A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Ponnangani Keerai
[First installment in a series on local greens, the women who sell them, and ways to cook them.]
This is Dhanalakshmi.
She’s no stranger to most of us in Pondicherry who search for daily vegetables in the “small market” at one end of the canal roads. I’ve been buying greens from her for a long time now, but we don’t really converse except in signs and gestures as Dhanalakshmi cannot speak. When I ask her name, she clears a patch of earth so she can write it out: Ga-na-la–clears it off as she has made a mistake, resumes: Tha-na-la-chu-mi. Goddess of wealth.
Instead, we communicate in greens. She’ll recognize me and salute from a distance so I should come to her little patch by the road rather than any other. I’m told she used to be just a sweeper, but has slowly established herself as a market woman. She usually has a good supply of common garden produce: mostly there are bunches of greens of all sorts, banana stem and flowers, limes, drumsticks. But not much else. She’ll hold things up or point to them, displaying my morning’s choices, stuffing things into bags at the slightest hint of a nod.
I know her prices by now, so I calculate totals for her. If others are around, sometimes I translate for them, or explain what I’ve come to understand she wishes to say. She’s far from being a shrewd business woman as she gets the totals wrong all the time. Calculations and multiple simultaneous interactions seem to confuse her. When I can, I help out. Others around do much the same.
She lends me bags when mine are too small. Once she managed to convey that she owed me money as I’d overpaid the last time. These interactions are but fleeting minutes at the start of a day, but I find myself as incapable as Dhanalakshmi in communicating what wealth I take from her each time, whether I’ve paid or not.
Today, she has a wonderfully fresh pile of Ponnangani keerai [பொன்னாங்கண்ணி கீரை], which my botanist mother would no doubt tell me is none other than Alternanthera sessilis known commonly as sessile joyweed or dwarf copperleaf, but which practitioners of Siddha medicine will tell you is the Pon–aagum–kaan–nee green: “Your body will acquire golden luster.” What promises Dhanalashmi holds out, in a simple Rs. 10 bunch of greens.
Ponnangani a weed that grows in swampy areas, and which therefore has in it man-vaasanai, or the heavy scent of mud. Tamilians will tell you that that if you dislike its earthiness, although none of us do, all you need is to add thengai poo, or shredded coconut (which looks like white floral sprinkles) for that modulating touch of fragrance and sweetness. We do that anyway.
A few leaves left in warm ghee make a poultice for tired and burning eyes (and for the treatment of sties). The green carries another promise, say the Siddhars: consume it regularly, and your eyes will become clear enough to see the stars even in broad day light.
It doesn’t take much to prepare these greens. They would do well in any stir fry with chillies and garlic. Cook a 1/2 cup of toor dal and pour into your stirfy for a quick and rich dal. Lots of possibilities, but for us the fastest is the poriyal, or the simple, unassuming seasoned stir-fry.
–1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
–1/2 teaspoon urad dal
–a chopped onion (optional)
–minced garlic (to taste)
–chopped green chillies (to taste)
–a bunch of cleaned and chopped ponnangani greens
–salt to taste and
–a small handful of fresh scraped coconut
Toss into a spoon or two of hot oil, a half teaspoon each of mustard seeds and urad dal, followed by onions, minced garlic, and green chillies. Stir fry till onions are transluscent, then toss the chopped greens over top, let them steam in their own heat–and finish with salt, and a handful of fresh coconut thrown on top.
If you’re making a dal, skip the coconut and add a 1/2 cup of pre-cooked toor dal instead. Simmer for a bit, and serve hot. Don’t have onions? Don’t eat garlic? No matter. Leave them out. Poriyals are extraordinarily pliable, forgiving dishes.
For the Tamil speakers out there, here’s a little video which explains the benefits of Ponnangani. I love how much time this woman spends explaining how to make the green palatable for young children. It’s all about convincing with coconut.