A Deep Dive into Cultivation, Harvesting, and Processing of the superfood of Mithila
Makhana, also known as Gorgon Nuts, Phool Makhana, Popped Lotus Seeds, or Popped Water Lily Seeds, has emerged as a sacred superfood, deeply ingrained in Indian culinary heritage for over a century. Originating from an aquatic plant with vibrant purple blossoms, this nutritious white orb is garnering global attention for its health benefits. Makhana holds a special place in the cultural and spiritual landscape of Mithila region in India. As one delves deeper into the essence of makhana, its sacred significance in tradition and rituals, and landscape woven with water bodies and marshy expanses, makhana has intertwined itself into the very fabric of life.
Mithila, once the realm of the Videha kingdom spanning parts of northern Bihar and the Terai region of Nepal, has nurtured the cultivation of Euryale ferox, commonly known as makhana, for centuries. Although this aquatic crop flourishes in various regions of northern India and is also found in China, Japan, and Korea, it is in the heart of Mithila, specifically within the eight districts of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Saharsa, Supaul, Madhepura, Purnea, Katihar, and Araria, where it truly thrives. Did you know this this region contributes a substantial 80 to 90% of India's total makhana output?
In this article, we embark on a comprehensive exploration of the meticulous journey that transforms these aquatic seeds into the beloved Makhana, tracing its cultivation, harvesting, and intricate processing steps.
Cultivation of Makhana: A Challenging Endeavour
Makhana, although traditionally confined to subtropical and tropical regions of Southeast and East Asia, has witnessed a surge in demand across the globe. The cultivation of Makhana is a multifaceted endeavour, marked by unique challenges and rewards.
The life cycle of Lotus seeds and water lily plants begins with the germination of remnants from the previous season in December and January. During this period, early leaves begin to emerge, marking the onset of a new growth phase. From January to May, the plants experience vigorous growth, with large thorny leaves spreading across the water's surface. In April, these aquatic plants burst into vibrant flowers, creating a colourful and lively spectacle, which peaks in May. As May progresses, the flowers transform into seeds that float briefly before sinking to the pond's depths. Fruit-bearing typically occurs around mid-May, yielding around 450 to 700 grams of seeds per plant. The eventual submergence of the seeds sets the stage for the arduous process of collection. The cultivation of Makhana is a multifaceted endeavour, marked by unique challenges and rewards.
Harvesting and Beyond: Transforming Aquatic Gems
- Manual Collection: The submerged seeds are manually collected by skilled harvesters, requiring them to dive deep into the water, a physically demanding feat.
- Cleaning and Purity: The gathered seeds, covered in a coat of contaminants such as mud, shells, and plants, undergo a meticulous cleaning process. This step is pivotal in ensuring the purity and quality of the final product.
- Sun-Drying and Moisture Management: The cleansed seeds are then sun-dried to attain a moisture content of 31%, making them suitable for temporary storage. Given the challenge of preserving their freshness, regular water sprinkling becomes essential.
- Grading for Precision: Grading the seeds according to size facilitates uniform roasting. This process sets the stage for the transformational roasting and popping phases.
Processing: Popping and Polishing for Perfection
- Roasting and Popping: The sun-dried seeds are roasted and popped, a crucial but challenging operation. These steps, carried out in cast iron pans or earthen pitchers over an open flame, reduce the seeds' moisture content to around 20%. The nuts are then tempered for 45-72 hours, a critical period that influences the final texture and taste.
- Polishing and Grading: The importance of immediate post-popping polishing cannot be overstated, as it enhances the whiteness of the Makhana. This process ensures uniformity and elevates the overall quality of the product.
- Varietal Grading and Packaging: Following polishing, Makhana is graded into distinct varieties such as Rasgulla, Thurri, and Samundha. These meticulously sorted seeds are packaged in gunny bags, ready to embark on their journey to homes and markets.
Context to Makhana's True Identity
For generations, Makhana has held a revered place as a "Satvik Bhojan," an offering to Hindu idols, embodying a deeper connection to spiritual and cultural traditions. The lotus flower, known as 'kamal ka phool' in Hindi, has been a symbol of abundance, eternity, and prosperity, intricately linked to Goddess Lakshmi, the embodiment of wealth in Hindu mythology. In recent years, Makhana has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity, earning recognition as a superfood.
Makhana, known by an array of names, such as 'thangjing' in Manipuri, 'juwar' in Kashmiri, 'nikhori' in Assamese, and Gorgon nut in English, has traversed borders, establishing a global reputation for its nutritional and medicinal prowess. Reverberating through ancient Indian and Chinese texts are echoes of Makhana's medicinal potential, serving as an antidote for various ailments that traverse the realms of the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems. This remarkable aquatic gem has even been attributed with aphrodisiac qualities, further adding to its mystique.
The cultivation of Makhana requires careful attention to water quality, temperature, and maintenance throughout the different stages of growth. It is an important crop in regions where it is cultivated, providing livelihoods for many communities and a valuable source of nutrition.
The journey from aquatic cultivation to the crisp and wholesome delight of Makhana is a symphony of precision and dedication. As we peel back the layers of this intricate process, we gain a profound appreciation for the laborious efforts that culminate in the beloved snack. From the nurturing of water lily plants to the artistry of roasting and grading, each step intertwines nature and human ingenuity, crafting a delectable treat that transcends borders and tantalizes taste buds.