Eat A Lot Of Greens.

I am too lazy to write today. There is something peculiar going on in the blog world as I keep getting 403 message from Google that some attempts are being made to access many blogs by spammers. I am therefore unable to visit my blogger friends’ blogs to get some inspiration.

I therefore use the opportunity to introduce my sister Padmini to all of you. You have of course read her little work of praise about me already. She is a professional writer based in Chennai, which used to be called Madras many years ago. She is a regular blogger with, writes the last page for Eves Touch, and contributes regularly to that magazine besides writing columns for the Economic Times, Chennai edition. She has also written or co-authored cookery books a couple of which have even won some prestigious awards.

This is a guest post from her on the adventures of purchasing greens of which India has a wide variety to choose from and to suit different tastes. Almost all Indian households consume green leafy vegetables as a routine and she is no exception nor we at Pune at my home.

If there are any queries about the terms used please do not hesitate to seek clarification in the
comments box. She will be delighted to answer.

Keeravani or Spinach Saga

Every morning, the streets of Chennai resound with the cries of the Spinach seller. The variety of the product in her little basket puts to shame the vegetable trolley of any supermarket. This leafy vegetable used to be known as the poor man’s vegetable. Today it is expensive, reduces drastically in quantity after cooking, tedious and time consuming to clean and cook for the busy working woman.

The Spinach vendor normally brings the molai keerai and the arai keerai, or as it is known in the North as the Chauli bhaji. This is the staple variety of the green vegetable in the South and has traditionally been cooked as a mashed side dish. Sometimes a little left over dal is thrown in and a tadka of mustard seeds, urad dal, a red chilli and hing are used as seasoning. The Keralite family cooks the spinach with coconut and green chilli with only mustard and urad seasoning. This is the traditional keerai molaguttal and other vegetables are also substituted. Pooshani or pumpkin, chow chow, knohlkohl, cabbage, cauliflower, tinda, peerkangai or toori make suitable thaan for the dish. The Tanjore equivalent is poricha kootu with some roasted urad dal and red chilli thrown in as well. The Tanjorians also make the same dish with avarai, beans and drumsticks with the latter boiled or steamed, the pulp removed from the fibre and added in bulk giving out the most exotic flavour. The more innovative make a sambhar with it.

With cookery classes on TV and recipes in magazines the Palak Paneer (with cottage cheese) and Spinach Soup have become new ways of eating the vegetable. The inventory of the keerai seller changes according to the season and clime. It caters to a clientele that is loyal, yet difficult to please. In recent years, many North Indians have moved into Madras. So their demand for Paalak has seen the popularisation of the gooey creeper, pasalai, which comes closest to the original. The original Delhi paalak is available now in the city. I learnt to cook the vegetable in Mauritius in its various avatars. The zepinard is akin to the North Indian paalak. A bouillon or watery soup-onion, a piece of ginger, a pod of smashed garlic and a hint of tomato sauted and boiled with the green leaf- is the common way of cooking it in that island.

A favourite green of Mauritius is the Kachoo or the huge leaf of the Yam or Arabi that flourishes on the banks of the little streams that flow through many sugarcane fields and residences in the island. In fact the Kachoo is a compulsory dish that is cooked at their feasts especially on the eve of the wedding celebrations when the Tilak or Haldi is performed.

The same leaf is made into a curry by the Maharashtrians called paathal bhaji with tuvar dal, jeera and coriander powder, marathi moggu-a spice (substitute with garam masala), onion, tamarind pulp, ground peanuts and a thadka of mustard and heeng.

You can see the familiar ‘Aayi” cleaning the greens in the IInd class compartment of the suburban trains on her way home to cook the day’s dinner. The Gujerathis smear it with besan and masala paste, roll into cylinders, steam and then shallow or deep fry it and call it pathrel. Alas this leaf too like the favourite salad leaves lettuce are obtainable in Panagal park-impossible to access- and Broadway-parts of the city that any sane housewife will avoid.

Watercress is also a very popular leaf and is eaten in a salad or in a bouillon in Mauritius. The weekly shandy market at Quatre-Bourne and Rose-Hill saw vendors bringing the greens to sell on their by-cycles and vans. Often it was the Tamil people, especially the older generation, that would sell their produce to me with some spoken Tamil and a few free bunches of greens thrown in for goodwill. Strangely the names for coriander and curry leaves in Creole, the local language, are in Tamil. Inevitably in the early days when they could recognize my ignorance as a novice cook they would also advice me on the cleaning and cooking process. The green leaves of the cauliflower, the red pumpkin creeper, the chow-chow and knoll-kohl were also used in a bouillon.

The basic recipe was the same, only the leaf was a different one. Onion, garlic and a tomato were the common ingredient. As the years went by, the need to buy the spinach was overtaken by the largesse of our landlord, neighbours and friends who inevitably would bring bunches of their garden produce for me to cook. The irony was that their families would not eat the spinach for familiarity bred contempt. So I would cook the garden fresh vegetable and send to their houses. The paalak also makes great bhajji with the whole leaf dipped into batter and fried-add a hint of cornflour to the basic bhajji batter of besan, chilli poder, a dash of rice flour to make it crisp, heeng and haldi powder with a tablespoon of hot oil or liquified ghee.

Living in Bombay and shopping in Colaba, Matunga and Grant Road the sheer greenness of the leafy vegetable piled on the carts would invite you to buy. The huge bunches of the Coriander leaf, mint and the methi or fenugreek was taken home and cooked into chutneys, parathas or used as a garnish with potatoes. The popularity of Italian food with the families encouraged experiments in our kitchens and the Paalak began to make an appearance in lasagnas and fresh made pasta.

This was the time I was introduced to the Punjabi staple of Sarason ka Saag or the mustard leaf dishes. Alas, when I moved to Madras I missed the Paalak and Sarason. My friends and relatives would load my husband with plastic packets of the greens whenever he visited Delhi or Bombay. My doctor friend in Delhi would cook the sarason, freeze it and send it along with freshly plucked paalak from her garden.

My mornings in Chennai have been vastly enriched by the visit of my spinach seller. She was a crafty old lady who would bully me into buying the greens everyday. Her selling spiel would include the need for me to cook and eat all kinds of country greens. Vallarai for memory, manathakaali for stomach ailments, nettu nelli for heaven knows what! My ignorance of the efficacy of these specialties was derided with scorn. I was also emotionally blackmailed to supply her with Gelusil, Crocin and Ibuprufen with a never-ending list of ailments. Once she even claimed that somebody had split opened her skull in anger and took money from me for hospital expenses. My request to her to slightly alter her timings to avoid my husbands meal times was unheeded and “Amma-a-a-a, keerai” was the cry that heralded her arrival at the exact moment when I was serving food on the plate. Her impatience inevitably matched that of my husband. Her prices were comparable to the rise and fall of the daily Dow Jones. Often she commandeered fancy prices and got away with it as she would play on my sympathies with-“I am old, my legs are aching, you are the first one to whom I sell because you are a good Boni(lucky buyer)”. She was an ace saleswoman who could bring on the violins and play on my sympathies.

When I was away for over a month in the West, I enjoyed the varieties of lettuce. The frozen spinach, cleaned and moulded into cubes and cylinders was truly delicious. My regular cooking of spinach ( a packet that lasted me for the whole month with 2 cubes used to make my molagguttal caused a lot of heartburn to my son, as spinach to him is still strictly “Popeye stuff” as lettuce is rabbit food.

On my return to India and my routine life, I missed the call of my Keerai kari. When I made inquiries I found out that she had a tiff with the building society board members. She had literally been thrown out, screaming and yelling after a bout of verbal abuse and misbehavior. The lady who threw her out alas disappeared from the earth after a horrendous accident. My raucous and strident ‘ keeravani’ -named by Raju my husband, not in honour of the exquisite raagam in Carnatic Music, but for her strident call, returned in the morning.

I confess that I love spinach and am always on the lookout for new ways to cook and enjoy the dish.

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