The story goes that Shiva asked the mahua tree to grow at a particular corner of the Sri Neelakandeswarar Temple, in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu; the tree did exactly what it wanted and flourished. Shiva was so happy that he granted the tree two wishes: that its oil would be used to light the temple lamps and that mahua would be the most popular tree in that area. The temple seems to be at least a 1000-years-old… and the area apparently became so dense with the species that the temple town was named Iluppaipattu or the land of the mahua tree,” writes Jhampan Mookerjee in The Sound of Flowers, part of the anthology Chillies and Porridge: Writing Food (HarperCollins India, 2015).
Though found primarily along the edges of Gujarat and Rajasthan bordering Madhya Pradesh, mahua is distributed across the country but does not cross over to the Northeast.
The flowers when fermented produce an alcoholic drink called mahuwa or mahua, known to most as a country liquor, but the flowers are also eaten in the summer months when the offerings of the forest wane. Like many of its ilk, the mahua tree too is enveloped in lore, dictating the ways of the people who have constructed life under its shade. “Mahua alcohol is regularly offered to forest spirits and gods. It is a must for celebrations around births, deaths and weddings. Among the Gonds, the boy’s parents go to the girl’s with an offering of good mahua as an engagement ritual,” Mookerjee writes.
Though indigenous flowers have been used extensively in regional Indian cuisines — both for their time-honoured therapeutic properties as well as taste — they, for long, have been conspicuous by their absence on the urban plate. A slow resurgence is evidenced by their appearance on department store shelves (ranging from Rs 90 for 20 gm to Rs 450 for 100 gm), increased used in restaurants and by independent, urban farmers, all three progressively tilting towards organically grown seasonal produce.
Namita Jatia, the owner of The Farmhouse Company, which retails edible flowers and microgreens from a farm in Mumbai’s Panvel, says, “When we started in 2014, there were barely any takers but now you see them everywhere. While many chefs source flowers such as dianthus, roses, ixoras, and xenias from us for decoration, others use them as ingredients in their dishes.”
The perennial rose is one of the most common edible flowers. When left to mingle with sugar, it yields the preserve, gulkand. Rose petals are soaked in water to make a sherbet, much like hibiscus, also known as rose mallow, which when boiled with mint leaves or lemongrass makes a refreshing cooler. Used for its fragrance in many non-vegetarian dishes, particularly pulao and biryani in north India, rose petals “are used in dry form in Bengali Muslim cooking as well and were brought to Bengal by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah when he was exiled from Lucknow by the British. They are also used in rezala and desserts,” says Chitra Ghosh, a Delhi-based home-caterer.
Bengalis, she adds, “eat a lot of flower boras (fritters) at tea time — pumpkin flowers, drumstick blossoms (moringa) and a particularly pungent flower that is found at the end of winter called bok phool (agati flower), which are used to make fritters. The only difference is that we coat them in rice flour.”
Fritters made of edible flowers is not the prerogative of Bengalis alone. Banana flowers, though available widely in West Bengal, are also grown in the western and southern regions of the country. The fritters are Maharashtra’s bhajji and north India’s gulgulay — made with raw bananas as well as the flowers. “Mochar chop, made of banana flowers, is popular in Bengal but the south, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, they are used to make cutlets, stir-fries and koftas,” says food historian, Pushpesh Pant.
The flower of Bengal’s own citrus, gondhoraj lebu, Ghosh says, “is highly scented and used in fish curries and sweets for its scent. The most famous is the Lebu Sandesh, made by mixing homemade chhena and sugar on medium flame and adding the flour in instalments. Grated gondhoraj lebu is then introduced to the mixture, spread on a tray and left to cool.”
Jasmine, another popular flower, is known by various names and is also referred to as “the belle of India.” “It has a mild flavour and goes well with seafood. At Varq, we make a Jasmine and Gin Prawn Tikka in which jasmine flowers are first dehydrated and then left to ferment. Then, to cut through its sweetness we add some gin. The prawns are then marinated with the paste and once the tikka is cooked, we add some jasmine butter to it to enhance the flavour,” says Rajesh Singh, chef de cuisine at Varq, Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi.
The summer flower, nasturtium, known as jalkumbhi in north India, has a pepper-like flavour and are used in simple salads, dressings and dips. Bright yellow or orange in colour, they have begun to make frequent appearances as garnish on plates at restaurants.
While flowers at restaurants are mainly used as garnish or decorative purposes, Singh points out that the flowers of fennel, onion, garlic, radish, cilantro, have a taste of their own and “must only be added to enhance the already present flavours of the dish.”
Several flowers are “also used as colouring agents — buransh (rhododendron) and the Kashmiri mowal (cox comb) are examples,” says Pant. Buransh, a commonly used flower in Kumaoni cuisine lends itself to various preparations including a chutney and fritters. Then, there are the Assamese xewali, which are collected in bulk, dried and stored to be used through the year. Bitter in taste, it is used to flavour khar, which is “the alkaline ash of the banana plant stem. It is the principle ‘spice’ that imparts a distinct identity to northeastern cuisine,” he says, “it is a bit of an acquired taste.”