As we move to bigger urban centers, and into smaller and smaller lots and apartments, we are removed more and more from the food we eat, from the act of growing our own food. Much of what was once common in every home garden is gradually getting lost, at least to us city folk. My parents maintain a small garden patch in their urban lot and even in that tiny space my mom forages for amaranth. Yes, forage; they don’t grow it from seed, it just volunteers! When we were younger and had a large kitchen garden inside the IITD campus, kulfa (purslane) was another green found growing wild.
My father and his brothers are avid gardeners. Even in the constraints of their urban homes, you will find them pottering around. My uncle, in Pune, gardens out of huge planters on his rooftop growing runner beans, and Kashmiri favourites haak, sotchal (common mallow), and monjji (kohl rabi). I have been very lucky, despite an urban upbringing, to have grown up in a home with a garden, and knowing a little about how food makes it to the table. In my own typical city house I grow herbs in pots, I have a curry leaf tree and a lime tree, and grape vines that climb up the pergola on my first floor terrace.
Many wild greens used to be part of a regular Kashmiri diet – abuj, vopal haak, vasta haak, hund, to name just a few. Today, I would be hard pressed to even identify them.
Once a fortnight I walk to the Laxmi Nagar subzi mandi in the evening - a 20 minute walk. The neighbourhood super markets stock only common vegetables and fruits. This week I needed some jimikand (elephant-foot yam) for avial. I usually make the trip on a Wednesday or Saturday, the days my regular subziwala, who stocks only greens, brings special varieties like scochal, haak, and bok choy. This Saturday I found mounds of pumpkin shoots as also shoots of bottle gourd. I called my mother and in the background cacophony of the noisy street market it was agreed that I should buy some and bring them to her the next day.
Sunday afternoon I was at my parents’ place. First, we all sat down to a cup of shir chai. Later, I helped mom prep the shoots and leaves. We wished there had been some baby pumpkins in there. She also mentioned how delicious the flowers are, batter-fried. Then she was a blur of activity. Mom cooked the shoots in a simple stir fry with eggplant exactly like she cooks sotchal. I got half the portion to take home. Dad stepped into the garden and returned with fresh haak that I cooked for lunch yesterday. For lunch today I thawed fish cooked with monjji (kohl rabi – this too was from dad’s garden) that mom had saved for me and the son – the last serving of fish until September. That is a lot of different greens for this week! [PS: There was malabari spinach in the mixed veggies for dinner!]
The other day I was out with my class at Purana Quila, and I came across a wide carpet of sotchal growing in a swale! I could identify it only because I had seen it growing in my father’s garden. There might be an opportunity for urban foraging in Delhi, but the tragedy is that few of us in the city can spot an edible green from a weed. What we can do is to try and grow, even if in pots, some of the lesser known greens and reconnect with some nutritious foods that were staples in our grandmothers’ kitchens. Easier still, we can start with familiarising ourselves with all those ‘weird’ greens that the greengrocer has on offer in the mandi.
Go out, find your pumpkin patch, and bring in an armload of the tender shoots and leaves, and try my traditional Kashmiri recipe, al kanjji te wangun – pumpkin shoots with eggplant. Pumpkin shoots are cooked all over Asia and Africa. You could try a Malaysian style masak lemak pucuk labu, pumpkin shoots cooked with coconut milk, or this simple Thai stir fry (with pictures explaining how to prep the leaves). The Nepalese cook them much like Indians, with oil and spices. This recipe for mukimo, a Kenyan potato mash, contains within it hints of an Indian infusion. The comment section of this post is full of suggestions on how to cook with pumpkin shoots – there is even a chutney from India!
There is some effort involved in preparing the shoots. First, remove all the tendrils and discard. Also discard tough stems and very large, coarse leaves. The top 2 inches of the shoots are good as they are, snap and keep. Retain any baby pumpkins that might be there on the shoots. You have to now ‘string’ the remaining stems and fuzzy leaves. Break the top of a shoot and gently pull it down the stem and all the way to the leaf. You may use a knife to pull at the strings or outer skin of the shoots, if you prefer. Repeat till all the tough skin, strings, and fuzz are removed. Tear leaves into two or three pieces and crush lightly in your fist. Chop the stems into inch or inch and a half long sections. Rinse and drain.
Al kanjji te wangun
Pumpkin shoots with eggplant
500gms tender pumpkin shoots (before prepping)
1 medium eggplant (the long, slender kind), medium diced
a few green chillies, snapped into two pieces
1/4 cup mustard oil
a pinch of hing
1-2 dried red chillies, broken into two pieces
1t Kahsmiri mirch powder (cayenne pepper) or to taste
1t Kashmiri veri masala (can be found at Durga Masale at INA market in Delhi; you may substitute with garam masala but it is not the same)
Heat oil in a karahi or a heavy bottomed pan. When it starts to smoke add the eggplant pieces. Fry the eggplant, stirring all the time, till the pieces are golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. To the hot oil add a generous pinch of hing. Add the prepared shoots with the chillies. Stir. Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and cover. Cover and cook on medium heat, for 5 min. Remove the lid and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the eggplant and stir gently. Cook for a few minutes till the shoots are tender (not mushy). Serve with steamed white rice.