Around the World in a Plate
A round-up of the season’s finest produce and where you’ll find them.
There is more promise in the months of spring than any other season could hold. The sun gets a little closer and brighter, flowers bloom, and many parts of the world finally shrug off their snow-white shroud. Even in more tropical climates, we’re still in that magic place between our “cold” season and the dog days of summer—everything looks shiny, pretty and new. And while spring is all about inspiration and new beginnings, it’s also when our palates are treated to the freshest, most colourful and the tastiest food that the world has to offer. Here’s a round-up of the season’s finest produce and where you’ll find them.
With foreign produce now easily available in India (andmodern agricultural technology making it possible to grow most fruits and vegetables year round), people in big cities have lost sight of what’s locally available. Luckily, restaurants like Ellipsis and Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, and Café Lota in New Delhi, are bringing the focus back to India’s amazing local produce, with specially crafted menus highlighting what’s in season. On the home front, too, young couples and millenials have started cooking with desi, seasonal and organic vegetables, making it the “cool” thing to do. So what can you look forward to in the coming months? This is the best time to eat vegetables like parwal (pointed gourd), tindora (tendli or ivy gourd), and pumpkin. Anything green and leafy isperfect for spring, but spinach and methi (fenugreek) are all-time favourites. Up North, during the spring festival of Baisakhi, a popular dish is saag gosht—mutton cooked in spinach and spices.
The more pungent fenugreek stands out in dishes like Andhra’s keema (mince lamb) methi, and the Parsi’s traditional bhaji-dana gosht, a perfect medley of methi, spinach, coriander, mutton and the other star of spring—peas. This is also the period just before the much-awaited mango season, which can mean only one thing: raw mangoes! Kacchi kairi is very dear to Indians; their zingy sourness adds a kick to so many dishes, not least of all the great Mumbai bhel-puri. Raw mango pickle is prepared in spring, as is amchoor, a tangy seasoning made from powdered dried mangoes mixed with spices. In Kerala, you’ll find mampazhapachadi, a raw mango soup associated with the Malayalam New Year, Vishu. And there’s the sweet-and-sour aam-panna popular up North, and amba-paana, a sweeter beverage favoured in Orissa. Holi, which heralds spring, also features jackfruit, used raw to make a spicy curry. Other spring fruit include watermelon, grapes, pineapple, muskmelon and mulberries.
Land of cherry blossoms
With most of the country lying in a temperate zone, Japan enjoys spring, summer, autumn and winter as four clearly demarcated seasons and with each season comes its own customs and celebratory foods. Apart from kicking off Hanami—when the glorious cherry blossom is in bloom—spring festivals include Hinamatsuri or the Doll Festival, where families pray for the prosperity of young girls. Celebrations include drinking shirozake, a sweet version of sake thought to sustain youth, and eating a clear oyster soup. Though not as widely known or revered as the cherry blossom, the yellow-green leaves of nanohana are truly a harbinger of spring in Japan. Closely related to broccoli, this is a leafy vegetable that is available in its mature green form all year round, but the spring crop is the most beloved. A traditional preparation is a side dish called ohitashi, where nanohana is cooked in boiling water, refreshed under cold water, drained, and then served with soy sauce and dashi (stock). Another popular spring green is fukinotou (butterbur sprout), best prepared tempura-style (dipped in batter and fried). There are also plenty of other sansai, or edible wild vegetables, available in spring, including kogomi (ostrich fern sprouts), udo and yamawasabi (wild horseradish). Sprouts and young buds also appear on Japanese tables, either eaten fresh or prepared in pickles, but most treasured is the bamboo shoot, called takenoko. Growing underground at this time of the year, tender bamboo shoots are sweet, soft, and can be eaten raw, inspiring many to go foraging in the areas where the best takenoko grow. A quintessential spring dish is takenoko gohan (bamboo shoots with rice).
The French are sticklers for eating in season, and nothing heralds early spring quite like Gariguette strawberries. The French have a soft spot for these delicious berries, with their distinctly pointed ends and strong fragrance. They can be prepared in any number of ways, including in tarts and salads, or simply tossed with powdered sugar and eaten with whipped cream, and of course in preserves and jams. Blueberries, pears and apples are also in season at this time and are perfect for galettes (free-form pies). You’ll also find plenty of rhubarb in the market, making this the best time to try tarte a la rhubarbe, a simple French dessert. Other ingredients that are fresh in the markets in early spring (the season stretches on past April in most parts of Europe) include radish, spinach, chard, white asparagus, endive, and green garlic.
When in Rome
Of all the countries that celebrate spring and the goodies it brings, Italy is probably the most enthusiastic. Rome, bedecked in flowers, is full of delicious food in spring, though suckling lamb or abbacchio is the star. Usually the centrepiece of the Easter meal, lamb is cooked a variety of ways; a favourite is whole-roasted lamb stuffed with rosemary and garlic, and surrounded with potatoes. You’ll also find it braised in a broth of white wine and egg yolks (an Easter Monday special), or as grilled chops sprinkled with rosemary. A traditional Easter Sunday breakfast, for those who fast on Saturday, is coratella con carciofi, lamb offal sautéed with tender artichokes. Spring in Rome is also a wonderful time for produce. Zucchine romanesche (which, as the name suggests, is a kind of zucchini), adorns stalls in marketplaces, while its delicate flowers are said to be the tastiest, especially when stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies and fried. Fava beans are a springtime staple and favourite, and eating them raw with a sprinkle of salt while sipping chilled Frascati wine is a favourite Roman pastime. Most precious of all, however, is the Roman artichoke. Available around Easter, once May comes around, these carciofi are officially finito, so get them while you can. They’re butter soft and prepared in several ways, though a few stand out—alla romana (marinated in olive oil), alla giudia (spread open and deep fried), and vignarola, a stew that combines artichokes, fava beans, spring peas and new potatoes; all sautéed in olive oil. The Italians take their seasonal produce so seriously that many smaller towns have festivals on them. The Romanesco Artichoke Festival, for instance, is held annually in Ladispoli, a little out of Rome, in the second week of April. Asparagus, another Italian spring treasure, has also inspired its own festivals, including the Sagra Dell Asparago Verde in Altedo, Bologna, for green asparagus, and another in Verona’s for its ‘white gold’, the white asparagus. While winter is all about the comforting—hearty stews and soups, undhyu and sarson ka saag—the magic of spring is all about the lighter touch—the lingering scent of roasted lamb, crisp zucchini flowers, and berries in cream—and new beginnings—green shoots, leaves and herbs. It’s tender, delicate, bright and beautiful. Above all, it’s full of delicious treats. A season for all senses.