Summer sorties

Ratna Raman Delhi

The heat is on and we scuttle for relief to the more salubrious parts of the country. Vast expanses of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are reeling under drought conditions, with even a lack of drinking water. In cities, water shortage is beginning to recur almost every other day. New Delhi faces an imminent water crunch as disrupted water supply channels and moving water tankers become the order of the day.

Yet, with full-page advertisements showing young women in fluid white dresses sloshing about in milk, entitled young men and women guzzling Pepsi and Coca-Cola in the context of university rebellions and intimate relationships, and flavoured O’cean and Wild vitaminised water continuing to grab eyeballs, one might be forced to conclude that the water scarcity is more imagined than real.

How did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs where appearances no longer proclaim anything real about our lives? India’s summers are extremely hot and water is that life-giving fluid which keeps us hydrated and alive. In fact, as the textbooks say, it is possible to live without food for only a few days, but imbibing plain water can allow us to stretch survival for much longer.

So maybe now is a good time to cut out the excess and focus on consumption in the best possible way, ensuring optimal outcomes for ourselves and our planet. How does one keep cool and lower body temperature when heat waves begin to engulf our city? Human planning must factor in the vagaries of nature in order to survive under conditions of excruciating heat. Earthen vessels filled with water kept on the terrace or balcony for birds and in bowls outside the door for street dogs would help in alleviating the thirst of animals and birds reeling under the onslaught of a heat wave.

Perhaps it is time to go back to older patterns of living and relearn a thing or two about how to keep cool and hydrated. We need to eliminate aerated sodas, colas, and other synthetic flavoured and bottled wonders from our list. Are fruit crushes and fruit juices a shade better than aerated sodas, because there is an element of fruit in them? The fruit content is marginal and the added sugar outweighs by far any possible health benefits. Whatever nutrition is included is negligible and the processed sugar, artificial flavourings, colours and preservatives are detrimental to health.

Medical research now provides statutory warnings about how bottled juices ingested by sedentary bodies lead to a surfeit of calories, accelerating triglycerides and carcinogens, depleting fibre content and whipping up sugar levels. Cold pressed juices, which are now the new protocol in haute cuisine, are possibly marginally healthier options. So, while cold pressing ensures optimal extraction of juice from the pulp without destroying enzymes, given its high cost it is an option available to a minuscule category.

Earthen vessels filled with water kept on the terrace or the balcony for birds and in bowls outside the door for street dogs would help in alleviating the thirst of animals and birds reeling under the onslaught of a heat wave

Thankfully for the captive majority, plagued and wearied by newer fads, there are inexpensive and holistic ways of hydration that will delight our bodies and spirits without depleting our wallets. It is a good idea to drop sprigs of mint leaves, whole lemons or cucumbers into jugs of water. The flavour of the herb, lemon or cucumber is transferred osmotically to the drinking water and makes for a pleasurable surprise input.

One very sensible way of hydrating oneself and keeping cool in the heat is by consuming large quantities of fresh fruit. This is the season of fragrant melons, ripe red watermelons, sweet limes, juicy pineapples, peaches and succulent papayas, mangoes and grapes. All fruits, including bananas and sapota, are a great source of energy and vitamins, have high water content and are easily digestible. Eating the whole fruit ensures sufficient fibre intake, allowing for a feeling of fullness. And the natural sugars in fruit satiate your sweet tooth.

Refrigerate a bowl of cut fruit and eat the chilled fruit several times a day and watch the spike in energy and hydration levels. Iced sugarcane bits (ganderi) or phasley with rock salt and honey are delicious options as well. 

A wide range of salad greens, cucumber and kakdi is available in summer. Wash fresh lettuce, spinach or cabbage leaves. Cut cucumbers into long sections or round slices. Toss together and garnish with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Try roasted cumin and chilli powder with slivers of raw mango for a touch of Indianness. Buy as much of the kakdi as you can, its disappearance from the local markets often matches its unexpected arrival. A lot of summer’s gourds and squashes have a very high percentage of water. It is easy to steam bottle gourd, ridge gourd and zucchini, and dress the cooled, steamed vegetables with salt, ginger, garlic, honey and lemon juice. Add chopped tomatoes and coriander leaves. Toss well and refrigerate. Eat this nourishing and delicious summer vegetable dish by itself or with bread, hot phulkas or rice.

Soak whole lentils such as chickpea, pigeon pea, moong and black beans. Allowing them to sprout is a great option. Steam whole lentils and add to vegetable salads. Or serve them with chopped boiled potatoes and little cubes of paneer or cottage cheese. Ripe avocadoes and roasted eggplants make for delicious toppings and dips. Mix finely chopped onions, tomatoes and coriander leaves into the avocado or eggplant pulp, add salt and finely chopped green chillies. Squeeze a large lemon. Stir in some olive oil. Eat with crusty bread, pita bread or out of a bowl.

Summer is the season of replenishment and a great time to be imaginative and inventive with food. Cold tomato soup, with finely chopped peppers and crushed garlic, is a wonderful summer mealtime starter. Pumpkin, beetroot, broccoli and cauliflower lend themselves to excellent cold soups. Prepare a regular soup and refrigerate until cold. Garnish with chopped walnuts, or chilkosa, or even bits of pineapple
or carrots. 

A combination of apples, beetroot, carrots, tomatoes, pomegranates, spinach and cucumbers, garnished with ginger, lemon and salt, makes a hearty juice which is a guaranteed summer pick-me-up.

Commercial milk shakes, cold flavoured milks, flavoured yoghurt and regular ice-creams are being left out of this discussion. Usually, they tend to be heavily loaded with artificial flavours, food colouring and contain sugar levels in excess of what the average human can process efficiently. 

Cold milk, lassi and chaach are filling and satisfying summer beverages. No Indian summer is complete without thin buttermilk, made by crushing curry leaves, green chillies and salt between the fingers into a bowl of curd. Add cold water, stir and strain into a large jug. It can be sipped slowly through the day. Access to curd, curry leaves and chillies makes unexpected refills easier. For the vegan who does not wish to exploit the largesse of the domesticated cow and buffalo,  delicious alternatives exist. Sugarcane juice (made under more hygienic conditions in Mumbai and Aurangabad), coconut water and palm fruit are universal favourites.

Aam panna, made with green mangoes, is the quintessential Indian drink. Roast or pressure cook raw mangoes in a sufficient quantity of water. Discard peel and seed, and cook the thick pulpy water with sugar or jaggery. Add roasted cumin powder, rock salt and crushed mint leaves. Refrigerate. Mix with cold water and serve to hot, flustered visitors. Watch them drink deep and unwind. Take a bow.

When you have run out of green mangoes, dip into your supply of dried kokum fruit. Cook them in a little hot water. Add rock salt, roasted cumin powder and sugar. Grind to a smooth paste. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice. Add cold water. Your kokum beverage, purple and vibrant, is ready to please.

This catalogue of summer drinks from an earlier era will remain incomplete without the mention of triveni, a drink that my sibling sampled for the first time in Coimbatore, before she introduced it to the entire family in New Delhi. This elixir, a combination of three liquids, makes for a most exquisite all-time drink

It is possible to make aam panna without sugar and that brings us very close to jal jeera, in which water and roasted cumin powder (jeera) are spiced up with mint leaves and lemon juice. Nimbu paani is another extraordinary summer drink, constantly lending itself to new combinations. Chop one lemon into eight or ten pieces. Deseed and blitz in a food processor jar with a wedge of ginger, sugar, salt and a sprig of curry or mint leaves. Add cold water, strain through a coarse strainer and serve. This way one gets to drink lemon juice with abundant zest! Tomatoes can also be added to this recipe at the time of grinding.

Panaham, another drink that our grandmothers made out of jaggery, was served at the end of the spring navraratras, on the ninth day (navomi). Dried ginger powder and powdered green cardamom were added to jaggery and cooked to a viscous syrup. This syrup was diluted in cold water to which lemon juice had been added. Very often, when we had little access to sugarcane juice, panaham remained our go-to drink during summer vacations in South India. Gur-paani, a drink still available in Old Delhi, is probably a North Indian variant of panaham.

This catalogue of summer drinks from an earlier era will remain incomplete without mention of triveni, a drink that my sibling sampled for the first time in Coimbatore before she introduced it to the entire family in New Delhi. This elixir, a combination of three liquids, makes for a most exquisite all-time drink. It trips lightly upon the tongue and waltzes into the mouth. Wanting to hold on to the delicate evanescence of texture and flavour, never experienced before, there is a great reluctance to allow it to glide down the throat. Water from a fresh green coconut, the juice of one lemon and honey are stirred together in a jug. Translucent, tender coconut flesh, if any, can also be added. Had cold or at room temperature, triveni is a stand-alone drink.
No one can stop at just one!

Follow Hardnews on Facebook and Twitter  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2016