portraying the mango as central to Indian culture and cuisine – rightly so, and how the 18 year ban on Indian mangoes to the USA affected her, as did the recent lift of the ban, and the sudden prospect of the impending food miles.
If you have never tasted an Indian mango you are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Madhur Jaffrey, possibly India’s greatest culinary authority to the world sums up Mexican mangoes aptly - “pleasantly hued, but lifeless rocks.” Caribbean, Latin American, Florida, California and Hawaiian mangoes were originally planted by Portuguese colonists, bred with more fibre to ensure a shelf-stable structure that unfortunately resulted in mangoes with the a “texture of a wool sweater” as Pai accurately describes them.
While I have not come by Indian mangoes here in Australia yet, bhujia and namkeen – popular Indian snacks seem to be rampant, increasingly sold and consumed. In fact, recently an Aussie friend of Vietnamese origin brought me some cornflakes bhujia to try!
Typically a combination of sweet and savoury at the same time, bhujia comes in a variety of refreshments available as diverse as the country itself and are traditionally relished with a cup of hot Indian tea in the company of friends and family. Today the snack has become ubiquitous with pre-dinner drinks, offered alongside salted peanuts with cold beers, cocktails and whiskies.
Each region of India has its typical and local specialty of namkeen, the common feature is they are all usually spicy, easily available, and inexpensive.
Also referred to as “mixture” it can contain anything from gram, lentils, gram flour, rice flakes, peanuts, potato chips, spinach extract, cornflakes, potato sticks, cashew nuts, raisins, turmeric, ground spices, sugar salt, spices and lemon. I have seen bhujia stocked at select Foodland and Woolworth outlets (labelled as made from imported ingredients, assembled in Australia) at around $5-8 for a 250g box, although I assume the imported varieties that Indian grocers sell at a cheaper rate are more “authentic”.