The simple answer to this questions is – neither. No, fox nuts do not come from lotuses, and they most definitely do not come from foxes, I promise. Fox nuts have many names – Euryale ferox, ‘lotus’ seeds, gorgon nuts, and what us Indians commonly say – phool makhana. Make a kheer from it, a raita, a curry, a bhel, or just toss it in some clarified butter (read: ghee) and have them, phool makhanas are delicious in all their avatars. Phool makhanas make a great (and healthy) snack and are finding a place in a lot of diet menus. But what are fox nuts exactly and where do they come from?
What are Makhanas?
Makhana or Euryale ferox is an aquatic cash crop and it is very commonly cultivated in several districts of North Bihar, and some other parts of the country. It prefers a tropical to sub-tropical climate, with a temperature range of 20 to 35 degrees Celsius, a humidity of 50 to 90%, and rainfall between 100 to 250 cm. Makhanas are eaten raw as well as cooked. The seeds, once collected from the plant (the Euryale ferox or prickly water lily) need to be processed soon, and are super nutritious. They have a very high amino acid index (89 – 93%) with a low calorific value – simply put, high proteins with low calories.
Where do the makhanas grow?
The Euryale ferox or the prickly water lily, is a lily, not a lotus. It is a macrophyte (an aquatic plant large enough to be seen by the naked eye) that grow during March to August. Sometime mid-April to April, the prickly water lily begins to flower. This is then followed by fruiting. Once these fruits are mature, they rupture, spreading the plant’s seeds all over the place. These seeds settle at the bottom of the water body the lilies are growing in. The farmers then harvest these ‘makhana’ seeds from the bottom of the swamps or water bodies, generally about 2 meter deep. This generally takes place from around the peak of monsoon till mid-October. It is a very laborious process to harvest the makhana.
How are the makhanas harvested?
Makhana harvesting generally begins in the morning, and goes on till mid-afternoon (somewhere around 10am to 3pm). Harvesting makhana is a traditional practice and there are only few communities who are skilled in carrying it out. A bamboo pole is fixed in the swamp, and 4-5 people work around it to collect the seeds at the bottom of the water body. This is a very laborious task. Each person goes in a different direction from the pole, about 2-3 m radius around the pole and collect the seeds at the bottom of the pole. From here, they are brought to the surface.
Once collected, the makhana seeds are dipped into the water and washed clean. There are traditional containers used for this purpose, though sometimes triangular nets are also used. Once cleaned, the seeds are packed into bags and brought ashore. Here, the seeds are poured into a cylindrical container and rolled on the ground to rub the seed coats. The processed makhana seeds are kept overnight. Next morning, the womenfolk of the community take the makhanas out for drying. The drying could take 2 to 3 hours in bright sunlight, though in cloudy weather, it could take even 7 to 8 hours.
How are makhanas processed?
As soon as the makhanas are dry, they need to be fried or they will spoil. Frying of the makhanas is done in a round aluminum pot placed on an earthen oven. Batches of the seeds are placed in the pan for about five minutes, and stirred constantly with a long stick. This is the first frying.
After the first frying, the nuts are stored in long bamboo reed containers plastered with cow dung. The top of the container is covered with a course cloth to maintain the temperature inside the container. The seeds are stored in the container for about 60 hours.
After this, it is time for the second frying. The seeds go back into the aluminum pans, this time only for 2-3 minutes. From the pan, the seeds go to a wooden plate where they are immediately thrashed with a wooden hammer. Thrashing causes the seeds to expand right away, which is what causes the white puff of the makhanas, and the black seed coat to fall off. The seeds expand to about three times their original size after thrashing.
After the thrashing and consequent expansion, each seed is then rubbed by hand to remove the remnants of the black seed coat that might still be sticking on. The cleaned white puffs are then stored in bags and are now ready to sell.
Are makhanas medically important?
Yes, makhanas do have plenty of medicinal value. They are used to help treat stomach ache, articular pain, seminal loss, diabetes, spleen issues, and gonorrhea. There are also studies where it has helped treat rheumatism, polyurea, spermatorrhea, parturition, and bile disorders.
What are the nutritional benefits of makhana?
Makhanas are very low in fat and high in protein, so they make for a great guilt-free snack. Fox nuts are rich in flavonoids which are very effective in reducing inflammation, which could also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. They have anti-bacterial properties. Flavonoids are great anti-oxidants which fight free radicals, in turn slowing down the ageing process. Fox nuts detoxifies the spleen and keeps it functioning smoothly. Fox nuts are rich in a very important mineral – potassium, which is important for the smooth functioning of your nervous system and cardiovascular system. Makhanas are considered to be very good for your reproductive system. They are rich in calcium so they also help with better bones and teeth. They would also be great for people with arthritis, rheumatism, etc. These are just some of the benefits of fox nuts, there are countless more.
Do makhana have religious significance?
Phool makhanas or fox nuts have great significance in Hindu religion. They form an integral part of a lot of religious rituals from marriage to death. They make a common offering to Gods and is a very important food consumed during fasting. It is a part of the panch-meva as well as panch-amrit. Phool makhanas are also considered to be one of the five favorite foods of Goddess Laxmi.
Fox nuts DO NOT come from foxes. They also do not come from lotuses. Phool makhanas come from the prickly water lily. Collecting and processing phool makhanas is a very laborious job. They are super-packed with nutrition and medicinal properties. They make for a great guilt-free snack and good to add to your daily diet.