Bounty of Tropical Summer

On the outermost reaches of southwestern India, the soundtrack of summer has a deeper bass and heavier beat than the rest of the year. Bright rays of sunshine come fluttering through the swaying leaves of coconut palms. Sun and even the red earth seem to give off heat. Temperatures hover around 90-degrees and even nightfall brings little relief except for occasional warm breezes and a few hours without the sun’s glare. Drought and power outages are the norm and as the heat index climbs, pace of life quiets down and afternoon siestas become the norm of the day. Still some of us wait for this summer all year long. It is also the time when golden yellow mangos hide seductively under lush, green leaves and giant, thorny green jackfruits dangle languidly from tree trunks. Thankfully, Nature comes to our rescue; it offsets the unbearable swelter with a sucrose-filled bounty.

As I wander around the open-air marketplace, the vegetables are so fresh that the smell of the earth itself is the strong and most assertive odor. Ripe golden striped large cucumbers glow next to mounds of brilliantly green chilies and curry leaves. Pausing beside a pile of coconuts I pick up one and shake it gently, listening to the sound of coconut water splashing inside, indicative of its freshness. Sibling members of the gourd family, various squashes and large cucumbers, green and golden skinned and white fleshed, mostly water; they are the perfect antidotes to the sultry heat of summer.

Our summer fare is as lively as the rhythms of a calypso band, dancing with flavors of tamarind, mango, and coconut and green chili peppers. The profligate abundance of fresh seasonal vegetables is perfect for the lighter and more fragrant summer vegetable curries. And despite their southwestern tropical roots, several of these ingredients are commonly found in most U.S. supermarkets.

The much awaited mango and jackfruit season in Kerala lasts from early April until the monsoon rains break in June. No other fruit seems to evoke so much passionate regional loyalties than the mango in India. There are several different kinds of mangos in Kerala - from plump and golden Ottumanga to the slender green and incredibly sweet and juicy Chandrakkaran. As weeks pass by, mango trees would be laden with ripe geolden mangoes, fragrant and intensely sweet, but with a tinge of balancing acidity. The ground below the trees would be scattered with ripe fruits in the morning, fruits that have fallen off the tree during the night. Fruits venders would be selling a wide variety of mangoes and practically every meal during this season would contain at least one dish made with mangoes.

It is that time of the year again for processing and preserving the fruits before the torrential rains of the monsoon season arrives. Green mangoes, fresh lemons, and gooseberries for pickles, ripe mangoes for mango jam and preserve, green jackfruit for pappadam and ripe jackfruit for jackfruit jam. Whatever be your preferences, there is a pickle for the occasion, ranging from sweet to salty to fiery. And the king of fruits, the mango, is the favorite for pickle-making too.

Pickling and preserving involve great patience, care, and hygiene because they have to last at least over a year. Today pickles are mass produced and distributed worldwide. In times past pickling and preserving were family projects. Everyone in the joint family chipped in to help. Every household has its very own special pickle and preserve recipes handed down over generations. Red chili peppers, fenugreek seeds, asafoetida and mustard seeds were bought in bulk, cleaned and sun-dried. Sesame oil bought from the village press always had a fragrance quite unique. What is amazing is that only salt and oil are used as preservatives and these pickles stay fresh for months without refrigeration.

During the afternoon they hand pounded the spices in ural (a stone or wooden trough) with an ulakka (long wooden pole with a metal bottom). They insisted that this made a world of difference; because hand pounding brought out the subtle flavors of spices, something machine-ground spice mixtures never could.

The first pickle made is Kadumanga, a very tasty mango pickle traditionally made with small chandrakkaran mangoes plucked off the tree before their seeds begin to harden. In old days kadumanga was always prepared in ceramic jars called Cheena bharani. After filling the jar with mangoes and spice mixtures they folded and placed a clean piece of cotton cloth on top of pickled mangoes and poured a few tablespoons of oil on top. They closed the jar tightly and sealed it with wet clay. As the clay hardened the jar became airtight. As the green mangoes grew bigger and their seeds began to harden they made Ennamaanga, deep fried mangoes combined with dry spice blends. Just before the mangoes became fully ripe, it was time to make Adamanga, a sweet and hot dried mango preserve.

A favorite ripe mango preserve is maangaathera, sun-dried mango pulp that bursts with tropical flavors of sweet mangoes, spicy hot cayenne peppers and sugar. It is very similar to fruit roll ups, but with a shocking bite of cayenne pepper. Fruit jams were made towards the end of the season when there are plenty of ripe fruits available. Slices of mangoes and jackfruits were cooked with jaggery (Indian brown sugar) and ghee for hours in large urulis (large bell metal pans) placed over wood burning stoves.

Fragrance of roasting spices and fruits cooking in ghee perfumed the village air. By the end of the season pantry shelves were filled with huge jars of pickles and preserves.


AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN