I like the sun in small doses, but I don’t handle very well the sort of heat we’ve been having lately, and I do tend to complain about being cooked by the sun.
Then, last weekend, I helped my mother and our maharaj prepare a year’s worth of chunda, a spicy-sweet mango preserve typically made in summer, and I realised that instead of cribbing about the heat, I could put the sun’s energy to some good use.
For hundreds of years, housewives, particularly in India, have used the sun to dry produce for use around the year. I have now joined their ranks, having spent the past month trying out different sun recipes on my balcony.
I have so far enjoyed considerable success with aam papad and sundried tomatoes. I was thrilled to successfully make aam papad or mango leather — something my grandmother made for us as kids. She would lay layers of mango purée out on a thali in the sun until they were reduced to thin, elastic film. We would wait impatiently for the fruit to dry out into luscious, golden-yellow, tangy goodness.
Aam papad is very easy to make: Just puree a cup of mango and spread thinly on a baking sheet or steel thali lined with 3 gm ghee. Cover with a net or muslin cloth and place in the sun. Take in at night, to prevent damage from dew. Continue until the mango is no longer sticky and has developed a smooth surface. You will know it is done when it easily peels off the thali. Roll into a cylinder and store in an airtight box.
You can dry apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, plums and strawberries in the same manner.
For the sun-dried tomatoes, slice cherry tomatoes or spoon tomatoes in half, sprinkle lightly with salt, olive oil, pepper and mixed herbs and spread out on a screen or flour sieve. Place in the sun until dry. Depending on the weather and the size of your tomatoes, this could take anywhere from four to seven days. Cover with a muslin cloth to keep insects and dust out and allow ventilation. Like the aam papad, you will need to bring it in at night, to prevent damage from dew.
This past month, I have also made sun tea, something my cousin, tea sommelier Snigdha Manchanda Binjola, first told me about. “Sun tea is the perfect antidote to summer laziness,” she always says. Snigdha warns, however, that brewing sun tea can encourage the growth of bacteria if left out for too long, so be careful.
That said, any tea can be brewed in the sun. So, for me, some days it’s English Breakfast with a slice of lemon and a few sprigs of mint; other days, it’s an Assam tea with sliced apple, cinnamon and cloves. Just combine and leave where the sun is hottest, for two to four hours. Then savour still warm from the sun, or have chilled, as iced tea.
Sun tea is much more mellow than regular tea, but the slow steeping really brings out the flavours — so herbal and floral teas work particularly well.
During my experiments with the sun, I remembered my friend Selin Rozanes, who conducts Turkish cooking tours in Istanbul, pointing to colorful bowls of jam lined up on balconies and in backyards. Turkish housewives often use the hot summer sun to finish cooking their jams and marmalades, Selin had said, adding that jams matured in the sun last longer and never crystallise.
This brought me full circle to the Gujarati chunda my grandmother made every year, which was cooked slowly for up to 20 days in the summer sun. Inspired, I decided to try a sun-cooked preserve. Alongside is the menu, so that you can try it too…
(Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal is an author, blogger and food consultant. Look out for Spice Route on the first Sunday of every month)