Takeaway

Come to the crunch

Arundhati Ray | Updated on August 10, 2018

Embedded in the pulp of your go-to fruits and vegetables are seeds that can give a bite to your soup, salad and dip

The cool, crisp elegance of watermelon makes it my go-to fruit in hot and humid months. From salads to soups, canapés to crushes, that frosted pink is a recurring motif through the sweltering season. But getting rid of the seeds — plentiful and randomly embedded — was laborious and exasperating. Until a friend pointed out that the seeds could be easily converted into interesting eats. So the next time, following her instructions, instead of dumping them, I washed these little ebony beads thoroughly, sun-dried them (shelling is optional), and toasted them in a pan with sea salt. Voila! I had a cup of crunchy morsels, loaded with minerals and proteins, that could be enjoyed on their own, sprinkled on salads, or folded into a hung-curd dip.

Those watermelon seeds were a catalyst, making me suddenly aware of a whole world of seeds waiting to be explored. And so began my summer of seeds as I discovered the delicious possibilities of these nutrition-packed powerhouses. There were the old familiars that I started using in new ways; and then there were the exciting new discoveries. I asked family and friends for recipes using seasonal local seeds; while visiting the market I started giving greater attention to the baskets of those vegetable vendors who sit on the pavement selling indigenous greens straight from the village.

I realised that I couldn’t have picked a better season. In Bengal this hot, sultry period is the season of mellow fruitfulness. Gourds are in profusion, peeking out from thick green vines on trellises, lolling over vegetable patches in fields in earthy shades of green, orange and yellow. Several vegetable sellers have realised that pumpkin seeds are in demand and are selling them (washed, dried and ready-to-use) at ₹100 for 100g. On sturdy, gnarled tree trunks, the kanthal or jackfruit has reached maturity, clinging to the dark wood like giant golden-green caterpillars. I confess I’m not a fan of the highly scented sweet flesh, but the seeds are a different matter. Carefully saved when the canary-yellow fruit segments are eaten, then washed thoroughly, dried in the sun and the papery husks removed, these are ready to be used in a range of ways. In Bengali cuisine they add crunch to dal and charchari (vegetable melange). Or a plate of these fat ivory nuts, just lightly sautéed in butter and sprinkled with salt and chilli powder may be served as a teatime snack.

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My friend Munia Roy cleverly exploits the seeds’ ability to retain its fruity accent and al dente texture by folding in a fistful into her beloved shutki (dried fish) dishes of her native Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) so that the fiery pungent preparations acquire a faint fragrance of fruit and a pleasant bite. Taking the lead from her, I decided to add kanthal seeds to other umami-laden dishes. I found that when I added them to my standard miso-mirin-soy-rice wine marinade for grilling fish steaks, they give another seam of taste and texture to the dark, depthful fermented flavours of the paste. The haddock, Indian salmon or other oily fish responds well to this addition. The jackfruit seeds were an excellent substitute for the customary walnuts in the classic blue cheese and walnut pasta sauce, their presence less strident yet unmistakeable.

Of course, as expected from the most creative cook I know, my mother-in-law uses kanthal seeds in exciting ways that would never strike me. Cold soups are de rigueur at her dinners during summer, and she has added a delicious chilled cream of kanthal seed soup to her repertoire. Pale ivory in colour — or tinged with pink when she whizzes in some shrimp — the soup, served with a generous squeeze of gondhoraj lime, is a mellow blending of fruity nuttiness and fresh citrus. When she’s roasting chicken she puts the boiled seeds into the roasting pan along with the potatoes, where they slowly caramelise in the drippings, attaining the most heavenly flavour by the time they reach the table. When stuffing the bird with a traditional fried bread and chopped bacon mix, she will add in some of these seeds — a good local substitute for overpriced pistachio or imported chestnuts. And of course, her summer salads are frequently embellished with a sprinkling of these chopped buttery seeds.

As May slides steamily into June, the shaggy-headed taal (palmyra fruit) yield up their fibre-coated white seeds, each the size of a small mango. Cutting them open reveals the delicate, translucent taal shash, which tastes of a light distillation of the strong-scented mature taal fruit. Traditionally enjoyed on its own, or dropped into a tall cool glass of nimbu paani, or folded into kheer, I discovered that a lovely, unusual way of savouring this delicacy is in a soup — simmered in a light chicken broth along with tender corn on the cob, another seasonal delight.

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In good taste: The use of seeds is common in many cuisines. It is only recently that the health foods market has woken up to its high-nutritional value   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

 

As the months wore on and I relentlessly mined my friends and family for information on my latest food obsession, I came across culinary gems. For instance, while the makhana or dried lotus seeds are widely enjoyed as ready-to-fry, moreish snacks across India, the kitchens of the Sheherwali Jain community of Bengal’s Murshidabad often use the fresh seeds, or chhaata. One of their most charming dishes is the chhaata ka dahi khichdi. In this preparation, the seeds are added, after a quick sauté, to a lightly-spiced khichdi made with rice, besan and yogurt. Taking a cue from this khichdi, I experimented by replacing peas with lotus seeds (useful in these sultry months when fresh peas are not around) in a classic pea risotto. While the results were pleasing I realised it’s necessary to dial down the amount of cheese and aromatics of the original recipe to allow the subtle presence of the seeds to register.

In fact fresh lotus seeds are versatile, lending themselves to a number of savoury and sweet dishes. In Malaysia, lotus seeds are ground into a paste and used as a filling in festive moon cakes. A sweet and fragrant soup using different parts of the lotus plant, including seeds and petals, is a dish that celebrates the Chinese New Year.

As winter approached, I discovered that the fat green stems of the succulent Malabar spinach — pui saag — bear a cloak of seeds like tiny pale-green pearls. Known as bituli in Bengal, these have traditionally been prized for their taste and also high potassium content but are fast vanishing from urban Bengali kitchens. Its tender stalk — daata — has long been used in green salads by our family (we jokingly refer to it as Bengal asparagus because it reminds us of those delicate green spears). The seeds on the stem make the salad taste even better.

Chanda Dutt who owns the Burmese restaurant, Chanda’s Khaukswey in Kolkata, tells me how seeds — sesame, of sheem (flat beans), pumpkin — are an important part of the Burmese pantry. They are tossed into Burma’s unique thokes (salads) to add crunch, served as toppings for the country’s famous khow sueys and combined with vegetables in quick stir-fries. She serves me a thoke of Shan (chickpea) tofu with a mix of seeds and herbs. Bursting with flavours of garlic, chilli, peanuts, the salad also has a whirl of textures: The smoothness of the chickpea tofu, the grainy feel of the roughly pounded peanuts and the crunch and crackle of a bouquet of seeds.

For food historian Bunny Gupta, using seeds in cooking is a precious culinary heritage that needs to be preserved. As she says, “Using local seasonal seeds in the kitchen is an ancient practice tied in with food gathering and foraging. In our villages, people still go looking for different leaves, shoots and seeds depending on the season, but this knowledge is slowly dying out. It would be a real tragedy if it were lost.”

Arundhati Ray is a food writer based in Kolkata

 

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Kanthal bichi soup

(Cream of jackfruit seed soup; serves four)

100-150g jackfruit seeds (washed, dried, and the papery husk removed)

1 small onion, chopped

4 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)

1/4 cup milk

2 tsp flour

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

1 Boil and chop the seeds. Heat some butter in a pan, add the flour and sauté the chopped onion and seeds till the onions are soft and transparent (don’t let them brown).

2 Add the stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

3 Take off heat, wait for the mix to cool down, then purée in blender. Put back on heat, simmer for a few minutes, add milk and cream and season with salt and pepper. Chill thoroughly. Garnish with chives or parsley.

Seeds of creativity: Jackfruit seeds are an excellent substitute for walnuts in blue cheese and walnut pasta sauce   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Published on August 10, 2018

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