When the monsoons hit, mum has a tendency to turn away from all the usual leafy greens she loves so much. It’s probably the only time of the year when Sindhi sai bhaji and Palak Paneer don’t make a frequent appearance on the dinner table. Each time I ask why, the answer is usually the same- the grime and muck that sticks to the leaves makes it susceptible to earthworms and other bacteria, and so everyday staples such as spinach, cabbage and even cauliflower are best avoided. While I understand this, it must also be taken into account that the rains bring with them a bounty of fresh, green leafy vegetables that will only be in season for a short period of time. Nature is quite generous and provides lots of hearty green substitutes that are mostly wild and one could take advantage of during this season. I’ve rounded up a list of my favourites here along with some super ways to use them. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to pesto a single one.
Note: When preparing any greens during the monsoons, it’s best to soak them in water and change a few times till the water runs clear just to be extra sure that your greens don’t have any bit of dirt on them from the outside.
Ambadi or Sorrel Leaves
This sour marijuana-shaped leaf is also known as Gongura and it is used to make chutneys/pickles, or added to dal to introduce a pleasant sourness to the earthy lentils. When added to a sabzi of mixed vegetables or to a mutton stew with a spicy masala base, the sour flavour really shines. The sorrel leaves can also be blitzed and added to butter with some lime juice to flavour it. Swap out the ol’ brown butter sage in gnocchi recipes with this flavoured butter for excellent results. At home, we used toor or split pigeon peas to make a garlicky sorrel dish with a tempering of mustard, cumin and curry leaves to serve for lunch with rotis. Ambadi also makes a terrific chilli chutney that uses both dried and fresh chillies. A simple run on recipe for that would use two fistfuls of picked gongura leaves, 4 dried red chillies tossed in a smidgen of oil till crisp, 6 small charred green chillies, 1/2 tsp lightly toasted methi seeds, a pinch of asafoetida, 4 to 5 tablespoons of hot sesame oil and about 2 tsp of salt. Pound everything together and serve.
A wild tender leaf with a surprisingly large following, takla is what you should be cooking with during the monsoons. A Shravan green (this refers to the period of fasting), takla boasts a long list of benefits, but tastes fairly standard with a bitter to fresh taste. At home, we sautéed it lightly with freshly grated coconut, an onion, chillies and garlic, but it can also be prepared like a chutney with tamarind, or as a loose curry. Only the leaves of takla are used and the stems, discarded. Another interesting way to use takla is by incorporating them in these split Bengal gram tikkis or fritters.
Silver cockscomb grows in abundance during the monsoons. Its tender stems and leaves are cooked to make a quick sabzi to be mopped up with hot rotis. At home, we cooked it simply with onion, cumin and garlic and it tasted delicious. It has a mild spinach-like flavour with an almost minty after taste, which was very interesting. A second batch of kurdu from Vrindavan Farms had beautiful red centres, and these too were prepared in the same way.
The fan-like tender leaves of gotu kola or Indian pennywort are slightly bitter if had by itself, but pound a bunch of these with 1/2 red chilli, 1/2 an onion, salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of grated coconut and some lime juice to really transform it. This has got to be one of my favourite side salads, because it’s bright, zingy, bitter and sweet from the coconut- A real treat to bring to the table.
Handling nettle leaves with your bare hands will make them itch A LOT. I actually had to put on my large pink rubber gloves just to chop them, but you could just blanch the nettle’s sting away if you choose to. This way is just more fun. We made nettle potatoes like we’d make any saag aloo at home with an onion, some garlic, one small tomato, dry spice powders like cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli, and it was bloody good. Fifteen minutes of cooking the mixture lid-on with a splash of water and it’s done! You could also make a safed chana or chickpea stew with nettles in it, and it would taste quite great. In addition, Gayatri of Vrindavan Farms also suggests an onion, potato and nettle soup with black pepper and cream that sounds incredible.
Haldi ka patta or turmeric leaves can be super flavourful if you know how to treat it right. You can make Patholi which are sweet rice rolls with coconut and jaggery. These are steamed in turmeric leaves which impart that delicate flavour to the rice. A better use for these turmeric leaves is steaming fish or adding knotted bundles of it to soup and curry for some fresh turmeric flavour much like you do for pandan. Maybe next time think about throwing some into your Thai curry alongside those kafir lime leaves?
I haven’t been able to include other popular monsoon veg like phodshi or white musli, bharangi, shevala or wild suran or elephant foot leaves, and the local water spinach, but I’ll be sure to work with them too when I can get my hands on some. While Ambadi, takla and turmeric leaves can be found at your local vegetable market, you could ask Gayatri from Vrindavan Farms for some delicious Gotu Kola and Nettle leaves.
Malabar Spinach or Pui Saag is also lovely to incorporate into your diet, and if you haven’t already, here are three ways to use it.