My lessons in greens continue. Morning, at the small market. A woman sitting at one corner, with bunches upon bunches of fresh greens bundled. I point to one variety I’ve not seen before.
“What are these”?
“Vallai keerai,” she answers. Keerai are greens in Tamil.
“What do you do with them?” The usual answers: kootu (dal-based preparation with vegetables and coconut), poriyal (akin to a quick, dry stir fry).
The greens are Rs. 10 a bunch. They wither and spoil fast, and so many of them grow wild and in small, home gardens. It’s usually women on the peripheries of the market who sell greens–cheap, perishable, with only small profit margins. Men, and more established market women, take the bigger ticket veggies.
At home, with Usha. “How do you cook these?” Same answers as in the market. But she goes on to tell me about how these greens are good for girls and women, pregnancy and menstrual health. You don’t get them all the time, she adds. I give her one of my bunches for her to take home to her daughter.
Lunch. A simple dal with the vallai keerai greens. We’re in love. And love takes me to Google to ask what these greens might be in a language I can understand. (Note the irony). After several re-tries with different spellings, I learn that these are Kang Kong greens, also known as water spinach, swamp spinach, botanically ipomoea aquatica, a distant relative of morning glories and always a survival food. Common, ignored, a weed. They’re cooked into stir-fries all over south east Asia, and are particularly good with just red chilli sambal and garlic.
Dinner, then, is a stir fry. But I have already other plans for these greens that cannot always be procured: the garden calls.
There’s just the perfect pot, not used because it lacks a drainage hole. Flood it with water. Grab a handful of kang kong, trim the ends, and stick them unceremoniously into the swampy mud. Wait–but not for long.
Sooner still, they are blooming.
If you have the heart to harvest these greens, do so before the plant flowers. Because once it flowers, trust me, you won’t have the heart to harvest these greens.
If I ever get around to compiling my beginner’s guide to Tamil greens, I’ll also get around to posting dal recipes that use kang kong, too. Stay tuned. For now, just the recipe for the stir fry that we consumed too fast and in much too poor light to leave any hope for photographs.
Be brave. La Cassata Siciliana is like a journey through alien territory to which you have decided to stake a claim. Once —
And then once more —
I confess, I’ve been wanting to do this post ever since my friend Laurel remarked on this Hong Kong-manufactured warming liniment called Po Sum On–which is no joke or mispronunciation but which actually means “Protect the heart’s peace.” An oil used to treat muscle and joint aches with that sort of double entendre? Too good to be true.
“Cong you bing some green onions from the market today?” I ask Verne, who of course has no idea what I am talking about. “Cong you what??” he answers, and proceeds to explain that “bing” is bread in Mandarin, qualified by the preceding words which tell just sort of bing it is: Fa mian bing is yeast-risen bing, Laobing is pan-fried bing and so on.
Me, I wish “Cong you bing” had had some more inspiring meaning beyond the literal “green onion pancake”–something like “path to happiness” or “feeling of a rainy morning.” But no such luck. It’s not even really a pancake, as it’s made with dough instead of batter. I’m left to my own (bad) punning devices. read more…
It’s one of those bottle-able mornings in Pondicherry. Quiet, breezy, and until the sun returns to his glowering ways, perfectly, wonderfully cool. A lovely day to make some new friends.
We live amidst the notorious “fishermen” off-center from Pondicherry town: that part that’s neither “white town” [where the French once resided] nor “black town” [where wealthier Tamil traders resided] but the “village” that adjoins both. Here are a series of kuppams or fishing villages that lay on the seashore: Kurusu-kuppam [where the lower caste Christians lived], Vaithikuppam, Angalakuppam and on, each named after headmen or local deities or the composition of its residents. read more…
We live in Cashew country. All around us, cashew orchards. Stretching far until the highways cut them off.
We should have been delighted, but the delight of living near commercial farming areas is invariably fraught with anxiety. We knew about endosulphan use, the genetic havoc wreaked by entirely discriminate pesticide use in places like Kerala. The stuff is Other Aurovillians told us to simply stay away in February, when the spraying happens. “You can smell it in the air,” they said, as though that was a good thing: at least we would know when the poison was there. read more…
When I’m not playing mom or baker or market-explorer or cultural interpreter of grocery stores in foreign lands, I’ve a bit of a peering-into-the-future ninja role with the Institute for Customer Experience or ICE. Here’s a report I worked on for ICE, on Future Food, Food Futures. It’s not precisely ethnographic, intended mainly for UX and future-seeker audiences, though it does make me wonder: what, then, would an ethnographer’s take on the future of food really be? I suppose I’ll spend the rest of my days working that out in this blog space.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and have your slash-and-burn feedback on the slide share deck below, too, of course. [She takes a deep breath—]
Breath for fragrance,
who needs flowers?
With peace, patience, forgiving and self-command,
who needs the Ultimate Posture?
The whole world become oneself
who needs solitude,
O lord white as jasmine.
–Mahadeviakka, 12th century Virasaiva poet [translation by A.K. Ramanujan, in Speaking of Siva, 1973]
On a whim and with a secretly stolen hour, I found myself in the flower market aisles of Pondicherry’s “big market” (proper name: Goubert market), in search of Madurai malli–or the sambac jasmine from Madurai district. read more…
Time-pass silliness in the wake of all this talk of biryani diplomacy.
The talking heads are, in order of appearance: Narendra Modi (just sworn in as Indian PM); Manmohan Singh (accidental former PM); Raja Pervez Ashraf (former Pakistani Premier); Shashi Tharoor (author, UN career official, fmr. Congress Party Minister of State); the ever-dimpled Pappu, Rahul Gandhi (somewhat unintelligent last male scion of the Gandhi clan); Nawaz Sharif (once-again premier of Pakistan); Jayalalitha (famously authoritarian Tamil Nadu Chief Minister who pretty much owns the state now, having wiped out the opposition, and sells idlis at hugely subsidized rates and huge public costs); and the one-and-only larger-than-life Tamil film star demi-God Rajinikanth–without whom no story from these parts can ever be complete.
I hope all the folks in Delhi are enjoying their no-biryani snapshot-of-India diplomatic dinner somewhere cool by now.
This one’s for my friend Iryna (who asked at just the moment when I most needed a creative outlet) and for everyone else who’s ever come home for dosas and chutney, company and conversation. It takes inspiration from Krish Ashok’s crazy-funny infographics, which taught me to take inspiration from my parents, and all our funny, idisyncratic, and completely weird our ways of doing routine things in new ways.
We had no plans. We had only what we had: two blessed zucchinis, an abundance of green peas (which are in season), a half-bagful of cherry tomatoes (from Auroville), a withering yellow pepper (provenance unknown); a couple of sad old cucumbers, and a handful each of wilting basil and dying dill–the latter of which especially could not be wasted, no matter its condition, having arrived from far-off Bangalore, being a precious ingredient in these parts, and having to make recompense for an already too-large carbon footprint. Of course, it must be said that there is always cilantro (coriander) in an Indian kitchen, and usually a few sprigs of mint.