In the grip of nostalgia, the writer runs through a cartload of letters from fans.
Forty-three letters arrived after last fortnight’s column, “Native exotica.” This was unexpected given that it was about the uncool kind of vegetables you ate in your home-town and which your grandmother cooked. I felt two threads running through the response. One is clearly emotional — it struck a chord: there’s nostalgia for vegetables eaten “back home” “back then”; and kindness towards this klutz of a food writer who couldn’t cook even a simple saag. “Any traditional Bengali cook would be horrified with the way you cooked the humble pui saag,” said one and then proceeded to tell me kindly — and exactly — how to cook it. The other thread is most people’s assumption that certain vegetables are grown and eaten only in their own home State, where they are, in a word, autochthonous. As I started typing I got the ping of a new mail from AWAD and serendipitously found this new word. Autochthonous means “aboriginal; indigenous. Formed or originating in the place where found.” Most of us believe that these ornery, lesser-known vegetables are precisely that: originating and growing in a particular place, our own traditional backyard. And with this belief goes its corollary: no other region could possibly be familiar with it.
There was also a sprinkling of letters of admonishment from readers who corrected me for calling some vegetable foreign when, they informed me, it grew in India — in the correspondent’s grandmother’s backyard. Obviously I failed at conveying what I meant, that to me some vegetables are unfamiliar and, in quotes, foreign — whereas to others they are intimately familiar.
Planning this article became so complex that I had to make an Excel sheet to be able to see at a glance which reader belonged to which State, where he lived now, what she called it and how he cooked it. And yet I must have inadvertently left out some special ones.
In a nutshell, poi or pui grows in Bengal, they sauté it just by itself, and maybe with kalonji, nigella, in mustard oil, and eat it with hot steamed rice. But most often they cook it in a complex dish of seasonal vegetables but must include ripe pumpkin, radish and potatoes. Fried fish head or shrimps are optional but I’m sure they up the excitement quotient. Flavoured with paanch phoron, the dish is called chachhari. Or, more specifically, pui shaak chachhari. The thick, tough stems are cut into long pieces and stripped, which leaves a tender asparagus-like stalk. Or they are split vertically and cooked along with the rest, then eaten like drumsticks where you scrape the piece between your teeth, which sounds more like fun. Some of the readers who sent recipes are Mandira Mitra and Sneha Banerjee in Delhi, Jonaki Banerjee in Coimbatore, Sujata Dehury from Odisha, and R.K. Bhattacharya in Hyderabad.
But poi grows everywhere. Hema, who wrote with love from the Caribbean, says poi was exported there a hundred years ago and they add chopped poi leaves to boiling dal, then temper it. As do many all over India, who also make pakoras in a batter of besan, or rice flour, spiced with garlic, salt and chillies. Surendra Shetty calls it basale, Krishna, from Andhra Pradesh, bachhale, and many others Malabar spinach.
The other veggie that crosses all boundaries is squash, chowchow, seeme badanekai or Bangalore kathrikkai. The most common way of cooking it is to boil with dal or alone, maybe with grated coconut, tempered or not. As Pankaja Srinivasan wrote, it needs little embellishment. Rowena said her family thought “chu-chu” came from Burma and her mother cut thick discs and crumb-fried them “crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.” Arathi Shetty, a lecturer in Mangalore, sent a number of recipes, the most interesting of which was squash dosas. Soaked dosa rice is ground with coconut, tamarind, jaggery and sambar powder into a thin batter, finely sliced squash arranged on a hot greased tawa, and the batter poured over it. The dosa is covered with a lid, oiled and flipped once, till cooked. As she says “No accompaniment is needed or can be eaten with little butter or curds.”
Sujata Dehury says kakrol is called kankada in Odisha, and parboiled, spiced, and batter-fried. B.C. Nanda lives in Coorg and says it is locally known as pavakae, found in the wild, and goes on to give its name in eight languages, which proves that it grows in all of these geographically distinct places. Rita Sinha Ray shared her mother’s kakrol recipe. She halves and steams kakrols, scoops out the pulp and mixes it with a paste of green chillies, mustard, coconut and salt; refills the empty shells, coats them in batter (flour, besan, or rice flour) and then deep-fries them. They might look like three blind creatures but without tasting them I know they must taste delicious.
Dr. Pradeep Kumar from the College of Horticulture in Thrissur wrote of the botanical divisions and sent his mother’s recipe; Dr. Maltesh Motebennur from Karnataka says all these vegetables are familiar to him only because he’s lived in Arunachal Pradesh for 25 years. Sabita and Girish Das wrote that it brought childhood memories. We can’t be expected to know about every vegetable but I take heart from Arpan Singh who wrote: “Hopefully, you will be able to find out the right combination and enjoy these exotic dishes as much as I did as a child. My grandmother’s food philosophy was simple: it was love and courage. Thank you for reminding me of that.”