18 May 2014

Post Facto: Ode to the Gourd, and Other Forms of Vegetable Love

Earlier this summer, the European Union banned the import of certain Indian fruits and vegetables. The Indian media reported the event with alacrity, but our sense of national humiliation was reserved entirely for one of the five banned items: the alphonso mango. I quite understand: regional battles may rage over alphonso versus langda or himsagar versus rataul, but the mango's unofficial king-of-fruit status reveals a national consensus much broader than that around Modi. What's more, it is officially our national fruit. (And why not, predictable candidate as it is for naturally obvious gloriousness, alongside the also eminently suitable national tree — banyan — and national flower — lotus.)
But let me come swiftly to my point. (a) There is a national fruit, flower and tree, but no national vegetable. (b) The four other items banned by the EU were all vegetables, and poor, unsung summer vegetables at that: eggplant, taro plant (colocasia), bitter gourd and snake gourd. Since no one in the country's media — unsurprisingly — has come forward to defend their honour, I have decided the task is mine. Having spent my childhood being the strange little girl who wouldn't eat aloo but loved all sabzi, perhaps vegetable love has been calling me a long time. To adapt Marvell less than marvelously to my purposes, it has grown "vaster than empires, and more slow".
I spent eight years of my childhood in Calcutta, and it was not until my teens that I registered the caste system that holds sway over vegetables in Delhi. The Punjabi palate — or to be fair, the depressingly generic version of it that has colonised North Indian eat-out culture — has perfected "vegetarian" without vegetables. There's the ubiquitous kaali dal, rajma (kidney beans) and chholey (chickpeas), and when in doubt, there's always paneer. If you absolutely demand vegetables, the neighbourhood dhaba-on-call is a 100% likely to nudge you in the direction of "MixVeg" (I am convinced this is also because it comes straight out of a frozen Safal packet). If truly pressed, they might give you Aloo Gobhi.
In Kolkata, where there is scarcely a winter, it makes some sense that cauliflower, peas, beans and carrots should be granted higher status. But it is Delhi that behaves as if the garmi ki sabzis are untouchable. Something of an exception is made for bhindi (brats agree to eat it occasionally, and I hear that even more avid vegetable-rejecters, across the border in Karachi, have a chic restaurant named Okra) and eggplant (though only as baingan ka bharta).
But the summer's bounty of gourds — the small striped parval, the graceful, long, curvaceous lauki, the light green spheres of tinda, the ridged torai, the knobbly-skinned karela — is treated like a pack of poor relations, allowed to sit at the table but not permitted to speak. The same goes for arbi — colocasia — like the gourds, I've never yet seen it invited to a city restaurant, a wedding, or even a party.
I find this appalling, and tragic. Because I was lucky enough to grow up with a zillion ways in which to cook and eat these vegetables. From my Nana's side came thin but fiery Marwari gravies, often pairing a soft gourd like torai or tinda with besan, mangori or papad — the devisings of a desert where fresh veggies had to go a long way. The classic UP-style sookhi sabzis that came via my nani's family include two favourites I now produce as staples: a simple but always superb aloo-parval with zeera, haldi and mirch, and an arbi ki sabzi with nearly-crisp edges, its ajwain and amchoor dancing on the tongue. Being of that terribly deprived world population called 'O-Baangaali', my mother did not, unlike Jhumpa Lahiri's Mrs. Sen, sit on the ground with a boti "curved like the prow of a Viking ship" to chop her eggplants "small as sugar cubes". But while soon becoming adept at catering to my Bengali father's preferences, she constantly learnt from eating — and cooking — with friends, friends' parents and domestic help. I grew up with an undying love of jhinge posto (ridged gourd cooked with a paste of poppy seeds) and lau chhechki (the lightest of lauki, with only kalonji and green chillies for company, unless you add shrimp and turn it into a lau chingri). These, among many other things, I have learnt to cook, and each time I turn out one of these vegetables to a level that nearly approximates my mother's, I feel more close to being grown-up than at any other time.
One gourd can still push me back into childhood, though — the karela, which I do not yet cook and still scarcely eat. Popular in my nani's home as bharwan (stuffed with masala and secured with string) and at my parents' place either as shallow-fried bhaja, or as part of that "combination of subtle half-tones" that is shukto. Chitrita Banerjee's Life and Food in Bengal says Bengali housewives followed Ayurvedic practitioners in serving karela as a cure for biliousness. Clearly I have little faith: I appreciate a good shukto, but karela by itself still seems to me more cause of biliousness than cure.
But the last word on the karela must be Kipling's. Mowgli's Song Against People holds out the fantastic prospect of the gourd's revenge, more final even than Carl Sandburg's grass:
"I have untied against you the club-footed vines —
I have sent in the Jungle to swamp out your lines!
The trees — the trees are on you!
The house-beams shall fall;
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover you all!

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