When winter comes...
It’s the gastronomic delights of the season that I love the most
The most annoying thing about winter in India is that it ends no sooner than it has begun. Just as you’re beginning to enjoy the cool winds, the balmy afternoons and the chilly, occasionally misty nights, the weather turns on you. The sweaters start to feel a bit scratchy, the feet begin to sweat in those heavy-duty boots, and the trench looks like overkill rather than a dashing fashion statement.
But it’s not the lack of opportunity to show off my winter wardrobe that annoys me the most about the transience of the season. No, it’s the fact that I never get a chance to indulge in winter gluttony as I would like to, having fantasised about it for the entire year.
Truth be told, what I love most about the Indian winter is the gastronomic opportunities it presents. So much so that (and yes, I know it makes me sound pathetic) I often while away hot summer afternoons, thinking of all the gourmet delights that the cold weather will bring.
I guess we all have our favourite seasons when it comes to food. There are some people who live for the summer and its gift of ripe, golden, juicy mangoes (though I would rather gorge on lychees instead). And then, there are people like me who count the days down to the winter, to feast on the goodies it brings.
So, here, in no particular order of importance, are all the things that exemplify the taste of winter to me.
# Sarson da saag: What can I say? I am a Punjabi and for me winter never truly begins until the first batch of sarson da saag has been cooked up in the kitchen. Needless to say, it is made in industrial quantities because it always tastes better a day or so later. All you need to do to refresh it is re-heat with a generous blob of white butter added. Spoon it up with a softly-crisp makki di roti, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bliss!
# Makki di roti: Yes, if sarson da saag has made an entry into the kitchen, then the makki di roti cannot be far behind. This is a match made in gastronomic heaven. The golden hue of the roti is a perfect counterpart to the deep green of the saag, feeding your eyes as well as your taste-buds. I always grate a bit of gobhi into the makki atta while kneading it. The moisture left by the gobhi makes the roti just a wee bit softer and sweeter, to balance out the slightly bitter taste of the saag.
# Methi: There is nothing to match the taste and smell of the winter’s first methi. The leaves are green and tender, wilting quickly under heat, and releasing the most heavenly aroma that perfumes the whole house. This is a versatile leaf, which can be used as a vegetable, an herb, or even a condiment. I like it best as a subzi, sauteed quickly with par-boiled potatoes but you can experiment with it as you will. Add it to theplas or parathas and it adds an extra dimension of freshness to the dish. And if you love it as much as I do, buy up loads while it is still in season, air-dry and store in jars to use through the year. It is guaranteed to bring a whiff of winter to the hottest of summer days.
# Oranges: There is something so meditative about peeling an orange, isn’t it? Especially when you take care to peel it slowly and carefully so that it comes off in one long whirl, curling and curving seductively as it reveals the inner core of the fruit. Then, you remove the long fibres still clinging to every segment so that just the quivering sliver of pulp is left. Plop into your mouth and let the flavours explode on your tongue. That sweetly acidic attack? That’s the taste of winter for me.
# Peanuts: The first sign of winter in the north of India is when the rehriwallahs start doing the rounds of the streets, their carts laden with mounds of unshelled peanuts. When you buy some, they heat up the moongphali on the spot, on a small fire that stays burning amidst the piles of nuts, and hand it to you in a paper bag. If you have any sense, head straight for the nearest spot of sun, settle down with a good book, crack open the shells and pop the warm peanuts into your mouth, one at a time. It really doesn’t get better than this.
# Paranthas: Yes, I know you can have them all the year round. But why would you want to eat them in the sweltering heat of summer or the cloying humidity of the monsoon? Winter is when parathas really come into their own. You can stuff them with the winter vegetable of your choice: mooli or gobhi. Or you can stick to the tried-and-test aloo version. But whatever the stuffing, you can’t go wrong with white butter, full-fat dahi and loads of achaar (try the winter combination of gobhi, shalgam and gajar; it’s brilliant!).
# Gajar ka halwa: It must have taken a genius to think of transforming the boring carrot into a delicious dessert with the judicious addition of sugar and milk (and many, many hours of cooking). Whoever she was, God bless her soul. And while the winter lasts, bon appétit to you all!