Seasonal eating in India comes down to an art.
In a country as expansive as India, nearly every season imaginable exists. There are the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas, the rainforests of Kerala, the massive deserts of Rajasthan, and an expansive ocean coastline.
The best way to understand the food is by looking at the varied climates.
Each season offers particular local produce. The seasons are also connected to the principles of Ayurveda, which offers advice on what foods should be eaten when.
There are also cooking and preservation techniques depending on season and region.
Seasonal eating in India comes down to an art.
India officially has 4 seasons: summer, monsoon, post-monsoon, and winter. According to Ayurveda and the Hindu calendar, there are 6:
The eating practices in much of India come from the principles of Ayurveda. According to Ayurveda, the human body is a constitution of bioenergy or life forces. These are known as the doshas vata, pitta, and kapha.
Vata involves the energy of movement, pitta involves digestion or metabolism, and kapha involves lubrication. The digestive fire, known as agni, is how we assimilate our food and our experiences.
There are also 6 tastes, known as shad rasa, which are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
Dr. Lineesha K.C., an Ayurvedic physician at Greens Ayurveda in Kerala, explains how the seasons determine what we eat.
“The agni is stronger during winter, which increases pitta in the body. This is the time for foods with sweet, sour, and salty taste as they are considered warm; hence wheat, whole grains, dairy, and fatty food is recommended,” she says.
However, the diet may vary from region to region since winter in southern India is not as harsh as in the north.
According to Ayurveda, there’s wisdom in what’s seasonally available.
“Monsoon is generally the period when people catch colds and coughs. Stone fruits, which are available during the rainy season, are rich in antioxidants and should be eaten during this period,” says dietitian Aditi Prabhu.
Similarly, to meet the body’s need for hydration, fruits and vegetables like watermelon, cucumber, and various kinds of gourds are available during summer.
Coconut grows all through the year on the west coast and in southern India due to the warm and humid climate. It’s used extensively in cooking.
During my visit to a tribal area in the foothills of the Sahyadri region in Maharashtra, I was introduced to a variety of wild greens stir-fried with garlic and oil and eaten with rice.
Wheat is mostly eaten in regions that get less rain, though some parts of north India, central India, and west India enjoy it as well.
Rice is eaten in south India, in the coastal region of Maharashtra, east and north-east India, and even in Kashmir.
Apart from wheat and rice, there are seasonal and regional grains and millets, like corn in the northern plains during winter, sorghum in the western region, and foxtail millet, which is eaten during summer for its cooling nature.
Growing up in the northern plains, summer at home meant my mother making tiny dumplings of mung dal (yellow lentils) and sun-drying them.
These mungodis would then be stored and made into curries or added in pulav. This was one of the many ways to preserve food for rainy days when fresh produce wasn’t bountiful.
Seasons across India are distinct. There are harsh winters in the north, incessant rains on the west coast, and an arid climate in some parts of western India.
Cooking and preservation techniques have developed accordingly. There’s more deep-fried food during monsoon and winter as compared to summer.
“The food in winter should be cooked, while in summer more raw food (like fruits, salads) is suggested,” says Lineesha.
Food preservation is also common.
“In Uttarakhand (a state in North India) where barely anything grows in the winter, people sun-dry fresh vegetables in summer to store for the rest of the year,” says food researcher and chronicler Shubhra Chatterji.
In the northeastern states, there’s a tradition of smoking meat. Kitchens in these regions have a dedicated space above their wood-fired stoves where meat is hung to be smoked and stored for winter. I saw this smoked meat, similar to beef jerky, sold on the streets as a snack during my travels to Meghalaya.
Drying is also common in regions that face extreme heat.
In her book “Pangat, a Feast: Food and Lore from Marathi Kitchens,” Saee Koranne-Khandekar writes about the practice of drying leafy greens like fenugreek and the leaves of the chickpea plant in the Marathwada region of western India.
Here, summer is harsh and dry, and there isn’t much fresh produce available during this period.
There are certain rules followed in different parts of the country on what not to eat in a specific season.
“Ayurveda doesn’t have a blanket rule for fasting,” says Lineesha, “but it doesn’t recommend fasting during monsoon and winter when the agni is stronger.”
Chatterji notes that followers of Jainism don’t eat green leafy vegetables during monsoon season, as they may carry worms.
“Jainism strongly preaches against killing of any organism,” she says.
In the coastal region of Maharashtra, the fishermen don’t venture into the sea during monsoon season.
To make up for the lack of fresh fish in this period, the Kolis, a native fishing community in Mumbai, dry fish in the summer and stock it up in their monsoon pantry.
India is a diverse country with rich food traditions. I’ve only scratched the surface of seasonal eating in this vibrant land.
There are layers of culture and taste to be found when you dig deeper into the traditional foods of this incredible country.
Shirin Mehrotra is an independent journalist who writes about the intersection of food, travel, and culture. She’s currently pursuing an MA in the Anthropology of Food.