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September 2006

The Taste of Home Cooked Indian Food-Chowli Sabzi


So many people who eat "Indian " have never really tasted the real thing. That red blanket of sauce in which all ingredients swim is not it. That is restaurant Indian. Usually followed by the word makhani or Jal Frezi or Moghlai , it is literally, a cover up for the basic inadequacy of the main it chicken or lamb, cauliflower or potato. Old perhaps, out of date, leftovers, anything in need of masking, a nom de plume, an alias. The accompaniments to the entree make it a right old masquerade. Just be careful the food isn't dressed to kill. . If not you, at least your appetite.
Strangely enough there are people who develop a taste for this oily ,thick mush. I think its is more a taste for "something else"..a change from the usual , however horrid.
There are very few restaurants, even here in India, where you can actually taste the main a simple vegetable or a mutton curry which is not slathered with a sauce full of spices . Plus plenty of chillies to disguise the fact that the pain one feels is in the slaughter of the taste buds or the distress of the soon-to-be-affected digestive system.
I love eating out...seated at the tables of my friends. I know I am going to taste something different, something good. Since all of us seem to come from different parts of the country, someones daily fare is going to be another ones gastronomic delight. I also prefer to serve the regular food we eat. No extra oil or ghee. Not too much mirchi. A little tarka / seasoning and voila - its heaven to those who aren't familiar with the tastes we were brought up with. I recall one outstanding alu kadhi / potato yogurt curry with puri made in Delhi by a friend from Haryana, a tomato vegetable from another pal from Bengal, an out of this world kheema kebab from a dear Kashmiri friend and so it goes. Unforgettable tastes, unforgettable meals . Many dishes are now firmly part of our home cuisine too. There is a world of food to look forward to if you can convince the average hospitable and generous Indian you'd like to join them for their lunch rather than be invited out for dinner.
If you had dropped by this is what you might have eaten today; like my moong dal recipe, it is easy to make and good to eat.

Chowli Vegetable

Chowli Alu Sabzi

250 gms. of young and tender chowli
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 potato cut into small cubes (optional)
A pinch of rai /mustard seed
1/2 green chilli minced (optional)
1 tsp ground garlic
A pinch of haldi /turmeric
Salt to taste.

Pick out the thin chowli beans and slice them into 1/2 inch pieces. Take the peas out of the larger pods and add them to the chopped beans. Heat the oil. Saute the potatoes till half done .Now fry the mustard seed and the green chilli. Add the garlic paste and fry well till light brown. Do not let the garlic burn or the vegetable will taste bitter. Now add the chowli , the turmeric and salt, and a sprinkle of water. Stir well. Cover tightly with a lid and let it cook for 10 minutes on a low fire. Add a spoon of water if required during cooking. Stir well. Serve.

The point to any successful home cooked vegetable is that it should have a single spice flavour, not a hundred to dampen and drown it. I hate the habit of adding ginger and garlic to everything. Sometimes you need just one of the two.The use of commercially made pastes have led to this 'ginger+garlic' trend. The ready made paste has no recognisable taste anyhow. Adding fresh herbs last, as a seasoning, can change the flavour of the whole.Try cooking with A spice and A herb , or just one of the two. Ot two of one i.e. two spices, or two herbs. You might end up with 8 different flavours. And I'm sure every interpretation will be more than edible.

Chowli / vigna sinensis ( I think that is the botanical name...there is some dispute about the taxonomy) an edible podded pea, are related to other vigna plants like the cowpea or black eyed peas which have become part of southern American food, after being introduced there from the Old world in the 18th century. Native to India , it is grown commercially here.They are not as long as the chinese, yard long or asparagus beans, though I suspect they are all relatives . The chowli bean in about 6 inches long, round and straight.
It is an especially useful plant for the small farmer, in both India and Africa, as it can be used throughout its life cycle, as is done with other grain legume crops in the tropics. Its leaves can be used from the start and it makes a high protein vegetable. The seeds can be eaten as well as used for sprouting. The beans may be plucked before maturity and also used as a vegetable.When cropping and thinning ,the leaves and seedlings can be eaten.The pods can be allowed to grow till maturity, dried and kept  as a lentil, forming a long lasting source of food. I find it surprising that so much energy and money is being invested in horticulture , on the research and propogation of plants which need far more pesticides and fertilisers, when old plants ,which are so valuable in alleviating malnutrition and hunger are being ignored, to the detriment of the agricultural community and the rural population at large.

Kitchens around the World-1


Photo: Ernst van Loon

One of the most interesting sights of the Loire valley between Angers and Tours, is the massive kitchen of Fontevraud, the famous 900 year old Royal Abbey, built of pale tuffaut and set amongst pictureque gardens of herbs, medicinal plants, an orangery and an apple orchard .

Photo:Ernst van Loon

What stands out as one enters the complex is the blackened fish scale roof of the Romanesque kitchen or smoke house as it was known in those times.

Photo : Ernst van Loon

The interior is amazing, with spaces for ovens and fires at different levels and tall towering chimneys. Influenced a great deal by those sumptuous films of stories set in medieval times, I could imagine the hustle and bustle, as cooks made bread and smoked meats for the large number of inhabitants. Amongst other great personalities from history who lived at Fontevraud, Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last years at the Abbey and is buried here as also is Richard the Lionheart.

Though the kitchen here was built in the 12th century it is possible that they cooked such wonderful dishes as a 'Bourbelier of Wild Boar in a Spiced Sauce' or 'Chaudume of Pike' as described in "The Medieval Kitchen, Recipes from France and Italy" . This book made me understand how kitchens such as Fontevraud were used and how well cooks understood their ingredients. It is a mouthwatering read and, like the tour of the kitchen, made me want to go back to those old days, hanging and curing meat and fish, using the best of the seasonal garden to flavour and making fabulous tarts from fruit just picked off the trees. The recipes can all be followed and have enough space for tweaking to make them easy to make in your own kitchen especially the fruit and vegetable ones.

If, like me,you are another inveterate DIY person you might like to try making your own smokehouse. How I long for a little lot or a garden of my own to try this out.

"The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy" by Odile Redon, Fran├žoise Sabban, & Silvano Serventi .Translated by Edward Schneider