Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ingredients We Don't Use Any More

Yesterday, I was making some cauliflower and I threw away the stalks without even thinking about them. I realized a moment later that they looked fresh and green and had tender leaves on them, but by then it was too late. This set me thinking about how our changing lifestyle (and taste) has gradually eliminated several things from our kitchens in the span of a generation or two.

This is something I think about often (and only occasionally try to rectify)! Some of the vanishing recipes attempted to utilize every possible bit of a plant and there are certainly many nutrients found in the skin, flowers, tender leaves and stalks that we may not get just by eating the vegetable. But it's also true that food was grown locally and everything was fresh and fairly clean; some people also had their own kitchen gardens. The options nowadays are - trying to find local organic food shops (for greens etc.) and growing some of your own in pots or on terraces (companies in Bangalore have initiated projects to set up and maintain terrace gardens for people, which is a very nice, new step I think). We, on campus, are hampered by marauding monkeys and bandicoots, but...

Hope is not lost, there are still options of properly using existing vegetables. Like those cauliflower stalks! They make a very tasty dish. And so do the skins of vegetable marrows and bitter gourds (if one knows how to cook them). Leaves are easier to deal with - tender ones of cauliflower, beetroot, knol khol, radish can just be sauteed and eaten with rice. Then there are pumpkin flowers, melon seeds, ferns... I also learnt, from my Bengali relatives, of wonderful plants that grew in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) and that just refuse to grow here - tiny, round fragrant chillies, small coriander like greens but with a completely different aroma when crushed (and of course the unrivalled ilish (hilsa) and other types of fish that lived in the Padma river).

These are just a few things I am familiar with, but when I read books on south east Asian food, I am amazed by the variety of ingredients they use. Many of these are seen in India but not really used in the same ways, some are not eaten at all. For instance, certain Cambodian salads use green beans, slender brinjals (aubergines), green papaya, pumpkin flowers, basil leaves - this is something we would never find in a raw salad here. Burmese dishes, with their infinite options, may use leaves of pumpkin, tamarind, sweet pea, roselle, sweet potato, acacia (conveniently bunched together under the title of 'green stuff'!). There are many more, which they obtain from hedgerows and woods. These have lovely local names that sound rather strange when translated into English - Royal tusk, Young lad of the hillocks, Respector of rulers, King of lions, Curliest letter of alphabet and more. Unfortunately there are no illustrations or pictures of such plants in the books. But it's nice to read and think and imagine - and slowly begin to learn more about these. A tiny first step towards actually using some of them at home.

A few edibles from my garden - tender leaves of neem and of ajwain (carom):

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