Wood fibres like bamboo, cane and jute, have a quiet yet important part to play in several cuisines around India. Today, as many of these plants disappear, the recipes for cooking them are slowly dying out too.
If you were to browse the Shivatattvaratnakara, a monumental text written during the reign of Basavaraja of the Keladi kingdom (now in western Karnataka) in 1700 AD, you would note with interest the mention of a bamboo shoot dish as one fit for kings. ‘Steeped in salt water to remove astringency, and then fried, [these] were a great delicacy,’ writes KT Achaya, in his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Seminal texts, from across time periods, ranging from the Arthashastra to mangalkabyas such as Dharmamangal, mention the use of wood fibres such as bamboo, cane and jute in food. Even today, whether it is the Sylheti cuisine, or Sambalpuri fare from Odisha, or even traditional Assamese cuisine, several kinds of wood fibres are cooked. Given the strong movement towards sustainable diets following a ‘root-to-shoot’ philosophy, it becomes critical to document some of these culinary applications that are fast disappearing.
Of these, the most widely used ingredient is undoubtedly bamboo shoot, used in myriad forms — dried, fresh, fermented, pickled — across Coorg, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. “In Odisha, it is used mostly in the western part,” says Priyanka Panda, a home chef based in Sambalpur, who also runs the Facebook page, A Treasure of Food. “Fresh bamboo is known as kardi, and the dry variety, hendua.” The former is used in a kadhi-like dish called ambil, which is made with several kinds of seasonal vegetables, and falls under the ‘‘khatta’ food category. Along with a dal, curries and a prasad made with fresh rice, ambil is an integral part of the festival Nuakhai, celebrated the day after Ganesha Chaturthi. Hendua, on the other hand, is used in stir-fries with seasonal greens and colocasia leaves. A signature dish is the patalghanta hendua chitka, which features a mash of fried tomato, boiled potato, grilled okra, and of course, dried bamboo.
According to Tanushree Bhowmik, a Delhi-based development professional who works to document and revive old recipes through her pop-up, Fork Tales, bamboo shoot is used in Sylheti food, a cuisine that is common in the eastern part of Bangladesh, reflections of which are seen in northeast India as well. “A popular dish is bamboo shoot in chana dal. It is also cooked with small fish,” she says. In Assam, the ingredient is known as bah gaj, and used in mashes, stir fries, curries, soups, pickles, chutneys and more. “Some tribes simply boil white fish with bamboo. The dish needs no oil, seasoned with salt and ginger,” says Rajib Bora, who runs the restaurant, Majulir Asanj, in Guwahati, specialising in the traditional cuisine of Majuli island. He explains that the way the shoot is prepared for a dish — semi-ground or cut into roundels — determines the flavour profile of the dish. “For instance, the Bodo tribe buries the bamboo shoot n the mud for up to a week. When it is then taken out, the smell is so appetising that the aroma alone can get your hungry!” he laughs.
In Coorg too, tender bamboo is either pickled or made into gravy with coconut masala. At times, it is also sautéed with red chillies. “At one point, about 10 to 12 years ago, bamboo shoot was easily available in the market,” says Priya, who runs The Restaurant Coorg, in Bengaluru. “But about five years ago, acres and acres of bamboo plants flowered all together. Once that happens, the entire bush dries up and has to be rejuvenated.” A mention of this phenomenon is found in Achaya’s book as well, who quotes a Kodava couplet: “Aruvatthu warushake ondhu katte, yeppatthu warushake ondhu yette (Once in sixty years, the bamboo will decay, once in seventy years, famine holds sway.)” Priya observes that it has taken a long time for the bamboo groves to be replenished. “Today, if you find bamboo shoot in Coorg, it’s like stumbling upon a gold mine,” she says.
Besides the shoot, the bamboo hollow is also used in parts of the northeast to steam fish, meat and rice. Writer Hoihnu Hauzel mentions several such dishes in The Essential North-East Cookbook, and one of these is the asin puinam from Arunachal Pradesh. A popular picnic dish, it is a preparation of small fresh river fish, rice, and herbs cooked in a sealed bamboo hollow over charcoal. It uses a technique that is now finding its way into professional kitchens as well. Anandita Kamani of the Danda Food Project, a pop-up that focused on forgotten food traditions and local ingredients through pop-ups and curated dining experiences, draws inspiration from a traditional Assamese fish dish called sungat diya maach. The dish features white fish marinated in green and red chillies, and fresh ginger, that is then stuffed into fresh bamboo, secured with banana leaf and roasted over charcoal. Once cooked, the bamboo is sliced open, and the fish is served with mustard oil, sliced raw onion and fresh coriander. “We adapted this recipe for a pop-up at The Farm in Chennai. We first cold-smoked diced rohu with dried bamboo for an hour, and then marinated it in green chillies and ginger for about four hours,” says Kamani. This was then cooked the traditional way, and served in individual bamboo boats with mustard oil, thinly-sliced red onions, garlic chips, sundakkai, puffed bamboo rice and pickled devilled figs. “The bamboo not only acts as a beautiful vessel to steam the fish in, but also imparts a fresh, and slightly funky flavour to the dish,” she says.
TENDER CANE & ITS MEDICINAL VALUE
Another wood fibre that is used, albeit sparingly now, is the tender cane. According to Bhowmik, in Assam, the stem of the bet gaj is peeled, burnt and mashed with mustard oil and salt. “Once you burn the cane, the bitterness goes away,” says Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a Guwahati-based chef. It is also sometimes chopped and fried with fenugreek. Eaten just before winter sets in, it is believed to boost immunity and has a high medicinal value. However, both Nath and Bhowmik are seeing the cane recipes slowly disappear. “And that’s because the marsh lands, where cane grows, are fast receding. The use of these fibres is inextricably linked to the ecosystem, and when that disappears, the recipes also get lost,” says Bhowmik.
JUTE LEAVES ARE VERSATILE AND DELICIOUS
In Bengal, jute leaves — known locally as nalicha shak or paat shak — have always been celebrated by authors and poets. In an article he wrote for Sahapedia, Suvajit Halder mentions one such text, the Padmapuran, in which Narayandeva describes a shukto prepared with boiled cane leaf, fried jute leaf, helencha (Indian spinach), among many other ingredients. Halder also quotes a verse from the Prakritapaingala, composed approximately in the 13th century by anonymous authors, which shows the importance of jute in traditional repast. It goes something like: ‘Oggarabhatta rambhaapatta, gaika ghitta dugdhasajutta/ Mainimaccha ṇalichagaccha, dijjai kanta kha punabant.’ Translated, it reads, ‘Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf, some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaf of jute plant, and a glass of hot milk.’ Even today, paat pata fritters, made with rice flour, are considered a delicacy in Bengal. “In Sylheti cuisine, paat pata is tied in knots and put in yellow peas,” says Bhowmik.
While cuisines across south India don’t make wide use of jute, one rare recipe has emerged from the kitchens of Andhra Pradesh. “Jute leaves are used with jackfruit in this dish, which is usually given to lactating mothers and pregnant women, as it is rich in iron and calcium,” says Dharmesh Karmokar, who has introduced the dish at his restaurant, Thangabali, in Mumbai. While jackfruit remains the hero of the dish, the leaves are used to add body and starch. “They are very sticky, like okra. If you add too much, you’ll get a consistency similar to that of cornflour-laden soup. So, one needs to closely watch the quality,” he says. Guntur chillies and a special spice paste are then used to balance the sweetness of the jackfruit.
“Another wood fibre shoot, which not many know about, is the tora gaj. Reminiscent of turmeric, it is used by Karbi, Bodo, Lalung and Mishing tribes,” says Bora. It is slightly bitter, like cane shoot, and is either boiled with pork or chopped up and fried with salt. “We also eat the kol gaj, or banana shoot, between April and August. It is either made with khar, or with small fish,” he says.
Many of these wood fibres fall into seasonal diets, and lend their medicinal properties to the needs of the season. Making the most of them means understanding what ingredients to pair them with, how to use them both as ingredients, and as utensils, and where to source them. Using them in home kitchens will be an effective way to bring these ingredients back to market, and preserve their presence in cuisines of modern India.
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