The exciting taste of unfamiliar vegetables...
This morning I saw some unusual vegetables in the local sabziwala’s cart. Not broccoli and multi-coloured bell peppers, which are commonplace now. Long light green aubergines and little green hedgehogs, kakrol.
Some years ago my father drove to Coorg in his caravan and brought back all manner of seeds and saplings, including Alfonso mangoes. Not for him the common and garden Langda or Dussehri, he had to grow Hapus in Haryana. And a few months later he sent me green aubergines he had grown, whose buttery texture I tasted then for the first time and now found again at my gate. Kakrol, which looks like a small green grenade, is another vegetable I’ve only known for the last few years. I have new help, a woman from Assam, and she saw it and said Oh, bhat karela!
The first time I saw it I just found the shape intriguing and bought it, then asked around on how to cook it and plumped for thin discs sprinkled with rice flour and fried crisp in mustard oil — it smells like karela but doesn’t taste bitter and makes a papad-like accompaniment to dal-chawal. Razia said it grows abundantly back home, on a vine supported on cane trellises. For us, it’s so exotic that a meal is elevated with its inclusion.
Another “foreign” veggie I bought recently was pale green, pear-shaped and knobbly and about the size of a small raw papaya. The sabziwala said it was “kuskus”. Any normal person would have turned away, come back in and eaten lauki. But no, not me: I had seen it when driving past the markets of Dimapur and eaten it at the hostel I stayed in for a couple of weeks. At every meal it was served steamed, cut into long thick wedges, with rice and dal or pork stew.
So I brought it in and she said Oh, isskus! And said it was also grown back home and cooked as one does lauki. I remembered that in Nagaland they called it squash. I cut myself a thin wedge and ate it, washed but raw. It was sweet and bursting with juice. So we made it Dimapur-hostel style and never before have I eaten such a refreshing, juicy vegetable, and certainly not from the Cucurbit family. Just steamed, without benefit of spices — not even salt — its green got intensified and the texture remained delightfully crisp and succulent.
I mentioned it to friends who were clueless, but made intelligent faces when I said “squash”. To the girl from Bongaigon, though, it was totally familiar but very exciting because it was from home.
The third uncommon vegetable I’ve eaten this month is poi. Attri, who has a luxurious, bountiful garden, has let it grow around a tree and it’s so beautiful that even if it were not useful and edible, it’s worth keeping just for its gleaming dark green leaves and the way it winds itself on the bark of his neem tree. He gave us a huge armload and the then incumbent, Roopa, who is from Bengal, leapt up with excited cries of “pui!” I thought she was just happy to see it but then discovered she had been imbibing of the master’s stock.
Anyway she was dismissed, reeling and slurring, and I had to devise my own recipe. I thought we couldn’t really ruin it — how difficult is it to cook a bhujia of green leafy vegetables — all I needed was to sauté some garlic cloves and whole red chillies in mustard oil. But I did. I managed to ruin it. The moment the chopped leaves hit the pan they released quantities of mucilaginous slime. So it was sprinkled with rice flour and cooked uncovered for a few minutes, which got rid of the slime and made it look all right.
But when we ate it we discovered that the stalks were tough and fibrous. We should have peeled the thicker ones, which I should have known as a good Punjabi with sarson ka saag in my veins. Instead of which we had just chopped them and now had very fine, very miniature toothpicks in every mouthful. I’m now looking for a recipe to do the vegetable justice, from someone who’s familiar with it. To me these vegetables are the Indian equivalent of radicchio and asparagus: they’re unfamiliar and exciting. Maybe if they grew in my backyard I wouldn’t be so awestruck or so inept.