Omiyage

Monsoon in the Sahyadris is an interesting experience. It helps that it’s a quick trip: planned in a week, over in a night or two. You can wedge it into any part of a week that’s relatively free. On our way back from the ghats, we saw locals at stalls by the highway selling vegetables and fruits. They have a freshness that you seldom see at the far end of cold chains that reach us. So we bought veggies in quantities large enough to distribute to family and friends: a perfect omiyage from a trip to walk between rice paddies looking for wildflowers. I’m a little lost about what we bought: there’s a lauki (bottle gourd) visible in the upper right corner of my photo. Then, going diagonally down to the lower left corner, we see in succession a bunch of torai (ridge gourd), then a smoother skinned cousin which, I’m told is also called torai, followed by the warty karela (bitter melon), and the common as mud kheera (cucumber). There’s also a leaf there which I must have eaten, but cannot identify.

I’ve given you the names of these vegetables in Hindi, but as a bilingual family living in a state where most people speak a third language, we use a khichree of words for produce. The word kheera, for example, is replaced by kakri, which is Marathi for cucumber (oh yes, we do use English for some of the produce), mainly because that’s the word you need to use when you shop here. It has stopped occurring to me that kakri meant something completely different in the part of the country where I grew up. If you know these veggies, what do you call them?

Roasted

Words are slippery things. Metaphors become meanings. So let me drop all metaphors to talk about the roasting of food. In this lockdown I’ve been working at efficient use of an oven. When you think about it, an oven is highly wasteful of energy. It can take ten to fifteen minutes to warm up, especially if you need a high temperature. Then most cooking in an oven requires a half hour or more. So you spend a kilowatt-hour of energy on cooking, much larger than what you typical microwave oven, induction heater, or gas stove would take. My response is to use an oven for multiple things at the same time. I’ve begun to use the whole volume of the oven, using as many trays as I can fit in. I also keep in mind a graded cook, where different things use different temperatures. I start using it after a quick warming to a reasonably low temperature, and then warm in steps to the highest that I need.

Eggs cook in about 10-15 minutes at 150 Celcius. You can start to slow dry tomatoes on another rack while you do this, and you can add in a rack of karela (bitter gourd, if that made up name helps) at the same time if you want. You can push the temperature up to 175 Celcius in the middle of this cook. Then you take it up to 200 Celcius for the next stage. Chicken breasts take about 30 minutes at 200 Celcius. A couple of trays of vegetable can cook at the same time: carrots, radish, cauliflower, pumpkin, onion, beetroot, aubergine (brinjal), potato, are what I’ve tried. If you are started on the tomato, then let it continue inside the oven from the earlier stage for these 30 minutes. Then comes the last stage at 225 Celcius. Take out the chicken breasts and continue to bake the other pieces for another 15 minutes at this temperature, after turning them over, in order to brown them well. Continue the root vegetables and onions for the same time at this higher temperature.

All this may sound finicky, but it is actually simple if you arrange things in trays which need to be taken out or inserted at specific times. I made the graphic that you see above to help me plan. Arranging different parts of the cook into separate trays (or sections of trays) makes it much less of a chore than any other way of cooking.

I’ve reserved my Sundays for oven cooking. I love the fresh roasted plate of veggies to go with chicken. The roasting brings out an amazingly sweet taste from the vegetables. When you eat well-roasted onions, roasted to a transparency greater than in any of the photos here, the taste changes totally. I was reminded of a Hyderabadi dish called anokhi kheer, a sweet made of onions. The great upside is that at the end of the cook we also have a fridge stocked with meat and vegetables that we can use through the week, whenever we are short of time.

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.