Where I grew up in Goa, a former Portuguese colony in western India, we celebrated the cashew (the seed that grows outside the cashew fruit, which is mistakenly considered a nut). We ate them raw and salted, added them to curries and ground them up for desserts. I thought it was our most versatile seed. Until I met the makhana.
When I first tried this “fox nut” (also known as gorgon nut — which is also a seed), roasted in ghee and dusted with salt, I didn’t like it. But dry-roasted? Oh, that delicious nutty, crunchy, earthy flavor. When the seed is puffed, it’s similar in look and texture to popcorn.
Fox nuts come from the water lily (Euryale), which is native to India, Japan, Korea and China and grows in ponds and wetlands. When its spongy fruit releases the pods, they are collected, cleaned and dried in the sun until they pop, releasing the white kernel — the ready-to-eat seed. Makhana is believed to be one of the oldest aquatic cash crops in Bihar in eastern India. The temperate plant adapts well with the country’s tropical climate and is found and consumed largely in northwest India.
You’re not going to find it in a restaurant.
In India, the makhana is considered a superfood — a little powerhouse of nutrients — and a common vrat (fasting) food. “These provide us with energy, and they’re tasty too,” says food blogger Vandana Shrimali from Lucknow in northern India. She also uses the seeds to make other Indian sweets like barfi (which is fudge-like), panjiri (a nutritional supplement made with ghee and dried fruits) and laddoos (recipe below). The makhana also has religious significance; the seeds are considered auspicious, and curries and desserts prepared with fox nuts are offered as prasad (offering) in some temples for festivals or special pujas.
The seeds can also be roasted with or without ghee until crunchy, then topped with salt and pepper or even a tadka (tempering) of green chilies and turmeric. It’s also a versatile pantry ingredient, used whole or ground into a powder and added to curries, kheer, puddings, soups and salad toppings or to supplement other flours. And each community has its own makhana-specific dishes. In the Sindhi community, makhana is called phool patasha and commonly made in two curries: with and without onions. “Macaroni and phool patasha along with potato chunks cooked in onion tomato gravy is a popular dish,” says Sindhi food blogger Alka Keswani. The Kayasth community’s specialty is called makhana matar subzi (gravy of onion, green peas and khoya).
But if you want to sample the mighty makhana? You’re not going to find it in a restaurant. First, it’s a snack typically prepared for celebrations and periods of fasting, says writer Anoothi Vishal, who belongs to the Kayasth community. It’s also considered a “homely” dish that “require[s] a lightness of touch,” she explains. “Restaurant food in India has always been different from home food.” Vishal curates meal pop-ups every few months across India, offering Kayasth and other regional food. One of her specialties is makhana in a dish called mewa ke aloo (onions, native chironjee seeds, raisins, fried potatoes and yogurt).
So unless you stumble across a pop-up or know someone who can prepare it for you, your best bet to sample tasty fox nuts is to pick them up in snack form in gourmet stores and supermarkets (some Indians order them online). And once you try them? Well, you’re not going to be able to eat just one.
Recipe: Makhana ke Laddoo
A rich and crunchy sweet usually served during a festival or at celebrations
- 100 grams (3.5 ounces) makhana
- pure ghee (as needed)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup coconut powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 100 grams (3.5 ounces) mawa (dried milk solids)
- milk (as needed)
Heat ghee in a pan, add makhana and fry till crispy. Let this cool and then blitz in a mixer. Add in remaining ingredients. At this stage, you can also add dried fruits and almonds, cashews or walnuts. Empty this mixture onto a plate and mold it into balls about the size of a lime. If the mixture crumbles easily, add a little ghee and milk and try again. Once the laddoos are formed, let them rest for a few minutes and then they’re ready to eat.
Note: It’s best to eat these fresh, and within two to three days. Since the laddoos contain ghee, which solidifies when cooled, it is best not to refrigerate them.
(Courtesy Vandana Shrimali)
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