Neem Flower And How It Is Used In South Indian Cuisine

I remember quizzing my grandmother on why a delicacy served on a festive occasion had a hint of a bitter taste. It's then that I heard the explanation about how the Ugadi Pachadi served on the first day of the year is a precursor for the year ahead.

Ashwin Rajagopalan  |  Updated: May 10, 2018 13:39 IST

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Neem Flower And How It Is Used In South Indian Cuisine
Highlights
  • Neem flower is a regular feature in many homes across South India
  • Neem flower is considered an antiseptic that can cleanse your system
  • There are quite a few South Indian dishes that incorporate neem flower
One of my earliest memories of Ugadi (the beginning of the new year in Karnataka, Andhra and Telengana) was the Ugadi Pachadi. I remember quizzing my grandmother on why a delicacy served on a festive occasion had a hint of a bitter taste. It's then that I heard the explanation about how the Ugadi Pachadi served on the first day of the year is a precursor for the year ahead. A mix of sweet, tangy and bitter; a subtle reminder to ride the rough with the smooth. It's the neem flower that lends the bitter taste to the Ugadi Pachadi, the one dish you are likely to sample in homes that celebrate Ugadi.

It's not just the Ugadi legends that are linked to the neem flower. Ayurvedic diets consider the neem flower as an ingredient that calms the system ahead of summer - a pitta pacifier. It's why it's a regular feature in many homes across South India with the onset of summer. Almost every ingredient associated with the neem tree - like the bark and leaves are full of goodness; it's the same with neem flower. That's the key reason why neem along with moringa is one of the traditional Indian ingredients that has a global profile among wellness freaks.

(Also read: 10 Wonderful Benefits and Uses of Neem)
 

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Neem flower is considered an antiseptic that can cleanse your system. It is also known to cure skin impurities when applied on the skin. There are quite a few South Indian dishes that incorporate neem flower. Like a neem flower powder in parts of Andhra and Tamil Nadu that is very similar to a curry leaf powder, usually mixed with hot rice and ghee. Just like the other ingredients in the Ugadi pachadi, the spices in some of these dishes balance the bitterness of the neem flower. And almost always, the neem flowers are added towards the end of the cooking process. But you can't quite escape the bitter taste of the neem flower even in these dishes. We've rounded up a few traditional South Indian recipes with neem flower. It's clearly an acquired taste, but one that comes with tangible health benefits:

1. Neem flower chutney

This is one of the easiest dishes to enjoy the health benefits of neem flowers. You can mix this with hot rice and ghee or enjoy it as an accompaniment with dosas.
 

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Ingredients: Dried neem flowers: 1/2 cup
Urad dal: 1/4 cup
Red chilies: 8-10
Tamarind: size of a big size lemon
Jaggery: 1/8 cup
Curry leaves: small bunch
Asafoetida: 2 pinches
Ghee: 1 tablespoon

Method:

1) Fry the urad dal in a pan with 1 tablespoon of ghee. Remove from the pan once the dal turns golden brown.

2) Roast the dried neem flowers in the same pan till they turn crispy. Add the tamarind and then the other ingredients including the urad dal.

3) Keep stirring in the pan adding very little water till the coarse mixture turns into a pickle like consistency.

2. Neem rasam

My mother has dozens of rasam recipes under her sleeve but not all those rasams can match the goodness of this rasam infused with neem flower. This is her simple recipe.

Ingredients: Neem flower: 1/4 cup
Juice from tamarind (tamarind extract): to taste
Tur dal (cooked and mashed in a soup-like consistency): 1/4 cup
Asafoetida: a pinch
Ghee: 3/4 spoon
Crushed pepper: 1 teaspoon
Dried red chillies
Mustard seeds: 1/4 teaspoon
Curry leaves: a small bunch
Salt: to taste

Method:

1) Fry the dried neem flowers in 1/2 teaspoon ghee till they turn golden brown. Keep it aside
Boil tamarind juice in another dish (till the raw smell leaves)

2)Add the dal, water and salt; simmer for a few minutes and add the crushed pepper before turning off.
3) Add 1/4 teaspoon to another pan. Roast the crushed red chillies, mustard, asafoetida and curry leaves before tossing in the neem leaves.

4) Add this mixture to the pan with the dal/tamarind water and boil briefly.

5) Close the lid and let it simmer for a while before serving

6) You can mix this with rice or just consume it like a soup.

3. Neem flower Kuzhambu

Mrs Lalitha Rajan from Chennai is an expert in Chettinad cuisine. This is her recipe. It tastes equally good with rice or thick dosas.
 
 

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Ingredients:

Onion shallots (small onions): 20
Garlic: 4
Turmeric: 1/4 teaspoon
Chilly Powder: 1 teaspoon
Coriander powder: 1 teaspoon
Tamarind water (Extract from a tamarind the size of a lemon)
Water - 350 ml
Salt - to taste
Curry leaves: small bunch
Tomato (chopped): 1
Cooking oil: 1 tablespoon
Jeera: 1 teaspoon
Mustard seeds: 1/2 teaspoon
Fenugreek: 1/4 teaspoon
Urad dal: 1/4 teaspoon

Method:

1) 'Temper' the mustard seeds, jeera, fenugreek, and curry leaves.

2) Fry the small Onion along with this

3) Add the chopped tomato. Sauté.

4) Then add the chilly powder, salt, coriander powder, turmeric and garlic. Sauté for ten minutes
Add the tamarind water to this mixture; boil till it reaches the desired consistency.

5) In a separate pan add a little oil and temper 1/2 teaspoon of jeera, 1/2 teaspoon of mustard seeds, urad dal and curry along with 1/4 cup dried neem flowers. Turn off as soon as the neem flowers turn golden brown

6) Add this mixture to the gravy and turn off once it simmers.


About the Author:

Ashwin Rajagopalan is a cross cultural training expert and lifestyle writer. When he's not writing about food, he thinks about gadgets, trends and travel experiences. He enjoys communicating across cultures and borders in his weekday work avatar as a content and editorial consultant for a global major and one of India's only cross cultural trainers.

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