The Goodness of the Bitter Neem
It is the puthandu (Tamil new year), and the gorgeous white neem flowers are bountiful. Across many households in the south of India, the flowers are incorporated into special recipes. Not just because they taste good, but also because they bring home the message that life is beautiful like the neem tree, but it also brings with it bitterness, which is necessary for the good health of the body, mind and soul. Here’s a quick recipe of neem flower rasam.
Pankaja Srinivasan 14 April 2023 11:30 AM GMT
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
The modern way of cooking I have adopted, the fact that everything is available all year through, and that there are so many convenient shortcuts, often leave me with faint regret.
May be just this once, I would have loved to have spread out a white thundu (thin towel) beneath a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) the evening before and dashed out at the crack of dawn to collect the newly fallen fragile while flowers and brought them into my kitchen to make the special vempam poovu pachchadi to welcome the Tamil new year and the sunny days ahead.
I once did that when we lived in Palam on the outskirts of Delhi and had a massive neem tree in our driveway with a magnificent canopy.
But I don’t do that anymore. But, I remember there is a neem tree growing on the other side of the wall around our apartment in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. I decide to go and see if I can find some flowers.
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Curious, Bannari and Muthulakshmi, who are housekeepers here, follow me out into the sun. They look amused at my sad attempts to reach up and get some of those neem flowers. They nimbly hop on to the ledge, and with a long rod reach up and drag down the branches of the neem. In no time I have an armload of neem leaves with the most beautiful white neem flowers. Now, I don’t have to use the store-bought neem flowers.
What should I make? Should I fry and add the neem flowers as garnish to my curd rice, or should I make a quick pachchadi with a few raw mangoes, or perhaps make that neem flower rasam… all three are delicious options. But I think it is going to be neem flower rasam, the simplest.
Social media is bursting with options of detox miracle food, and I must say this rasam made with the flowers of the neem sounds like it would be a great detox too. After all, neem leaves and the flowers are said to contain anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.
Also there is this underlying message as we add neem to our preparations to welcome the new year. ‘Don’t shy away from the bitterness in life, embrace it. Bitterness can be good for the body and soul.’ And, neem is said to be cooling to the system.
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Neem Flower Rasam
Neem flowers — 2 to 3 tablespoons
Tamarind — a lemon sized portion
Rasam Powder — 1 to 1 ½ teaspoons
Jaggery — a small piece
Salt to taste
Mustard — one teaspoon
Hing — one pinch
Ghee to temper
If it is the fresh white flowers you have picked, then wash them well and dry them on a towel. In a little ghee, fry the flowers till they are almost black in colour. Keep aside.
In a heavy bottomed vessel (I have a beautiful stone pot) pour in the tamarind extract, the jaggery, the salt, the rasam powder and enough water depending on how much quantity you want.
Bring it to a boil. Once that is well boiled (you will know as the aroma will fill your kitchen) take off from the heat.
Add the fried neem flowers to the rasam
Heat a teaspoon of ghee, temper with the mustard and hing and pour over the rasam
Serve with plain steamed rice with more ghee and if you want a side of rice vadaams or papad.
Happy New Year!