I know Noila’s voice long before I know her. I’ve heard her in the early mornings as she walks house-to-house in the fisher locality I call home, calling the names of the greens and garden vegetables she carries: arakeerai, sorakaya, vazhappuu, keeraaaaai! ‘mma, keeraaai! “Keerai” is the Tamil word for greens.
I have to teach myself to listen for her, child of the modern grocery store that I am: well-schooled in thinking of agency and control in terms of choices I make, instead of parameters drawn circumstantially for me. Noila belongs to an era which feels more bygone than it really is, one in which so many people walk neighborhood streets and bring so many more daily needs and small services home.
Someone sells vegetables on a push cart. Women balance baskets of greens and garden vegetables on their heads. Some pass by with tiffin carriers filled with idlis and idiappams–a hot breakfast for sale, door-delivered. One man on a cycle offers to sharpen knives. Another repairs stoves, or sell bangles and other trinkets, or even woven straw mats. Their distinctive calls are broadcast over quiet, early morning miles. Some traders improvise by using cell phone recordings to ease the strain on their vocal chords–but they come still, and nonetheless.
These petty traders are no strangers to the women who rush out to meet them. They have their circuits, learned over the years of walking neighborhoods. They know where to call. Like Noila now knows to stop at our building a few times a week.
“What name is ‘Noila’?” I ask the maids, when the watchman rings to ask if I should want greens today–superfluously, for I’ve been listening for her. “Only Christians keep such names,” they respond with certitude.
Rushing downstairs, I ask Noila what greens she has left. “Today it’s just sirukeeerai [சிறு கீரை] and arakeerai [அரைகீரை],” she tells me.
“What are these used for?” I ask, meaning to solicit cooking ideas.
“These are heat-generating [soodu, pointing to the arakeerai], and these are cooling [kuļurchi, sirukeerai],” comes the prompt reply.
“Oh?” I offer, realizing that the dilemma of what to cook is less important than what subtle effect each key ingredient might have on our bodies. I follow the lead into understanding semi-medical folk taxonomies: “Why no muļaikeerai [முளைக்கீரை] today?”
She responds in kind: “Because muļaikeerai is cooling, good for heat. Everyone asks only for muļaikeerai these days.”
The next time she saves a bunch of muļaikeerai for me. The maids giggle when I bring the bunch upstairs.
It’s much easier to buy from Noila than it is to go to the market for such greens, they tell me. When I ask why, they smile and glance cautiously in the direction of my husband, who is a distance away and paying no attention whatsoever to us.
Nonetheless, rules of propriety are such that they must come up to my ear and whisper: “Sometimes the men in the market will layer double meanings onto முளை by calling it முலை.”
A giggling fit ensues, preventing any further explanation, though none is needed: mulai is a somewhat crass Tamil allusion to a woman’s breasts, whereas the greens claim a different “l” sound: muļai is for greens, mulai is for breasts. I struggle to keep a straight face, thinking of these young women and the sexual innuendos of vegetable shopping.
The next time Noila calls, I ask her about thandu keerai [தன்டு கீரை]. She points to the thicker stems of the red variety of muļaikeerai she has today; “This is thandu keerai,” she says–but elaborates quickly in response to my quizzical look: “Thandu keerai is really just mature muļaikeerai.”
True enough, muļaikeerai left to grow as tall as 5 feet develops very thick stems (thandu or stalks), which are then peeled and treated as vegetables. The younger greens are sometimes just called thandu keerai, perhaps referring to the greens that produce the edible thandu or stalks.
“But those are not always available,” our watchman chimes in, himself a farmer at heart. “Only around aadi maasam [July-August] and only in some places.”
At the end of it all, I know my greens about as well as I know Noila: in fragments, a bit learned this morning, a bit more the next. For me, this also is ethnography: no instrumental, directed, deep dive but the meandering, piecemeal and apparently pointless unraveling of meanings, facts, and details that give quotidian form to the relationships between people and express wider cosmologies–without the slightest promise of ever getting to a cohesive portrait of anything.
Noila and I are not friends precisely. When I see her at the Sunday market, she barely recognizes me and makes little apology for it later. When I follow one botched attempt at recording her voice with a second request, she quips that I am less interested in her face than her “sound,” that her voice will outlive her–and casts a cheeky glance at my camera, knowing I will be silent so as not to spoil this recording. She is as quick to ask for favors in exchange for the photographs I take, as I am to remind her that that is not our relationship either. We work tenuously with what we have between us: the evident realities of our socio-economic inequality, the impulse to equalization, the fragility of transactional relationships, the ethics of charity, and the possibilities of patron-client longitudes.
So Noila continues to stop by a few times a week, and I buy my greens from nobody else. “Don’t you carry manathakkali keerai [மணத்தக்காளி கீரை]?” I ask her.
“It just got over,” she says. “These days everyone is asking for manathakkali keerai. Shall I bring it on Friday?”
Photo-taking, video-making done, we return to our regular trade in greens.
Upstairs and alone, I’m researching Amaranths and searching out correspondences between the world of Tamil cookery and that of Botanical species identification. It’s not always a straightforward task. Amaranths are both commonly cultivated and wild, local and quite global, and have been cross-pollinating so much, it’s often tricky to tell the different strains apart. We also tend to understand amaranths by flowers and other botanical parts–but here I have only leaves to work with.
Nevertheless, here is my localized guide, based on several hours of research and reading–sources provided where possible, for my own nerdy sanity and memory as much as anything else.
1, Muļaikeerai [முளைக்கீரை], comes in green and red varieties
Botanical name: Amaranthus tristis, Amaranthus gangeticus [yes, it’s a specifically local strain], Amaranthus tricolor
Common names: pigweed, spleen Amaranth, red amaranth
Also known as: thandu keerai [தன்டு கீரை], which is essentially mature muļaikeerai, with the stems grown thick enough to peel and use as vegetables. Younger muļaikeerai stalks are also a versatile vegetable: use them in simple stir-fries, poriyals, and even as a complement to / supplement for onions in fried rices.
Cooking notes: This is a lovely, versatile amaranth. Separate the leaves from the stalks, as even the younger stalks tend to be substantial enough to demand separate attention (and cooking times). You can store the stalks in a plastic bag for a few days, refrigerated.
My simplest muļaikeerai recipe is a very straightforward stir-fry that is something between Indian and “Asian.” The stems can be minced (as in the image above) and prepared as a poriyal. Both recipes can be found here. But do remember that just about any amaranth can be prepared as a dal kootu as well.
Other recipes: Indira at Mahanandi has a wonderful collection of red amaranth recipes. [Sidenote: I wish she’d get back to blogging again, she once was quite the brilliant blogging trailblazer!]
2, sirukeeerai [சிறு கீரை]
Botanical name: Amaranthus campestris
A smaller leafed amaranth, “siru” is small in Tamil. The leaves are generally smaller, and also pointier than most other common amaranth varieties.
Cooking notes: If the stems are tender enough, no need to separate from leaves. Just chop them all finely, together. My favorite sirukeerai preparation is a simple and light dal kootu, although poriyals are faster and fair game, too.
3, arakeerai [அரைகீரை]
Botanical name: Amaranthus dubius and Amaranthus spinosus
Common name: spiny pigweed
Also known as: muļļu keerai, since some wild strains can have thorns (muļļu is Tamil for thorns): ordinary arakeerai (Amaranthus Dubius) is closely related to, and practically indistinguishable from Amaranthus spinosus–except when thorns are present.
The cultivated variety is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the wild kuppai keerai [குப்பைக்கீரை] Amaranthus viridis or slender/green Amaranth
Cooking notes: The wildest of this batch of amaranth greens, arakeerai is a great substitute for greens in just about any dish. It can be made into a dal or stir-fried— but we love it in rice casseroles and pastas, too.