My own Mahabharata: An Indian vegetable epic

When it comes to khana in general, Indian ingenuity – ‘jugaad’ – knows few bounds. But when it comes to vegetables, the Desi kitchen positively abounds with innovation. And what materials these culinary artists have on their colourful palettes! The Indian vegetable basket is an abundant alien landscape; a minefield sumptuously strewn with strangely-shaped grenades.

I have often been accused of partaking in a spot of  ‘gyaan baazi’ – unnecessary knowledge-sharing.  Guilty as charged. But when it concerns spreading the love for obscure ingredients, I make no apologies whatsoever. This beautiful, bizarre bounty may seem shipped directly from Babylon or Eden, but it grows in an edible garden that’s real and ripe for the reaping. Grab a basket and get ready to relish.

Awesome Alien Oddities

drumstick

Drumstick

Not the essential preserve of a percussionist, rather a pale green, long, ridged and somewhat fibrous vegetable – the fruit of the horseradish tree. ‘Moringa oleifera’ is perhaps most famed for its role in Keralan avial – that stunning mixed-veg celebratory dish with thin coconut gravy. Buy young and fresh for the most tender specimens, when the triangular seeds can be cooked like green beans.

The mature pods, with their tough old skins, house tender pulp with an asparagus-like flavour. Eaten at this stage, use your teeth to scrape out the meat like with artichoke leaves. You’ll soon be banging your own drum about this vital veggie and, to drum up an awesome avial turn to the ever-reliable Dassana, with this version on ‘Veg Recipes of India’.

The roots of the drumstick tree are a source of culinary mustard oil, whilst the leaves are described as cress-like, yielding a peppery bite. Try them battered and fried into pakoras, or use them in Edible Garden’s recipes for a particularly warming rasam and an unusual thoran. In Maharashtra and Gujarat they’re popular in the yogurt-based dish, kadhi.

Chayote

Chayote

Also known as a chow chow or vegetable pear, this South American native may well have found its way to India with the Portuguese. The bland flesh of the fist-sized veggie takes well to spicing and can be used raw or cooked, when it retains its pleasant, water chestnut-like crispness. It’s a water-rich, low calorie veggie, so one can feel slightly more angelic when eating it in Edible Garden’s heavenly Chow chow kootu.

Bhindi

Bindi

Revered and reviled in equal measure, okra is best known for its mucilaginous quality. Whether you view it as sublime slime or grim glue, the sticky gum that leaches from the cut pods is considered cleansing to the body. The trick is to be unafraid and go beyond the goo. The elegant pods are often called ‘ladies fingers’ and come from the equally easy-on-the-eye hibiscus.

You want young, plump, tender specimens that look more like the digits of a chubby aunty than gnarly old witches’ talons. Unconvinced? Dassana, Miss Masala and The Spice Club’s Monica should convert you, respectively offering the pods both fried and stuffed; masala-ed; or filled with creamy paneer. Get cooking, and don’t stop til you’re converted to okra’s sexy, smoky earthiness.

Getting to the Root of Tasteful Tubers

Cassava

Mogo

So, what’s your poison? If you’re not careful, raw mogo could literally be just that, with the bitter form containing cyanide. Following a good old boil, though, cassava is perfectly safe to eat and makes for simply sublime scoffing when used in KO Rasoi’s East African hot and sour tamarind cassava recipe. 

The resilient tuber’s flesh is calorie-dense, making it perfect for filling mash or hearty fried chips. It’s a favourite in the unusual and well-loved East African eat, chilli mogo – a dish of the diaspora,  displaying more than a little of that Chinese influence Indians enjoy so much.

Down in Kerala, meanwhile, cassava was introduced by a Travancore Maharajah during famine, and is now regarded as an essential part of a Malayalee’s life. Consuming it is considered every bit as important as donning the traditional white mundu. The plant is also the source of those tapioca pearls – saboodana – that work so well in kichuris or upmas for fasting days.

Breadfruit

Breadfruit

The ‘kadachakka’ is a whopper – weighing up to 5kg and typically around 20cm in diameter. It’s slightly comical in appearance, greeny-gold with small thorny protrusions all over, but yields rich yellow-hued flesh when ripe and, as the name suggests, offers hearty eating. The ‘artocarpus communis’’ moist, chewy ‘meat’ is slightly sweet; the dried, ground fruit can also be ground to flour.

Thin cut and fried, kadachakka makes great crisps. It also makes a rather splendid roast – try both methods with Edible Garden’s recipes. It’s a high calorie eat, and thought that the yield from a couple of trees could keep a man fed for an entire year. On the explorer ship the Bounty, Captain Bligh was keener to water the seeds than his crew – and the famous Mutiny rapidly ensued!

Jackfruit

Jackfruit

As you can tell from the Latin name – ‘artocarpus heterophyllus’ – the jackfruit is a close relative of the breadfruit, and can balloon to up to 40kg. Although, strictly speaking, it’s made up of a collection of fused fruits within a single skin, the under-ripe jackfruit is most commonly prepped and cooked as a vegetable.

The fulsome flesh roasts well and takes kindly to both Asian spicing and saucing. As it ripens, the flesh becomes sweeter and juicier, almost banana-like, with a durian-like aroma (although thankfully rather less pungent!), and works well in desserts. You can also scoff the seeds – roasted in the manner of chestnuts, perhaps.

Suran

Suran

The ‘elephant foot yam’ looks just the way its name infers. The starchy tuber is related closely to taro and belongs to the arum lily family. Somewhat unpleasantly, the leaves’ ‘rotten meat’ stench attract flies which facilitate pollination – but, for all that, suran is a good eat. A single specimen can weight up to 10kg and has excellent keeping qualities. The flesh is dense, filling and nutritious and can be roasted, fried, baked or steamed.  Try Dassana’s Suran chips.

arbi

Eddoes and Arbis

These hairy, somewhat unattractive brown tubers are both small, tasty varieties of taro. The starchy, creamy white flesh tastes like a particularly nutty potato, and is good roasted or fried. Much like small children, their stickiness can be reduced by a quick soak in lightly acidulated water but (if the rumours are true) eddoes and arbis are far more digestible than said children, owing to the veggie’s fine grained starch.

Dassana‘s an ardent arbi fan, cooking it in a festive Navratri curry, forming it into cutletsdry-spicing it, and submerging it in a thin yogurt gravy. The leaves – alu patra – are also eaten, perhaps in a Maharashtran bhaji like Chowder Singh’s. The leaves of the larger colocassia are also the basis for an unusual and particularly savoury Gujarati speciality – stuffed patra leaves, which are tightly rolled with a gram-flour paste, steamed and served in slices, like in Urvashi Roe’s recipe.

Mooli

Mooli

This giant, elongated, tapered root looks like a smoother horseradish, and offers a mild hint of that vegetable’s fiercely peppery bite. Like round red radishes, it can be savoured raw in salads, but also cooks well, with an unusual, slightly chewy bite. It’s a big friend of spices at large, like in Dassana‘s  Punjabi mooli sabzi, and also makes an interesting addition to a tart achar. Grated into a raita, mooli brings a welcome, cooling crunch. It’s worth letting the plant go to seed solely to try the radish pods in Dassana’s aloo moongre sabzi

Tasty Leaves You Can’t Leave Alone

Paan leaves

Betel/Paan leaf

The shiny, dark green, hand-sized and heart-shaped leaves are most commonly folded up to enclose sweet supari – tasty spice-and-nut mixtures chewed after meals as breath fresheners and digestives (or, indeed, when the areca nut is included, intoxicants!) But the leaves also have a rich, eathy flavour when cooked, and can be used to wrap morsels of meat or vegetables, or in soups like Edible Garden’s Betel leaf rasam

Red amaranth

Red amaranth

Also whimsically known as ‘love lies bleeding’, these spinach-like leaves can be eaten in sabzis or deep-fried in gram batter. Dassana stirs the leaves into an extra-nutritious sambar. The Hindi name for amaranth, ‘ramdana’, means ‘God’s own grain’, and the large seeds of can be puffed and eaten as a snack like popcorn. In the Himalayas, seeds are pressed with raw sugar into nutritious morsels called chikki. Amaranth flour, labelled ‘Ragjira’, is gluten-free and suitable for fast days when cereal crops are off the menu.

Gourd Almighty

Gourds

Large Gourds

In South America, dried bottle gourd shells are used as drinking vessels – but in India, the young flesh makes delicious, delicate lauki halwa like Dassana’s. But when lauki – or dudhi – each grow up to 3ft in length, you’ll need a few more ways to use them. The flesh is mild and pleasant, rather like marrow or courgette, and can substitute for either. It’s good as the basis of veggie dumplings, like KO Rasoi‘s Dudhi na muthiya or Dassana‘s Lauki wadi; or in a milky, comforting side dish like Bong Mom‘s Dudh diye lau. It also makes amazing halwa.

ridge gourd

The ‘chichingha’ (snake gourd) – a longer, thinner variety – is used in much the same manner – try it in Cook Like A Bong‘s Bengali tarkari. The thicker-skinned ash gourd takes its name from the white bloom on the surface, and Dassana recommends the flesh in a stir-fried Keralan thoran. The deeply-ridged ‘turia’ is a type of loofah, and is a Northwest Indian native which can be consumed raw or cooked, as in KO Rasoi’s Gujarati turia curry. Quickly fried, it is crisp, whilst slower cooking makes the flesh yield to a silky, melting texture.

Ivy gourd

Ivy gourd

These tiny, elusive soft-skinned gourds are eaten exclusively in the Indian subcontinent, and go by the charming moniker ‘gentlemen’s toes’ due to their chubby, gherkin-like appearance. They’re sold officially and variously as ‘tindora’ or ‘tendli’. Dassana stuffs ‘em or cooks up a sabzi; Bong Mom pairs potol with poppy seeds; KO Rasoi crispy-fries with cornEdible Garden presents a dry Konkani dish; and Niya’s recipe from the same region uses cashews.

There’s a slight and pleasant bitterness to the flesh, which has a texture much like a courgette or marrow and can be successfully flattered by a wide array of spices. The closely-related, round ‘tinda’ is prized in Pakistani and Punjabi cooking – you’ll find a good example of a curried dish on the menu at East London’s Tayaabs restaurant.

tindora

Pointed Gourd

The vegetable known variously as  ‘parwal’, ‘kundru’, ‘kovaki’ or ’potol’ is much loved – although arguably is most beloved of all to Bengalis. It also carries the colloquial Indian nickname ‘green potato’, and indeed, Bong Mom cooks it along with true aloo in a thick ‘dalna‘ – a gravy thicker than the ‘jhol’. In Bengal, it’s also often sauced with ‘posto’ – the titchy creamy white poppy seeds also known as ‘khus’. Bong Mom has a great example of potol posto. The pointed gourd can range from 2″ to 6″ in length, and makes a tasty vessel hollowed out and filled with keema, fish or veggies – this stuffed dish known as ‘potol dormer‘.

karela

Karela

Bitter gourd? Aint that the bitter truth. Karela is a strange looking beast, its verdance ripening to a brilliant sunset hue with crimson seeds. Eat at the green stage, though, or texture and flavour suffer. The taste is best described as ‘acquired’, with that bitterness persistent and prevalent even after protracted salting, soaking, and any other method you may try to lessen its bite.

In Sri Lanka, cooks pair karela with coconut milk-based, goraka-flavoured gravies to temper the bitterness. The trick is to tame it with other strong flavours – be they pungent, astringent, sweet, sour or salty. The South Indian ‘pavakka theeyal’ exemplifies this, the fruity sourness of tamarind rendering the karela most palatable. In Kerala, the vegetable is sliced, salted and dried to preserve.

Like so many bitter foods, it’s considered cleansing, particularly by devotees of Ayurveda. It’s also a vegetable very close to Punjabi and Bengali hearts – particularly in the latter cuisine, where a notably bitter dish is essential to make a meal. Bong Mom is a great authority on making the best of the warty, wayward karela, and Dassana suggests it in her Punjabi sabzi.

kantola

Kantola/kakrol

Looking every inch like spiny, tiny green mice complete with long tails, these sweet-looking gourds can actually be every bit as bitter as karela. As they ripen to a golden hue, the bitterness increases. Known as the ‘teasle gourd’ for good reason, this late-summer Indian native needs to be peeled before eating. They’re good hollowed out, stuffed and steamed, and are sometimes added to pickles.

Keen As An Indian Bean

Uri

Uri/sheem and valor/surti papdi beans

These dark green, broad, very flat Bangladeshi beans have a wonderfully musky and earthy character and both pods and seeds are can be eaten. Often seen on restaurant menus under their Bangla name ‘uri’, they’re described as seeds of Bangladeshi runner beans and cooked with lamb or in bhajis. A recent recipe request from Bong Mom drew suggestions of cooking the beans with shorshe – Bengali mustard paste – or mincing for a Bangla-style ‘sheemer koura’. Due to their shape, uri or sheem are also known as ‘sword beans’, or you might find them as ‘lab lab’ or ‘hyacinth beans’. Valor or surti papdi are similar, with a sugar snap-like appearance, and can be eaten in their entirely much like mange tout.

Guvar

Guvar/tuvar beans

The cluster bean takes its name from the way the pods grow in banana-like bunches. Unusually, the bean pods are triangular with distinct, flat sides. Skinnier than Western green beans, the young tender pods can be fried or curried, whilst mature seeds are popped from the pods and consumed as a veggie in their own right. The pods are also the source of guar gum.

kala_chana

Kala chana

Be warned -once you taste these nutty, tiny black chickpeas, there’s simply no going back to that large bland white Kabuli variety. They taste of sun and earth and soil, primal in some way, and bring soul to any dish they grace. With a little spice magic, they make most satisfying munching, as Dassana demonstrates in this Punjabi recipe – although she also likes the bijou baubles in a tongue tingling chaat. For Miss Masala, this quick spice-coated fry is essential to have to hand. Kala chana makes handsome hummus and, dry-roasted until crisp, a rather nice (and pseudo-healthy) nibble.

A Few Fruity Beauties

Plantain

Plaintain

The ‘cooking banana’ laid down roots in India over 3,000 years ago and is well-known in Hindu legend as the forbidden fruit of the paradise garden – and Adam allegedly covered his gentleman’s parts with leaves from the tree whose fruit boast an accordingly phallic profile! It’s even believed that a ghee-and-ripe-plaintain elixir can swiftly restore male virility.

Plantains are starchier and less sweet than eating bananas – their firm flesh currying favour in spicy preparations and pairing well with seafood. Thin-sliced and deep-fried, it makes a great snack – at Roti Chai, the chaat masala-sprinkled Keralan plaintain chips that welcome diners are addictive. Matoke is the merchants’ name for the small green Ugandan type – try Meera Sodha’s East African recipe. Even the skins are useful, with the thriftiest of cooks pickling the peels to stunning effect.

Bael

Pathar bael

Early-19thcentury British botanists were bewildered by the ball-shaped bael; dubbing it ‘woodapple’ or ‘Bengal quince’. The apple-sized, greeny-yellow fruit comes from a thorny tree native to India and held sacred by Hindus – the leaves of the tree said to have sheltered Shiva are used in religious rituals. The citrus-sy, tannic taste makes a delicious sharbat, made by mixing the pale orange pulp with sugar and optionally souring with tamarind, like in this Tongue Tickler recipe. Bael also finds its way into teas and toffees, sweet preserves and pickles, and to expire under the tree assures salvation!

Water roseapple

Jambu/Chambakka

The romantic-sounding ‘water rose apple’ originated in South India and ranges from white to bright pink. It’s a delicate beast prone to bruising, with a high water content, a crisp, cool bite and a perfume-y taste. They’re interesting sliced into salads, or made into preserves like Edible Garden’s Chambakka achar.

 

22 responses to “My own Mahabharata: An Indian vegetable epic

  1. agree on the jugaad. a nice informative article zoe. i think you should come to india and taste all these veggies first hand. take some home back too :-)

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    • I think the customs folk might have a few things to say about me trying to smuggle back fresh veggies! ; )

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    • And so many interesting things to do with them – hope you’ll try some of the recipes from all the folks I mention in the post : )

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    • Thanks for the heads-up, Sebastien. With all the languages, dialects and phonetic spellings,not to mention sub-species and similar-looking veggies,it can all get rather confusing as I’m sure you know! Have amended, appreciate your input! : )

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  3. This is a really informative write up of all those Indian vegetables that you have looked at in the grocers and wondered what they are exactly. There are quite a few that I have yet to cook with so am looking forward to trying them out. I will definitely be coming back to this page to glean more info about all those wonderfully strange and often tasty looking vegetables and fruit.

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    • Thanks! It’s a post that could have gone on forever; everyone you speak to has their own ways of using all the produce because of their region, religion, family preference, adaptation to what’s available locally etc… AND the same thing has a different name according to dialect. Fascinating to hear two individuals from geographically disparate locations discover they use something in a similar manner. I went to a Bangladeshi cafe with a Bombay friend and she was shocked to see the red spinach she loved so much from home on their counter! : D

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    • Great! These veggies dismissed as ‘weird and unloveable’ are so cheap at Indian grocers it’s well-worth people having a go at recipes like yours. What’s the worst that can happen, right? And your preferred method for karela is one I find the most palatable. : D

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      • I totally agree. Cooking vegetarian Indian food is ridiculous cheap – it’s a shame more people don’t know how to as you can definitely save the pennies this way.

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  4. Very informative! I’m somewhat obsessed with fruit and veg and love checking out the Taj store on Brick Lane for its wonders. Many of the above are also grown in Africa and used in African food.

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