All seasons have their own culture, and summers are no different. Falling roughly from April to June, Indian summers are defined by piles of luscious golden mangoes everywhere, lazy school holidays that promise to stretch for a long time, and visits to one’s native place to reunite with a vast and waiting spread of extended family.
In Marathwada, the part of Maharashtra to which I belong and which feels like the most rustic, untouched and pristine part of the state, age-old, local customs can still be found in practice in every household. One of the summer rituals is the making of kharwadya, wholegrain dried snacks. There isn’t really an English equivalent to describe this food. Think bite-sized croutons.
Kharwadya are made from bajri. Bajri is a pearl millet, an apt name for this dark grain. It consists of tiny, black pearls clustered on tall stalks that shoot out of the land. During October to March, you can see acres and acres of erect bajri popsicles swaying in the wind, ripening under the warming sun. Its normal harvesting time is around Feb and March.
Since it’s April now, it is prime time for making bajri kharwadya. Across homes, women will sit around a stone grinder and turn the pearly grains into fine powder. This powder is then steamed, with garlic, sesame seeds, chilli powder and other seasonings. The cooked dough is then broken into small, bite-sized chunks, over a clean, old sari, to dry under the summer sun. This last part is the most time-consuming, as it is done manually and has to be in small, appetising bits. On terraces and in courtyards, it is common to see these little munchkins waiting patiently under the sun, drying and crisping themselves. After a day or two, they’re collected and stored in a tin can, ready for consumption.
Bajri kharwadya can be eaten as is, or fried. I like to eat them as is. They have a hard crunch to them, and with each bite, the earthy flavour of the hardy pearl millet gets released. The rustic texture is demanding; this is a snack that requires you to devote your full attention. The spices excite the tongue, and keep you popping the croutons into your mouth. Since they’re already spiced, you don’t need anything else to go with them. Traditionally, many people eat them with roasted peanuts and raw onion.
When I was a kid, during my summer vacations, I used to pick up a handful and munch on them as I went about the day. They’re a great filler if you get hungry in between meals – anyone who has lived in an extended family set-up knows that one is on their own to fend for themselves if they get hungry between meals. At such times, sticking a hand into a tin can and getting a tasty, satiating, ready-to-eat snack is the perfect solution.
My aunt in Ambejogai, my hometown, is making kharwadya right now. The sight of the old-style stone grinder, the unprocessed grain sitting next to it, and my aunt bent over to make the kharwadya from scratch reminds me of the old days, when families came together to make real food, filled with love. Next summer, I think I’ll join her.