Monika Manchanda writes about black carrots and a wonderfully funky, complex, fermented drink you can make with them.
As I clean my chopping board of purple stains from these gorgeous black carrots, my 11-year-old walks in asks me why these ‘beetroots’ look so different. Surprisingly, he isn’t the only one who hasn’t seen black carrots before; they caused quite a stir when I posted them on Instagram last week.
As history tells it, the earliest cultivated carrots, in Afghanistan, were yellow and black. Carrots from here travelled both East and West, but it was the orange cultivar from the West that became popular and replaced other varieties. Black carrots get their colour from Anthocyanin, a flavonoid that is high in antioxidants, and known to have many health benefits.
But it isn’t just colour; the taste of black carrots is different from the more common orange variety. They are far sweeter, with an unmistakable earthiness and a surprising spicy note towards the end.
My first memory of these black carrots is of my badi-mummy (grandmother) handing me a glass of bright red liquid. I thought it was the most vile thing I had ever tasted: sharp and pungent, with absolutely no sweetness to redeem or balance the drink. But as I grew older, I found myself looking forward to winters, and the strange tingling of kaanji. There was a comfort and familiarity in its sharpness.
Kaanji is the probiotic drink native to Punjab, Uttar Pradesh & Rajasthan. It has been part of the local diet long before kombucha took over Instagram and hipster food trends. In fact, historians believe the earliest mention of kaanji dates back to records of the Indus Valley.
To make kaanji, black carrots are mixed with spices, soaked in water, and left to ferment naturally, developing bacteria and yeast commonly known as SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). In the receding winter months, as the body recovers from the season’s severe weather conditions, and immunity is at its lowest, kaanji helps maintain gut health. Meant to be consumed at the cusp of the changing seasons, the last batch is brewed and consumed during the festival of Holi, which officially marks the end of winter.
Each family has their own ratios for making kaanji; there isn’t a standard recipe that specifies volumes, no precise indication to mark when fermentation is done. But this recipe is one that works for me and my family, and I’m happy to share it here with you.
1/2 kg black carrots
2 tbsp black salt
3 tbsp mustard seeds
1.5 tsp red chilli powder (feel free to adjust to your tastes)
1 tbsp roasted and ground cumin powder (this is optional, but adds an lovely depth of flavour)
2 litres water
To make kaanji, first wash and scrub the carrots well. Traditionally, the peels are left on, to hasten the process of fermentation as the peels contain sugar. Chop the carrots into long strips, about one inch thick.
Grind the mustard seeds to a coarse powder. Set aside.
Place the carrots into a large mixing bowl. Add salt, chilli powder and mustard, and mix well. Add water and stir the whole mixture. Transfer the liquid for fermentation into sanitised glass or ceramic jars. Don’t use steel or plastic since there will be fermentation and acids involved.
Cover the jar with a muslin cloth and fasten tightly around the rim with a thread, so the opening of the jar is completely sealed.
Place the kaanji-filled jars in the sun for about 3 to 4 days, so it can ferment. Bring it back inside each night, and before it goes back into the sun the next morning, untie the muslin cloth and stir the kaanji well. Cover it back again tightly, and place it in the sun the next day. This is much like making a pickle; a labour of love.
Once the drink tastes sharp and fermented, it is ready to drink. The drink is good for about 15 days, and gets sharper every day. If you don’t like it too fermented, you can put it in the fridge after 5 days. Refrigerated, it will last for months, so if you have space, I recommend making a large batch to keep your probiotic game going.
Pro tip — If you can’t lay your hands on the elusive black carrots, you can still make this drink with a mix of red carrots and beetroots. Use about 300 grams of red carrots and 200 grams of beetroot instead of 500 grams of black carrots. Though it isn’t as magical with these substitutes, it comes pretty close to the real deal.
And remember, don’t throw away those carrots from your kaanji. They add a fabulous zing to salads, sandwiches and wraps. If nothing else, they’re great to snack on, on their own. So be inventive and let your imagination lead the way!
Monika Manchanda is an ex-IT person turned food writer, culinary consultant & trainer. You can find more of her writings on her blog Sin-A-Mon Tales along with many other online and offline publications.
ALSO ON THE GOYA JOURNAL