Each year, when I went back to college in Delhi after the summer vacations, I would find my friends waiting eagerly for their favourite dish from my home State, Rajasthan, ker sangri ki sabji. Since it doesn’t get spoilt easily, I could carry it on my overnight train journey. Come lunch hour, my friends would feast on it with pooris or parathas bought from the college canteen.
Ker sangri is an assortment of five plant products — ker, sangri, babul fali (kumatiya), gunda and aamchur. It is also known as panchkuta because of this unique mix of five ingredients. Ker is a caper-like desert fruit, a berry that grows on a thorny shrub. It is tangy in taste, which also makes it a perfect ingredient for pickles. Sangri, on the other hand, are bean-like pods of the khejri tree. Babul fali are the flat seeds of babul or acacia tree.
Gunda or gumberry is again a berry filled with a tangy, sticky pulp, green in colour when raw and yellow when dried. Aamchur, of course, is dry mango powder, which adds flavour to the otherwise bland dish. When cooked in oil and spices, the ingredients get an earthy, rustic flavour — tangy, sour and spicy, all at once. Ker sangri is savoured not only for its unique taste but also for its health benefits — it is said to be effective in curing cough and cold, diarrhoea and improving immunity.
Given the dry and arid climactic conditions of Rajasthan, the people there, over the centuries, have developed the art of preserving vegetables, berries and other local produce. They are thoroughly cleaned and then dried in the hot summer sun, to be used throughout the year in various festivities.
Ker sangri is one such dish made from locally sourced ingredients. It is said to have been created ages ago by Rajasthani villagers at the time of a great famine, when the natural vegetation died. Though it is a household dish in the desert region, it is served as an exotic add-on in the royal hotels of Rajasthan. For weddings, ker sangri is made richer with dry fruits.
Though ker sangri can be cooked at any time of the year, it is a must for Sheetala Saptami, a regional festival which marks the onset of summers by offering prayers to goddess Sheetala and preparing sheetal or cold food. All the cooking for the festival is done a day before as the kitchen fire shouldn’t be lit on the day of the celebration. Ker sangri is the food for the occasion as it can be stored for two to three days without refrigeration.
After my college years, when I moved to Bengaluru for work, I would often venture into the smaller lanes in the outskirts of the city looking for Marwari kirana shops, which, unlike mega food marts, would usually have the ingredients for ker sangri. Ordering them online helped at times, but I missed the authentic taste. The pandemic hiatus gave me the opportunity to go back to my hometown, to ker sangri and its sister dishes made from ground pulses — gatta curry, pitaud, mungodi — all from the hinterlands of Rajasthan and meant to address the scarcity of fresh vegetables in the desert region.
Recipe: Ker sangri
Jeera, 1 tsp
Dried red chillies, 2
Red chilli powder, 1 tsp
Coriander powder, 1 tsp
Turmeric powder, 1/2 tsp
A pinch of hing
Oil for cooking
Salt to taste
Wash the mixture and soak overnight. Wash again in the morning to free it of all impurities. Boil it in a pressure cooker, turning down the flame after a whistle. In a pan, heat oil and put hing, jeera and dry chillies. You can also add dry fruits like almond, cashews and raisins. Mix turmeric, chilli and coriander powder. Add a bit of water to this masala mixture to make a paste. Pour this into the oil and cook for two minutes. Add the boiled vegetables, salt and mango powder. Cook for five minutes and turn off the flame. Cover with a lid and let it cool down to get the perfect taste.
The writer studies at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and likes to cook both food and fiction.