The King of Vegetables

Brinjal, baingan.. or begun is called the king of the vegetables.

When I was revealed this information, I was gob smacked. How can a vegetable called Begun – Be which for me means “NO” and Gun which means “QUALITIES”. So a vegetable with no qualities is called the king of vegetables? Just because it has a beautiful green crown! Well what can I say?

I never like brinjal as a child and I often wondered why my parents got so excited and fussed over the thought of having bharli vangi (stuffed brinjal) with bhakri (bread). And after having it, they would feel nostalgic and remember my maushi (moms sister) who would make it the best and call her up talk about the meal. I could never understand all the fuss over this vegetable until ……..

One day, we were traveling from Mumbai to Tuljapur. Our visit to our deity with little Yug was pending so the whole family decided to take the trip and we left by road in the evening heading to Pune where we were planning to break our journey and the next morning leave for Solapur. The journey was very long, but amazingly picturesque with the sugarcane fields, and one could see bullock carts filled with sugarcane lined up, with their produce traveling to the nearby sugar factories to sell it.  

On our way we passed through many villages, and one could only imagine how simple a life they would be leading. The women folk bundling up their little ones in their arms and balancing the basket of food on their head, heading to the farm to work, children, some shabbily dressed walking to school, made me crave for this simplicity they dwelled in. 

But one thing that caught my attention every time was some of the men wearing a simple cotton dhoti and bandi which looked quiet worn out and beige in colour which must have been super white at some point when it was bought. They had bright colored turbans on their head. The magenta pink ones caught my attention the most. A strong wooden stick in one of their hands which had a bunch of bells attached to it, maybe used to drive the cattle and sheep back home after grazing them and a bidi (Tobacco leaf cigarette) in the other. And the extra bidi simply tucked away behind the ear. What I observed was mostly the older men would do the job of grazing the animals, probably because they didn’t have anything else to do as farming is difficult at that age. Though we were traveling in air – conditioned cars I’m sure it must have been scorching hot outside. It was truly an amazing drive and I didn’t even realize it was lunch time. 

We stopped by a small khanaval (eatery), which said in Marathi home style, meals available here. The place looked rustic but clean. On seeing us the owner came forward introduced himself and guided us to a table in one of the coolest part of his eatery. 

He ordered the waiter to take away the shining steel water jugs and replace that with bottled water almost assuming that we city people cant digest well water. 

He didn’t have a printed menu for us to go through but in a superfast speed he muttered the five dishes he offered which were mostly with mutton and chicken. At the end of his speech my mom in law asked him if he served any vegetarian food as well. He looked quiet lost and blank at this question and scuttled off to the kitchen to see if there was anything vegetarian. 

He had gone off for more than 10 minutes and then came back with a smile saying he didn’t have anything veg to serve that day but his wife has cooked some bharli vangi (stuffed brinjal) at home and he was happy to serve that to us. Since his house was right behind the khanaval, in fact they shared a common wall, I’m sure it was easy for him to get that. On hearing vangi I was a bit disappointed but I didn’t have any choice. The rest of the family was eagerly waiting for their order of sukha mutton, rassa and bhakri. After waiting for almost 45 minutes, we were getting slightly impatient. And after asking why the food is taking so long, clean steel thalis and vatis were placed on the table, followed by trays of food, which was ordered. 

The mutton curries looked amazing and when the bharli vangi arrived it looked perfectly spicy and delicious too. But to be on the safer side not to waste food I took a small helping of it and half a bhakri. Just then one of the waiters came in with a plate of onions and took each one of them and smashed them with his fist and table sprinkled some chilli powder and drizzled lemon juice on it and served us a whole onion each. On asking why did he not slice the onions rather than smashing them the owner enlightened me by saying if you punch the onion it breaks up the internal membranes and releases a lot of oil in the onion, making the flavor more intense. Which is why most farmers who have a simple meal of bhakri and chutney punch a fresh onion from the field and make their meals flavorful. 

On that note I broke the bhakri and dunked it in the bharli vangi and ate it…. And oh my god.. it was divine. I ate my meal like a glutton that afternoon and the bhakri not being enough, I polished off a small portion of the local rice he had served which was naturally sweetish to taste. 

After feeling totally satiated with the meal I truly felt I was in a food coma…And since then I understand the nostalgic feeling and I too fuss about a bharli vangi and bhakri today. 

THE TREE OF LIFE

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A coconut tree is once such tree where each and every part of the tree is useful.

The roots were used to make dyes, tooth brush, mouthwash and it also has medicinal values.

The leaves are used to make thatched roofs. Also used in making containers for storage. We store rice

The coconut water, we all love to drink. The thick, crisp, inner flesh of the mature seed is a regular ingredient in a diet for people in the tropics and subtropics.And from the same flesh of the mature seed oil is extracted, which is used for cooking and frying. Coconut milk is also made from the same, which is used to flavor different curries.

The coir from the fibrous husk is used in making a variety of furnishing products.

The coconut also has a religious and cultural significance in certain societies particularly in India

On this note I want to share some memories of a trip that I took to my village.

The part of India that I hail from Karawar in Karnataka is rich and luscious with coconut trees. Whenever I visit my maternal ancestral home the first thing that is served is fresh coconut water.

I went to Aversa a village  few kilometers away from Karwar where my ancestral home is in the rains. It was a trip that was planned on the spur of the moment. At 8:00 am in the morning I got a call from my uncle Balu kaka, saying I should attend the Nopi festival, which was a day away. So by 9:00 am I packed my bag and headed to the airport. Surprisingly I managed to get a ticket for the next flight and landed in Goa at 1:30 pm.

Found a local taxi that would take me straight to Aversa. It was a beautiful mesmerizing two, hour drive. Driving through the small winding roads and passing through quaint villages was so nostalgic. Finally reached Aversa and on seeing my entire family the fatigued of the travel just vanished.

As always Balu Kaka (uncle) went and plucked a coconut and served me fresh coconut water while the rest of the family was surprised to see me. Balu kaka and I decided to make it a surprise after her had convinced me to come. My parent, cousins, aunts and uncles were really happy that I came.

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The evening was spent well with family, we went for a long walk to our fields nearby and then returned home to see a sumptuous spread that my aunts and mum had made of fried fish, batatya talasni (sauté potatoes), dalitoi (dal made with ginger and chilles and laced with coconut oil) and rice. Nothing to beat a simple home cooked meal.

The next morning was even more fun. We all cousins had left for a town called Ankola at 6:00 am to buy the vegetables, coconuts, fruits and the rest of the ingredients that were going to be needed for the pooja the next day, where after the pooja the entire village is given a feast and so we had to go to the town to procure all the goods. All the ingredients and us cousins were loaded on a small truck back to Aversa, where the truck driver dropped us off to the village temple. The bumpy ride back home was fun but our bones were creaking too at some point.

My uncle who was the chef and in charge sorted the vegetables, fruits, flowers and over 100 coconuts and kept in their respective places. He was going through his lists and checking the stock and scribbling on small chits of papers assigning jobs for the prep.

After a while it was announced that I will be chopping vegetables along with other ladies of the village and then if time permits and my job done, I was also instructed that I would have to assist in making the garlands for the gods. These are anyways a few of my favorite jobs to do.

The menu for the next days lunch was a very elaborate and a traditional one of gajbajya randoi (a vegetable curry using gourds), muga molya randoi (sprouted mung curry), bhendi ghosalya upkari (okra and ridge gourd vegetable), dalitoi, rice, ambaya nonche (hog plum pickle), payasam (Kheera), kesar bhaat (saffron and sugar rice). The number of people eating would be 600, so one can imagine the kilos of vegetables to be chopped and the number of coconuts to be scraped, sounds tough but I was sure it would be fun.

In the afternoon after we returned home, the rest at home were relaxing in the courtyard sipping wine and vodkas and relishing freshly fried crisp mackerel that Balu kaka was frying and having a gala time. We joined in as well and had a wonderful afternoon where lunch went on till 4 pm till we finally one by one crashed in our beds for an afternoon siesta.

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After a cup of hot tea in the evening at around 7:00 pm we all assembled in the temple courtyard where the vegetables were washed and kept. We were 8 women who were on the job of chopping vegetables. As we were about to start one of them started singing hymns and the rest followed. I don’t know how to speak kanada very well so I was a silent observer enjoying it completely. By about 10:00 pm all the veggies were chopped and the coconuts were scraped and everything was neatly kept in a small room and locked.

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The next morning my uncle Gundu who was the chef woke up at 4:00 am and after a cold water bath at the well and headed to the temple kitchen with his team. So for this festival the cooking is done only by the males of the family, while the women get dressed in their fineries and head to the temple for the pooja.

So I along with the rest of the ladies at home, got ready in my fineries and went off to the temple and sat down to make the garlands.

The next few hours were just totally divine and mesmerizing. The melodious sounds of the mantras, the fragrance of the flowers, camphor and the incense sticks and the rain had simply put me in trance.

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By the time the pooja was over it was 1:30 pm and all the villager were queued up with their little offering of flowers, bananas and coconuts. After which they all moved to a hall where the food was going to be served. I too went along with my family, but to serve the lunch that was cooked by my uncle.

It was a long hall with a smooth slurry flooring where the banana leaves were placed in rows. One by one all the villagers sat down and washed their banana leaves with the water that was served for drinking. After that we all started to serve. First the pickles and salt was served followed by the dry vegetables and then the curries. Finally the rice and dal was served. After the priest finished saying some mantras aloud the people started eating. The system of serving was so well organized that I just didn’t imagine we had serve more than 600 people that afternoon. At the end my family and I sat and relished the meal to our hearts content.

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I returned home really tired but totally satisfied. This was indeed one of the best trips ever for me.

Moringa! ……not a film character but a tree!

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Yesterday I went to the local market gadding about looking out for some unique vegetable that I could buy and cook.

After walking for a bit I reached my regular vegetable vendor Ram Prasad who usually sells leafy vegetables and I found a small cane basket full of tiny white flowers tucked away slyly in a corner. The basket was not clearly visible

Curiously I looked deeper in the corner and I realized they were the moringa flowers and suddenly there was a big smile on my face.

I gave Ram Prasad a look which made him feel guilty of hiding those flowers from me and he quickly tried to cover up his blunder saying that the produce was too less to be sold and so he had kept it away.

Well after all the convincing he tried I bought the small basket of the moringa flowers and walked back home like I had won the war.

My staff at home, were very excited to see these flowers and were not sure what I would make of it. I told them a story of my childhood, which I will share with you all as well.

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In my hometown Aversa we have our ancestral home which we would visit every summer vacation. My Grandma would eagerly wait for all of us to come and relish the different varieties of mangoes, guava, chickoo and jackfruit. It would be a feast for us to gorge on the amazingly tasting fruits.

So in the front garden she had planted some mango trees, a guava tree, a chickoo tree, a jackfruit tree and right in the corner of the garden there was this delicate Moringa or drumstick tree.

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The leaves, flowers and the drumsticks of this tree are used in our cuisine. With the leaves Amma (grandma) would make a simple vegetable, which would be sautéed in coconut oil, onions and green chillies and garnished with fresh grated coconut.

The drumstick would be used in sambar and many a times coated with chilli powder and rava and pan fried crisp to perfection.

 

Back then food would be cooked on wood fire. Every morning Amma would offer a small prayer to the Agni deva before she would lit the fire. Then she would scrape fresh coconut for the meal and grind it along with some spices on a stone grinder to make curries. My favorite part would be to grind on the stone, pluck the fresh vegetables for the curry.

 

One morning while we were all seated on the floor for breakfast with banana leaves placed in front of us and garma garam soft idli and sambar served she asked me to help her pluck the morninga flowers after I had finished, but my excitement and impatience took over my hunger and I simple left the breakfast and dragged her to pluck them.

While we were picking the flowers I asked her what was she going to cook with these pretty looking flowers and she smiled and said Vade (cutlets) I was quiet surprised and had a puzzled look on my face. She looked at me and said wait until you taste it. After picking the flowers I trailed behind her to the kitchen. She placed them on platform and asked me to clean them and wash them genteelly.

She put some freshly scraped coconut and spices to grind on the stone and I offered to help and to her surprise I managed to make a paste just the way she wanted and the cutlets with the moringa flowers were made

img_8405The feeling of helping Amma cook a dish even today boosts my morals when I am cooking something difficult