Living in the South of India, we can’t really boast of having a range of seasons. However, if you watch the environment carefully, it does change. The difference is sometimes subtle while other times quite vivid. Take for instance the change in the landscape since early February. The colours of spring couldn’t be more obvious. The flower bearing trees, some of which had shed their leaves in the cooler months are the ones that send their buds erupting in gay abandon.
Believe it or not, the origins of many a regional diet was thanks to the abundance of flora and fauna that existed around mankind. How much they must have experimented before understanding that which was safe to eat and that which was toxic. This huge cache of recipes that formed an intrinsic part of a community's diet not only indulged their seasonal taste buds but also nurtured their well-being.
In the absence of refrigeration, the freshest of produce was used and any preservation was done so using the harsh rays of the summer sun to full advantage. In this article, I would like to draw your attention to the petite white flowers of the majestic neem tree.
Children are taught by environmentalists that neem trees play a vital role in the biodiversity of our land. It is a tree laden with anti-bacterial benefits and infuses the air with medicinal properties throughout the day. This is the reason why when people built homes back in the day, they lined the drive ways with neem trees.
Now to focus on the neem flower; it blooms from say end January to April ideally. They are tiny and hang in clusters that one needs to look closely to spot. At home, they were always added to the ugadhi pachadi which incorporated all the fresh harvests of spring. One was asked to swallow the bitter with the sweet to understand the ups and downs that is a part of life.
The neem flowers though bitter do appear as a star ingredient in a multitude of recipes. Rasam, kozhambhu, pachadi, saadham etc made from vepampoo are some of the dishes that are peculiar to this part of the country. It is a taste that one learns to acquire from childhood. My favourite was always the vepampoo vadagam.
At my in-laws home the neem flowers are separated in small bundles and tied together lengthwise, coated in a rice starch batter and dried to make the vepampoo vadagam. The dried vadagams are delicious when fried in oil and eaten along with cold curd rice. The slightly bitter taste complements the crunchy batter and makes for a tasty addition to a summer lunch.
When a friend asked me if I could source some vepampoo vadagams to buy in bulk, the only person who came to mind was Mythili maami and her family. Affectionately referred to as 'maami' by her clients, she along with her brother and sister-in-law Punitha tirelessly churn out traditional Indian spice mixes, condiments and seasonal delicacies. When I contacted her, she was in the process of making the vepampoo vadagam and requested I wait a few days for delivery as they needed to be properly sun dried.
While they do make it lengthwise in clusters, they also make them in small nugget shapes which are easier to store and make for less breakages. She was most thrilled to learn that we all at home have a vepampoo favourable palate. She offered further tips on how best to add these neem flowers to our diet in an easy manner. She says to simply pluck the flowers, dry them in the hot sun until it turns dark and store in an air tight jar. All that needs to be done before eating is to lightly sauté them in ghee before adding it to a serving of rice. The flowers are believed to act as a prevention for fungal infections and the ghee provides the much needed protein to go along with the carbohydrate rich un-polished kai kutthal arisi.
The wealth of produce that surrounds us never ceases to amaze me. We as a community must set our sights on long term wellness goals and value the lessons taught by people like Mythili maami to understand the wisdom behind traditional practices.In doing that we will then be in complete sync with the planet. Hurry if you want those vadagams... The vepampoo season is only for a few more weeks.
Mythili Maami: 9944941697, 9042204650