On trips, I love trying out the local cuisine and often find myself searching for unfamiliar names on menu cards and small eateries that serve home-cooked food. But that's not how I stumbled upon Buransh. It was the waiter's enthusiasm, at a restaurant in Nainital, that made me try it. Served in a simple glass, the drink looked like one of the regular red-hued concoctions of rose, strawberry or raspberry, but the flavour although sweet, was distinctly different and had a jelly-like consistency. It was love at first sip (I had to stop myself from having a third glass) and its story fascinated me even more.
The waiter explained that Buransh is made of the local flower burans (a type of rhododendron), from which it gets its name and insisted that it didn't have any sugar or preservatives, the flower itself is very sweet. I discovered that's only half the truth. While women of the village who gather these scarlet bell-shaped flowers sometimes pluck and drink its sweet nector, the squash served at restaurants and hotels is full of sugar and preservatives. Most locals don't make a secret of it.
Consuming burans in liquid form is a recent phenomemon. Traditionally, between January and March, when these flowers bloom on evergreen shrubs and small trees, villagers consume burans chutney to prevent sickness caused by changes in weather during this period. Eaten with rice, the chutney is prepared by grinding together burans petals with soaked tamarind, green or red chillies and garlic; it goes well with parathas too and villagers also make yummy burans pakoras.
So how did the squash start trending? In 1986, Dr. Anil Joshi (then a Botany professor and now the founder of HESCO, an NGO) and some others visiting Ramadi Pulinda village for a project, relished their first tasting of the sweet and sour, red chutney. Among them, Tikaram Pathak who was into food processing thought of making squash out of the flower and did so at his Siggadi plant in 1988, under the brand Suvas. Thereafter, HESCO began training other interested organisations with skills to set up processing units and now teaches the techniques to flood-affected people, especially women, for self-employment. It is also working towards burans conservation and is pushing the state to brand the squash as an Uttarakhand product.
Found only at altitudes ranging approximately from 1,200m-2300m, during monsoons these flowers abound in Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Almora, Pittogarh and further up from Auli, making mountains seem like they are on fire from afar. It's no surprise then that in 2003 soon after separating from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand gave burans the status of its state flower. It's amazing how a flower that cures headaches, stomach ailments and as per recent research heart ailments too, can also be intoxicating and harmful, when consumed in excess.
I was served a less pulpy, but equally delicious version of Buransh, as a welcome drink at a hotel in Jim Corbett. I bought a couple of bottles to bring back home from one of the several brands selling Buransh in stores across the state, but picked the wrong one. It tasted nothing like what the restaurant and hotel had offered me. Only later did I learn that it's best to procure the squash directly from villagers. Some regions in and out of India, where burans is known by different local names, the flower is also brewed into lovely wines.
With inputs from Sunil Kainthola and Debjyoti Bhattacharyya (Department of Life Science & Bioinformatics, Assam University)