Red prawn curry

Another day, another recipe. When The Family said she was planning to make a pepper prawn curry, I asked her “Why not tomatoes instead?” Our bhajiwala has started stocking some really flavourful tomatoes recently: tart and acid. They are so good that sometimes I pick up one and just bite into it (is it possible that canning plants have shut down due to the epidemic?). She asked “Do you have a recipe?” I dug into my memory. “Kalonjee, Mirchandalchini, and Tejpattam”, I ventured, channeling the Moor’s Last Sigh. “That’s a Rushdie job,” she muttered. “Don’t be paneer,” I replied.

We cobbled a recipe together. Kalonji (Nigella seed) was acceptable. Two or three leaves of curry (Murraya koenigii) were drying inside the masala dabba. They went into the bagar. A sliced green chili was dropped in before I could protest. Then six of the wonderful tomatoes, chopped into pieces, just before the lid was closed for the reduction. When they had reduced, The Family dropped the cleaned prawn into it. I added a splash of water to deglaze the pot. In five more minutes the prawns were ready. The Family likes to squeeze a few drops of lime juice into something like this. I take away my portion before she sprinkles some chili flakes on top. (“Don’t forget to mention the grated ginger,” The Family reminded me after seeing the post.)

This bit of quick cooking gave me time to think a little more about the curry tree. Wikipedia told me very little about it. The genus Murraya (Linnaeus named the genus after his student, the Swedish physician Murray) belongs to the citrus family, and its center of diversity is in southern China and south Asia. In the past, when butterflies were more common in Mumbai, I’d seen the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) visit the plant very often when it was in flower, and even lay eggs on it. Since the butterfly is endemic to south Asia, it stands to reason that the plant is also a south Asian species. I found a report of high genetic diversity in wild plants of this species in India, which also gives additional evidence for this supposition.

So our little recipe was truly fusion food: recognizably Indian in taste, but impossible without bringing Indian and south American food plants together with prawns. Authenticity is such a fluid concept when it comes to food!


I managed to taste some jamun (Syzygium cumini) at the tail end of the season. This is a fruit which is deeply embedded in my childhood memories. I literally measured my growth by a jamun tree which stood in the garden in front of the house I grew up in. My earliest memories of the fruit are of picking fallen jamun and eating them until my mouth and tongue were stained deep purple. Every summer, over years, my cousins and I tried to climb the tree. Eventually I was able to shin up that straight scaly trunk until the first branch. I was never as good at it as a friend who would go straight up to the fruiting branches and drop fruits down on the rest of us after eating his fill. I wasn’t surprised to find that this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the mango, another fruit of the summer, there is no mystique to this fruit; it is just an old friend, a favourite which you love to come back to. This year too, The Family and I sat down to savour the sweet acidic taste of the fruit, and shared childhood memories of having it with rock salt.

That’s why I was not surprised to find that there is huge genetic variation in the tree across India; no one has tried to cultivate particular strains. Since the taste of the fruit is preserved by the seed, vegetative propagation of jamun has not been widely used. Propagation by seed must have caused some selective distinctions between different regional varieties (the ones we ate this year did not colour our tongues much) while retaining genetic diversity. Two related facts amazed me. First, that although jamun has been carried across the world recently, there are many regions where the fruit is grown but not eaten (imagine that!). Second, that the genus Syzygium is found in a wide arc across the world, from Africa and Madagascar, through Asia, all the way to Australia and several Pacific islands. The geographic spread and genetic clocks indicate that the genus may have evolved after the late Jurassic, when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was breaking up to create the modern oceans. It contains more than 1500 species, many of which have edible fruits, and (this blew me right out of the water) cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) belong to the same genus.

Cannon ball flowers

It took two days for the buds to grow and open. I watched the last of the cannonballs budding for two days until I got to see the large open flowers. I like the splash of colour the six petals provide, the yellow of the tips growing into a bright pink at the base, where they attach to six light green sepals. I’m not the only person who enjoys looking at the odd flower, as I can tell by the fact that it is quite a common garden tree. Its binomial, Couroupita guianensis, is probably a mistake, since its original range is an ocean away, around the periphery of the Amazon basin.

The common name, cannonball, may come from the spherical buds, or perhaps from the fruit (thanks NN, for the discussion below). The genus Coroupita contains two other species, one found along rivers in the Amazon basin, and another in Central and northern parts of South America. I’ve never seen them, but apparently they are hard to distinguish from this tree except by the showy flowers of this one. That probably means that they have been taken to other continents in modern times, in the same wave of exports from South America that globalized potatoes and chili. Isn’t it interesting that modern era essentially coincides with the era in which these plants were taken across the world?

The tree that I pass on my daily walk flowers in the late spring, when the whole trunk is covered in long racemes of flowers. The flowers which you see here have come at the tail end of the season. More than the colour it is the strange arrangement of the male sexual organs which catches the eye. The stamens are arranged in an androecium which folds over on itself like a hood. Apparently less than one in a hundred flowers gives rise to fruits. Does this mean that most flowers are male? Maybe, although I haven’t seen a count like this reported anywhere. I was locked in because of COVDI-19 most of this flowering season, so I haven’t seen the fruits this year. All four of the flowers on this raceme seem to be male, so I guess I won’t see the fruits at all this year: another of the strange absences that this epidemic has created.

African tulips

Spothadea campanulata! What a mouthful. The alternative to that is the long name African tulip tree, or the more mellifluous rudra palash. I can see two of them from my balcony, each tree about 12 meters high, as close as I can estimate. They have been in flower all the months that I’ve been shut in, and now the flowers are denser than ever. I saw some little insects buzzing around the flowers, and tried to look at them more closely with my camera (see below). They are too small to resolve, but I got a larger visitor in the background of one of my photos (see above).

These exotics (apparently originally from the cloud forests of central Africa) grow easily in India. I’m fascinated by the flowers, and I’m happy that our gardener decided to plant them outside our balcony. I’ve not heard of them escaping and forming ecological threats. In fact, in some parts of the world they seem to serve as hosts to most native species of butterflies and moths, even though they are exotic.That seems to be true of India as well. But, as I looked for more information, it turned out that in some of the islands of the south Pacific, such as Tahiti, they are considered to be dangerous pests. There are many studies of the conditions under which they spread, and how to stop them. Perhaps it is the higher temperatures in India which keeps them from spreading.

Karela brought me back

Sometimes friends ask me why I gave up on working in Europe and moved back to India. I find that if you tell the unvarnished truth, they laugh and give up. But it is true that I missed karela (Momordica charantia, aka bitter gourd), that warty bitter veggie that you see in the middle of the featured photo. There are relatively few domesticated plants, and like them, this one has been a great traveler: right across the world’s tropics. The bitter taste is a warning of toxicity of course, as some people who tried raw gourd smoothies in recent times found out the hard way. Across the world I see that it is most often fried. I remember from my childhood another preparation where it is boiled and mashed into rice and formed into balls (I can imagine a kombini in Japan stocking this as a quick lunchtime meal). It was always an addition, not the pride of the table, but its bitter taste runs like a glowing thread in my memories.

How did this bitter, warty fruit travel? Where was it first domesticated? Traditionally, the variety of gourds in India has been used to argue that gourds (family Cucurbitaceae) was domesticated in India. This has been borne out, and deeply nuanced, by a carefully sampled genetic analysis, published in 2008, which showed that modern gourds originated about 70 million years ago, during the Cretaceous, on the continental plate which was the progenitor of the continent of Asia, north of what was then the Tethys Ocean. 40-60 million years ago, during the Paleocene and Eocene, the family spread to proto-Africa and proto-South America, and was already established there before Madagascar and India began to separate out into their modern positions. About 30 million years ago, during the Oligocene, the family crossed the Atlantic again, into proto-South America, and across the Indian plate into the proto-Southeast Asia. This last branch included the genus Momordica. Around 10 million years ago, in the middle Miocene, there were repeated crossings from South America to Africa, and the ancestors of Oceania. A paper from 2010 drilled deeper into genus Momordica and verified that it had an African origin, being carried from there to India and Southeast Asia sometime around 15 million years ago. This deep history is consistent with the traditional human history of the karela being domesticated in India, and spreading across the tropics through trade in the last 10,000 years, and eventually calling me back to India.

Decline and fall

In the last three months I’ve spent hours daydreaming as I shell peas. The pods are fruit, and the peas are seeds. “Is it only in legumes that we throw away the fruit and eat only the seed?” I asked The Family in March. I got a severely blank look in answer. Pinterest threw up a slew of recipes for using the heaps of succulent pods, but warned that the garden pea pods that I had in front of me were not very good to eat. In April the pods looked withered and dry. Now in the middle of June the pods are definitely sick, and sometimes the peas too. “Is the world breaking down? Has agriculture collapsed?” I asked The Family. She looked at me and said “Peas are grown only in winter.” I persisted, “Why are they moldy? The world outside must be decaying into chaos.” Practical as ever, she said “Our bhajiwala is turning a profit, selling us the worst preserved peas at inflated prices. I’m sure Colaba market has better peas.”

I pushed away the dry, desiccated, sickly heap of pods in front of me to make space for my laptop. Escape into history is easy at such times. Peas (Pisum sativum) still grow wild around the Fertile Crescent where the first domesticated varieties have been found in archaeological digs dated to 11,500 years ago. In eight thousand years peas spread across Asia and the edge of the Mediterranean. I wonder about those distant human ancestors of ours. Did they know what they were doing? Did they reason like us, observe and think, talk to others, share their findings? We still live in the shadows of their revolution, domestication of plants, agriculture, whatever you call it. A room or two in our modern houses are given over to the lifestyles they developed: storage of agricultural produce, bowls and cups and plates, the hearth for cooking. How different were they?

Salad with micro-greens

The Family has decided to use the fallow pots on our balcony for micro-greens. Being locked up at home with constant connectivity means that fads spread rapidly across the world. You can think of this as a new kind of globalization, on days when you feel happy, or mono-culture, on your bad days. The first harvest was four days after she sprinkled some methi (fenugreek, Trigonella foenum-graecum) seeds into a pot. The tiny herbs do add a nice flavour to the salad. I’m looking forward to more.

I loved the sight of these tiny shoots with their lobed moss-coloured leaves growing in the dark soil of the pot. That little pot is the result of pre-historic human technology that bred the edible herb out of its wild ancestors in the fertile crescent. Remains of the recognizably modern herb are found in 6000 year old tels. A genetic study found a wild back and forth mixture of varieties of methi over the past millennia. This is not in contradiction with the recorded history of the last two to three thousand years. Small herbs were probably transported back and forth across the silk route and the Arabian Sea-Mediterranean Sea trade routes from times before history, leading to the complete genetic homogenization of this herb. That was the first globalization!

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.