Vasundhara Chauhan suggests a few vegetarian alternatives for the season.
This season’s vegetables could suggest a name for a Hindi TV serial: kachnar, kamal kakri, kathal. The vegetables fit the bill not just with their initials, but the difficulty and complication of cooking them. If other veggies can be tempered and stir-fried quickly and effectively, these have to be dressed up and bejeweled for hours to produce “party fare”. I’ve had to overcome my basic laziness and propensity for the chop-chop style of cooking to venture KKK-wards: people do love them, so the effort must be worth it.
Second, the trees of Delhi are awash with Bauhinia variegata, the mauve and white orchid-like kachnar and they remind me of how my mother would get a flunkey to shin up a tree and collect an armful of kachnar buds and blossoms which would be cooked with mince for my brother’s favourite, kachnar-qeema. Kachnar-qeema is made by lightly browning finely chopped onions, garlic and ginger, then adding minced meat, salt, red chilli and garam masala powder. Then a bit of water and chopped kachnar, about as much as the qeema, and everything simmered until it’s tender.
The other dish people make is kachnar raita, finely chopped kachnar buds blanched and whisked with yoghurt, salt and ground roasted cumin. Cooking and eating pink, white and mauve flowers is a pretty concept, although by the time they’re cooked the buds are about the same brown as qeema. But it’s novel, especially because the flowers bloom at a time of year when we’re done with the winter cauliflower and peas, and the Cucurbitaceae tinda-tori-lauki are not yet upon us.
Fresh green kathal, jackfruit, has also started arriving. Fortunately now they sell half-kilo packs of peeled and cubed jackfruit, so I’m spared the tedium of the exercise. Back in the day, I oiled my hands and my biggest knife, having been warned of the sticky latex-like secretion of the fruit, then peeled and cut it, then fried the cut pieces in batches, browned a masala of onions-garlic-ginger, beat and simmered cupfuls of yoghurt, and then cooked the precious kathal. Now I’ve learnt to skip the frying stage completely, and sometimes to avoid the onion-garlic-ginger and just temper in desi ghee with asafoetida, cumin and red chilli powder, and maybe a pinch of fenugreek seeds and a couple of broken green chillies, and the kathal is even better tasting because it’s easier. But if one must eat it fried, I truly believe the frying should be outsourced and jackfruit chips imported from Kerala.
The third out-of-the-way vegetable my brother loves is lotus stem, kamal kakri. This is a moot point: can any of these really be classified as vegetables? I think he likes them because they’re not; they’re simply a vegetarian alternative.
In a traditional Punjabi household, they’re made much in the same way as kathal: peel, slice, fry lightly, simmer in an onion-based masala to make a curry, or fry till crisp, sprinkle with something spicy like chaat masala and eat as a snack.
In Kashmir, though, they make it differently: as a yakhni, which is a golden, delicate curry of yoghurt and fragrant spices, with a hint of sugar to bring out the flavours. I got the nadru yakhni recipe from Neerja Mattoo, when we were working together on a book, and, as every one of her recipes, this one too is foolproof. Her directions are explicit and accurate, and she adds little tips that make cooking more effective. The Chinese eat a lot of lotus stem — or so it would appear from restaurant menus, and the crunch, which remains even after cooking, is a great texture to include in a menu.
Lotus-stem in yoghurt curry
1 kg nadru (lotus-stems), long and thick
1/2 cup mustard oil
1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
3 tsp fennel powder
1 pinch asafoetida dissolved in one tsp water
2 cups beaten yoghurt
To be finely ground together:
Seeds of 2 black cardamoms
Seeds of 2 green cardamoms
1/2 tsp white cumin
2 cm stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp sugar
Scrape the lotus-stems clean and cut diagonally into 2 cm sections. Wash thoroughly and drain. Heat oil in a deep frying pan. When it smokes, lightly fry the lotus-stem in batches. Do not allow them to brown. Put into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a cup of water and heat. Add the salt, ginger and fennel powders, cloves, asafoetida water, and yoghurt (which should be at room temperature, not too cold, otherwise it might curdle), stirring all the time till it boils and the gravy gets a smooth texture. Cover and cook for 20 minutes on high heat, till the lotus-stem is tender but not too soft. The gravy should be reduced to about a cupful. Sprinkle the finely ground spices on top. Heat two tbsp of oil (left over from frying the lotus-stem) and pour over the simmering dish.
STIR-FRIED LOTUS STEM WITH SESAME AND GREEN ONIONS
1 lotus stem, scraped, sliced thinly
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp chopped ginger
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 green onions, chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
Place sliced lotus stem in a bowl of water and vinegar. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan and sauté ginger and garlic until golden. Drain and add lotus stems in a single layer. Cook on low heat, flipping occasionally, until translucent. Add chilli and green onions, stir. Add sesame seeds, pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil. Cook till slightly browned. Serve hot or cold.