For me all food is memory. The food we grew up on, whether we looked forward to a particular dish or not, stays with you. One of the most comforting things in the kitchen for me, is to re-create a dish I’ve seen on the table when I was a kid. So what’s it like for Indian men (most of whom don’t cook the everyday meal) if their wives have not come from the same community they have. Unless your wife learns the cuisine of your “native”, won’t these men be missing out on their childhood favs?
I tend to cook all sorts of food – cuisines I’ve recently discovered, the Madhur Jaffery cookbook (who ensured my survival in London), recipes from friends/family, the internet or cookbooks and of course the food I grew up eating. Since the DH and I combined have 4 different culinary backgrounds (Bihari and Tamilian for me, Konkani and Malyali for him) but grew up in the same place in Tamil Nadu, there’s plenty to choose from but also a fair bit that is common to both our culinary upbringings. There are some things from his Malyali side that I have learned (maybe with some Tamilian twists added on) like ollithiayathu, avial and kerala style egg curry. These are also dishes that I grew up eating – sometimes in his house.
But the Konkani dishes of his mother’s side and specific dishes that the DH’s grandmother prepares, I feel less confident in making. Maybe it’s like a North Indian experimenting with Tamilian food, there’s a little hesitation because you’re not intuitively sure what it should taste like and how to fix it if it’s gone wrong. That’s how I feel about bendi, saung, ambat, ghassi, these pillars of Konkani food. I always seem to misjudge the amount of tamarind to put in, tamarind being pretty central to their dishes. Because I never grew up eating these dishes and have only tasted them since I’ve been married, I feel that my instincts are rather shaky on the Konkan coast. So I just never make them. Occasionally, the DH says, “I haven’t had any bendi for a long time.” At which point I find it more convenient to change the subject or say that dinner’s already been made.
There are some recipes of his grandmother’s like the Bengali style tomato chutney, the konkani pumpkin chutney and her recipe for ‘gujarati vegetables’ and even the prawn ghassi that I think I’ve nailed. Of course there are dishes from my childhood too that I can’t make, like vetha kozhumbu (a tangy spicy thick dark sometimes nutty gravy made in traditional Brahmin households). There must be plenty more that my mum and dad don’t eat anymore because they moved out of their “native” places or don’t come from the same background.
One of the dishes that I have learned and regularly fall back on is the drumstick poriyal the DH’s grandmother taught me. In my childhood drumstick was only eaten in sambar. Now I have learned a new avatar for this fantastic vegetable that I used to crave for in England. The Indian market in Tooting used to get them very infrequently. The spicy, tangy (from the tomatoes) and sweet flavours of this dish are willing soaked up by the drumsticks.
A picture of drumsticks for those of you who’ve never seen them before. Apparently it is eaten not just in India but also in Srilanka, Malaysia, Philipines, South and Central America and Africa.
2 tomatoes – diced, seeds and all
1 medium sized onion, sliced
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp jaggery/palm sugar/regular sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Cut 3 drumsticks in to about 8 or 10 pieces. Wash and drain.
Slice 1 onion.
Heat 2 tsps oil in a kadai on a medium to low heat, when hot add 1/2tsp of cumin seeds, allow it to sizzle for a couple of seconds then add 1/4tsp of hing (asafoetida).
When asafoetida turns red, add the onion and saute for a few minutes. Add 2 chopped tomatoes, 1/4 tsp of turmeric, 1/2tsp of chilli powder (if you prefer it milder add 1/4tsp chilli powder), 1 tsp of jaggery or sugar and 1tsp of salt. Wait for the masalas to cook off a little, add a bit of water if it sticks, then add the drumsticks. Add a 1/2 cup of water, put the lid on and allow the drumsticks to steam. After 10 minutes, check to see if drumsticks are tender, either by poking a knife through or having a taste of the inner flesh. Add the other tsp of jaggery if you think it’s needed.
For the last 5 minutes, remove the lid and let the water evapourate. The drumsticks should not become soggy or else they’ll lose the inner flesh. 15 minutes of steaming should do the job. Check to see if you have a good balance of sweet to spice and add more jaggery/sugar if needed. Drumstick poriyal done.
The way to eat a drumstick is to slide your thumb through the hole at one end and pop the seam. Hold the bottom of the flat open portion with your thumb and fingers (with the flesh towards you) in between your bottom front teeth and pull. All the flesh should end up in your mouth and you’ll be left with the outer shell, an empty “leaf” or “stick” in your hand which ends up in the compost heap.
Did you know that drying and crushing the leaves of the Moringa (drumstick) plant can be mixed in food and given to malnourished children as it is high in nutritional value