Traveling With Edible Flowers in Punjab

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the author, Anna Cwiklinska, tours the world meeting with flower farmers. Here she's pictured in Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab Province, India.
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Anna's job as a field expert responsible for flower seeds production takes her to beautiful places around the world.
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Punjab’s agriculture is rich and offers a perfect environment for seed production.
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Edible and decorative flowers were everywhere at this ornate wedding in the Punjab Province.
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A few days before visiting this flower seeds producer in India, Anna was informed that she was invited to his son's wedding - an elaborate multi-day event.

Since starting a professional life as a field expert responsible for flower seeds production, my life took a 180 percent turn from the orderly and sometimes boring life of a college teacher to a never ending adventure. Every year, I visit a minimum of eight different countries on various continents to check the seed production fields with local farmers, looking at plant uniformity, trueness to type and predicting seed yields. Thanks to this job, my dreams came true. I spend a lot of time outside in the field, closer to nature and use my skills at something that I truly enjoy. It gives me great opportunities to travel and visit places that are not to be found in travel guides and that I would have never discovered staying at the college. Each of my travels is like opening a short story book and each leaves in me some kind of an imprint. However, a few of my trips can be named “unforgettable.” That is the only appropriate word to describe a trip to India where I attended a short (just 3 days) part of a wedding ceremony organized for “only” 300 people per day.

I did not end up in that place accidentally. The parents of the groom have been producers of flower seeds and have cooperated with me for several years. My host, Amar, informed me by email a few days before flying to India that because of the wedding preparations, the work in the fields would be a little bit complicated and disorganized. Amar also informed me that I was invited to the wedding party. I had no clue of how such a wedding party would look like and what to expect. I packed two additional dresses, only good for a European wedding, and took off to India.

Trip went as usual and after 14 hours in planes and at airports, I landed happily at the place of my final destination: Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab Province. Punjab is very developed agriculturally and has become one of the richest provinces in India. This is where the Indian “green revolution” started in the sixties and continued into the seventies. This large and important event saved millions of people in India and other poor countries from starvation. One of the local farmers told me how this historical event improved the life of his family. He was born in the Bengal Province and in 1943, when he was still a little child, a famine hit his village. His mother and his brothers died from hunger and together with his father, they started a journey to the unknown, looking for a new place and trying to overcome their sadness. They finally settled nearby Patiala, a city in Punjab in Northern India. The beginnings were not easy, but eventually after a few years, they would call this new place “home”. In the early sixties, he heard about this new program now called “the green revolution.” He knew that something important was happening that could build the foundations for a future with no hunger and a better life.  He was proud to show me a picture of him with Dr. Norman Borlaug who had come to visit the fields surrounding his village.

Punjab’s agriculture is rich and offers a perfect environment for seed production. Most of the farmers are experienced; the soil is fertile and rich in nutrients with unlimited access to water. Such great conditions make the flower fields even more colorful: Tropaeolum, flowering in all tones of yellow, orange, red and pink; tall and dwarf Tagetes (marigolds) in all bright colors from creamy yellow to dark brown red. This is the only place in the world, where good quality seeds of Verbena can be obtained in commercial quantities. All fields glitter in hundreds shades of white, pink, violet, red, blue and purple: such a colorful and pleasant place to be!

I still had to check fields of Nemesia, Mesembrylanthemum and Arctotis and finally was able to observe how farmers collect seeds of Bellis (daisy). The job has to start very early in the morning at sunrise when there is still a little bit of humidity in the air as flowers that are too dry would crumble. Women, as only women do this kind of job, walk the Bellis fields three to four times per week during the harvest season to collect the dry flower heads into small containers. Inside the dry flowers are hidden the tiny golden yellow mature seeds. My guides during this day in the fields, watching women collecting Bellis seeds, is an old and experienced farmer and his son, a well educated young man speaking impeccable English. They then showed me the drying process for the seeds of Lobularia. Plants are harvested from the field and deployed in layers exposed to full sun on concrete floor and allowed to slowly dry in the gentle breeze.

Time was running fast and after a quick lunch, I had to finish work and prepare myself for the rites accompanying the wedding of Kuvai and Asmita. After four days of walking the fields, taking notes and doing plant selections in such a wonderful environment, I was ready for my new experience without knowing what to expect.

Edible Flowers Dishes at a Wedding Party

The first day of the wedding was the most official. I entered the splendid wedding hall ornamented in golden and red, the traditional colors for a wedding ceremony. I was already enchanted. At the center of the hall were two armchairs reminding me of royal thrones. It was not difficult to predict that those were for the future spouses. Everywhere around the large room was a sea of flowers. Those were the same flowers that I had been observing in the fields for the past two days with my local farmers. The invited crowd was already there waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. The ladies were dressed in traditional richly ornamented Indian sari displaying all the colors of the flower world. Jewelry, often very heavy, is also part of the traditional Indian attire with all kinds of gemstones imbedded in gold: bracelets around arms and hands painted with “henna”; long and shiny earrings; head crowns unseen anywhere else in the world. Men seemed to choose more classical and formal suits, with some wearing the traditional long tunic over wide trousers in bright colors and the pointed traditional shoes.

At the beginning of the official ceremony, four men came in carrying the groom in special ‘baldachin”. The groom was dressed in traditional black Indian clothes and shoes. He took the place assigned to him and a few minutes later, the bride appeared on the other side of the hall, wearing a beautiful red wedding dress embroidered with black and gold. All the visible parts of her arms and feet tattooed with henna. Among the painted signs on her skin, were hidden the letters of the name of her future husband. Her face was almost completely covered by a large shawl of the same color as the dress. Four beautiful young ladies escorted her to the groom. The two greeted each other and sat at their respective thrones. Even though the marriage had been pre-arranged by their parents, they had had a chance to meet a few times before and get to know each other a little bit. This explains why, even though they looked slightly stressed, there was no surprise when they looked at each other. Now started the loud and noisy music: one by one, starting with the closest family members, then the cousins, then the friends, then the neighbors and finally whoever happened to be present, in groups of four to five people, we all went to greet the newlywed couple, doing a little dance, offering gifts and throwing coins to wish them good luck, love and happiness.

While the music was still playing, another part of the ceremony started. First both parents of the groom and then the parents of the bride came to their children to offer them fruits and nuts and a piece of a very sweet traditional wedding cake. Some brave guests were not hesitating to stand up and sing a special ode to the young couple. All in all, this lasted more than two hours, with waiters going around and regaling guests with delicious small snacks and finally inviting us to the dinner tables.

The host has decided to surprise his numerous guests with a menu rich in dishes made partly with edible flowers. This was a way to show the strong connection and remind everybody of the family’s and to a larger extent of the whole community’s strong connection with their work in the flower fields. As a person who loves to experiment new dishes in my kitchen, I was thrilled and overwhelmed by all these unknown recipes that I would need now to learn about and try.

First to my mouth came a tasty and spicy tomato soup with Nasturtium. This great recipe involves not only the fresh Nasturtium flowers but also the young leaves and immature seeds of this decorative and edible plant. Fresh bunching onion, basil and pepper are added to a vegetable broth. Onions are sautéed with tomatoes and let simmer together with the flowers, leaves and seeds of the Nasturtium. Shortly, both components are mixed together and ready to serve with rice decorated with Nasturtium fresh flowers.

We also had tomatoes stuffed with Calendula flowers fried with couscous, mint, lavender and turmeric and topped with cottage cheese and the fruits of Phoenix dactylifera, a variety of palm dates. The scent of this whole composition transported me into a spring bountiful garden and the taste was surprisingly strong due to the cheese, but still sweet. I could not compare it to any other dish that had tried before.

The last dish will be the one that I will remember until the end of my life and hopefully in the afterlife. Flowers of French marigold in tempura: very intense flavor, a hint of bitterness somehow reminding of the grapefruit skin . . . all very overwhelming to me. It was served with a yogurt dip that tempered the overwhelming flavor of this unique dish. I had to find out about the recipe. The flowers of this particular type of marigold also are used all over Asia to dip in a batter made of a mix of wheat and corn flours with salted water and fried in hot oil. Just after frying, the bottoms of the flowers are removed to avoid the bitterness and they are served immediately, still hot.

Towards the end of the party, the waiters served a drink made of fermented flowers of the Centaurea cyanus. The color of this unique and strange beverage was dark and deep blue like the Centaurea flower, but I have no word to describe its flavor. I will not do further comments on this experience as I am not a specialist in fermented drinks.

I was so curious to find out who prepared all this delicious and colorful food and learn more about the mysterious flavors and aromas. The hostess was the one in charge and knowing all the recipes including the strange fermented beverage. Under her supervision operated the cook who had been cooking for the family for more than fifteen years. She was very open and shared with me many of the recipes. It was interesting to notice that the guests, many of them working in the flower fields and producing their seeds, did not know about some of the edible flowers recipes.

If someone wishes to try some of the recipes mentioned in this article, nothing will replace traveling to this area of Punjab. Since then I have tried in my kitchen in Poland and even though I scrupulously followed the instructions of my hostess, I could never feel the same flavors and even re-create the same colors. Maybe it is a matter of the quality and freshness of the ingredients, or it is maybe just a matter of the magic of the place and of the ceremony that cannot be reproduced in a different environment.

Anna ?wiklinskawas born and lives in Poland. Since very early in her life, she was interested in nature and biology. She studied Applied Biology and Landscape Architecture and obtained her Ph.d. in Life Sciences from Poznan University, where she was also teaching. She specialized in plant breeding and now travels the world as Seed Production Manager for Legutko Seed Company, a family owned business in southern Poland. She also teaches at the State Higher School of Vocational Education in Leszno. In her free time, Anna loves jogging and swimming, reading books and enjoys her garden.

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