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A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Ponnangani Keerai

2015 August 29

[First installment in a series on local greens, the women who sell them, and ways to cook them.]

This is Dhanalakshmi.

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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.  ganalakshmi2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

You’ll need: 

–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.

 

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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.   

 


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4 Responses Post a comment
  1. Shreya permalink
    November 11, 2015

    I love this series that you’re doing! Just started growing Ponnanganni Keerai at home and waiting for my first harvest so this is timely.

    But on a broader note, Ive recently moved cities and there are so many vegetables and greens the thelaguys have that I can’t recognise, forget knowing how to cook them. Where do I find Vallai Keerai in Bangalore? No one seems to know what it is.

    • December 18, 2015

      Shreya, This is an unpardonably late response, but I’m on it! I’d blogged about growing vallai keerai ages ago: http://www.paticheri.com/2015/01/31/grow-and-stir-fry-your-own-kang-kong-greens/ — I know that doesn’t help and neither do my usual sources on this one green, but I’ll find out for you soon. It’s possible, however, that just like dill isn’t available at all in Pondy, there might be varieties you just don’t get in other places.. unless you coax the earth to grow them for you in the right seasons..? Are you in Bangalore? If so, you’ll probably have luck with vallai keerai & if you like, I can send you a rooted sapling through some lovely soul traveling yonder..

    • Madhuk permalink
      January 25, 2017

      Hi, I know too late to this post. Am looking for Ponnanganni seeds. Can you please let me know where to buy some? Would be extremely helpful if I know this. Thanks a lot, in advance.

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