There was profusion of Neem blossom at Rain Tree Park housing society that accommodates the transit campus for NID (National Institute of Design) Andhra Pradesh. I was there earlier this month for teaching a detailed course on applying design methods in food systems and was planning to introduce this unique ingredient to my class. I had already spent a week teaching the class about soil systems, the characteristic of food grown in different types of soil and climate and some cooking techniques to achieve different results while cooking, and that’s when the lurking pandemic broke havoc across the country and we started thinking whether we should return home.
A couple of days were spent in dilemma. It wasn’t safe traveling in a time when one might get infected or at least become a carrier. There were about a dozen visiting faculties staying in the guest house at Rain Tree Park and everyone was anxious to a certain degree. We kept talking while eating our meals and we would take long walks to keep ourselves mentally occupied.
The beautifully landscaped roads of Rain Tree Park had several Neem trees and the profusion of Neem blossom made me think if all the residents ate it in some form and boost their immunity. I was even thinking of plucking some and bringing them back to Dehradun as we don’t get Neem here.
In the meanwhile I was keeping a tab on the flight schedules, more so because there is no direct flight from Vijaywada to Dehradun. That’s when I smelled panic. The flight schedules changed every few hours and the daily morning Air India flight from Vijaywada to Delhi was cancelled, the evening flight was not available everyday. Also, the flight booking options showed a +1day in red against the scheduled timings and that made me curious. I asked my friends and someone sent me a link to a Facebook post where someone had shared that the travelers were being screened and they were held up at the airport for upto 48 hours. The +1day in red mystery was solved and I kept checking the schedules closely and luckily found the morning flight scheduled on Friday 19th March. I got it booked immediately and called the husband that I will be taking a cab from Delhi to Dehradun because the next flight to Dehradun from Delhi was in the evening and I didn’t want to stay back in an airport with so much virus load. Luckily, he found a Dehradun based cab operator whose drivers ply the route everyday and booked a cab with them.
That journey starting at 6.30 am from Rain Tree Park to home in Dehradun late in the evening will always be etched in my mind because of the worried faces I saw everywhere. The panic was evident in the body language and the way people clutched on to their hand sanitizers, most were wearing masks and kept adjusting the masks with hands, eyes fearful and suspecting everyone else to be a virus. I tried to tell a lot of people to not touch the mask and most understood with a silent nod, some turned away without an expression but I hope they realised why touching the mask isn’t the best thing.
Back home I had asked the husband to remove carpet from my study and bring the folding cot there because I needed to quarantine myself, with an intention to not carry the virus load to my neighbourhood. A 14 day quarantine was the best option but managing the quarantine was the most difficult thing ahead. I had hired a new cook before going for a month long teaching schedule to NID Viyawada and I thought the cook will help manage it, the husband being hugely inept at cooking and even finding stuff in the fridge. I felt it would be safe because she lives inside our campus which is a protected area and the guards at every gate are making everyone to sanitise their hands strictly. But she turned out to be the one of the most rigid minds who won’t take any requests or even commands to maintain hygiene even in the face of a pandemic that everyone understands now. She was fired within 3 days of my quarantine, of course she was paid for the month.
We are managing the quarantine period with the husband’s limited cooking skills and some easy and yet nutritious meals like dahi poha and gud chana but that’s a minor concern in a world that has so many struggles to deal with.
I miss the presence of a Neem tree in the neighbourhood. I had planted a Neem sapling in my garden but it couldn’t survive the winter. Neem was a big part of quarantine measures practiced during chicken pox epidemic for prevention of virus spread as well as building immunity. Since this is the time of the year when new leaves and flowers appear on big Neem trees, the change of season coincided with many flu and pox outbreaks, Neem became a natural immunity boost to the people of India in the form of cooked and uncooked recipes, decoctions, bathing mixtures, infused water for drinking and even bathing. The tender leaves and flowers of Neem are used for making quick condiments and even pakodas in many part of India. According to Ayurveda, the caution to take with consuming Neem leaves is that it should always be consumed in small doses. Too much Neem consumption may aggravate Vata as per Ayurveda practitioners.
I was planning to introduce the Neem flower tempered buttermilk to my class at NID and may be the pakodas too but I have to console myself with the pictures I shot during the making of my book Pakodas The Snack For All Seasons. Sharing a recipe here so you can make these if you have access to Neem leaves during this time.
A dozen sprigs of tender neem leaves, preferably the copper coloured ones
A cup of thin pakoda batter made of chickpea flour and rice flour, you can also use just rice flour batter or even tempura batter.
100 ml mustard oil in a small round bottom pan or Kadhai for deep frying
Ingredients for pakoda batter
2 tbsp besan or chickpea flour
¼ tsp of turmeric powder
Rinse the Neem leaves and let them dry on a kitchen towel.
Make the batter by mixing batter ingredients and whisking till it makes a smooth free flowing batter. You can add a few Neem flowers into the batter too if available.
Heat the oil and start making of the pakodas.
Dip each sprig of Neem leaves in the batter, drain off excess and drop it in the hot oil, repeat with 3-4 sprigs in each batch and fry all of them in similar manner. You need to turn them in the hot oil to fry them evenly. Fish them out of the hot oil once the pakodas look crisp and slightly browned.
Serve hot as a starter with Indian meals or as part of an assorted pakoda platter. For more pakoda recipes it will be great if you buy the book Pakodas The Snack For All Seasons