Prodded by the schmaltzy romance with all things rustic, a stray weekend in the countryside typically elicits in city folks, I told Shyamoli, I will eat whatever was cooking on the woodfire under the pomelo tree. Shyamoli and her husband Monsha take care of our family’s small farm, near Chinsurah, a couple of hours drive from Kolkata. Every winter we visit the farm a few times for our annual fix of rural quaintitude.
I walked over to where Shyamoli’s sister-in-law Molli waited on a large aluminium degchi half full with roughly chopped cabbage and a few dices of potato sweating in mustard oil. Molli added a large pinch of turmeric powder and gave it all a thorough stir. Then she tipped a giant heap of bright green batons of peyaaj koli or onion scapes into the pot offhandedly. “Brought these from the fields - these are young stalks, so sweet,” said Molli. A swirl of smoke rose out of the pot and with it the sweet smell of winter. I could squeal with delight.
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I am no stranger to peyaaj koli - the fleshy, green onion stalks crowned with pretty clusters of minuscule white flowers. – a prized wintergreen in Bengali kitchens. It is, in fact, what announces the arrival of winters in my kitchen (not nolen gur!). Sweet with a soft sting, peyaaj koli is quietly powerful – it can transform a dish with its mellow allium notes and traces floral undertones, texture and spry cheer, without making much demand on the cook. Unlike spring onion greens (or leaves) that it’s sometimes confused with, onions scapes are sturdier, fleshier and take longer to cook, and even then, can retain a hint of crunch. They are also a repository of nutrients and are known for their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory qualities.
But it’s not every day you get to eat your favourite greens fresh from the fields. Later I ate the slightly soupy curry, ladled into bowls of stout-grained puffed rice and served with thick slabs of onions and whole green chilli, in complete silence, happy in the knowledge that Shyamoli had packed a big bunch of peyaaj koli for me to bring home. I will cook it with poppy seeds ground up into a paste with some green chillies.
Or, I could cook it in so many other ways. Peyaaj Koli gets along with most winter vegetables. It can be stir-fried with cauliflower and sweet green peas, or brinjal, with a simple tempering of nigella seeds or panch phoran, or cooked on a low flame with a mix of winter veggies like sheem (hyacinth beans), brinjal, new potatoes, radish, etc, sometimes with chunks of juicy tomatoes, and some fresh coriander leaves. Kucho chingri (tiny prawns) or other small fish like mourola could be added to the medley of vegetables, or cooked simply with peyaaj koli. Big fish, like rohu or unctuous Katla also pair well.
A particularly popular combination is Tyangra fish cooked with peyaaj koli. “Tyangra cooked with peyaaj koli and chui jhaal (piper chaba) is a winter favourite in our home,” says food researcher Tanushree Bhowmik. “But boiled potatoes mashed up with peyaaj koli is equally loved,” she adds. In Assam, Guwahati-based restaurateur Kashmiri Barkakati Nath tells me, peyaaj koli is cooked into a bhaji or fritters or added to light soupy Masor Anja.
Food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra, a champion of traditional Bengali food, shares in my enthusiasm about onion scapes. “They are so pretty! Sometimes, I bring in a bunch put them in vases, letting them bloom,” she says. The inflorescences are usually clipped off before cooking the stalks but their aesthetic appeal is hard to miss.
“Growing up in Shantiniketan, our peyaaj koli fix came straight from our kitchen garden,” Mahapatra says, at once overcome by nostalgia, as she is transported to the kitchen in her childhood home and memories of her mother’s winter special – boiled eggs cooked in a rich onion and tomato gravy along with lots of peyaaj koli. I am reminded of a spicy scramble of eggs combined with sautéed peyaaj koli I had eaten at a friend’s home, rolled up in soft phulkas. I make a mental note to add peyaaj koli to my egg curry the next time I make it. Or to the next batch of Shakshuka? “With the brawnier, more mature stalks she would make an inimitable chorchori, tempered with nigella seeds and green chillies, to which she added tiny prawns ground up with a little mustard,” says Mahapatra. A drizzle of mustard oil went in at the end giving the dish a pungent kick.
In her ancestral village in coastal Midnapore, Mahapatra tells me, assorted mix of small fish, caught in the rice fields, and roughly chopped peyaaj koli laced with spices, packed into banana or pumpkin leaves and cooked on a griddle placed or roasted on dying embers.
The dish is similar to a version of Odisha’s feted patua- a spice-laced mixture of assorted veggies and sometimes small fish or prawns slow-cooked wrapped in leaves - that writer and home cook Sujata Dehury tells me about. Come winters, onion scapes, locally called piaja sandha, along with shallots and assorted winter vegetables like cauliflower, sweet winter pumpkin, peas, potatoes and shallots are finely chopped, mixed and mashed up with spices and mustard paste, topped with a drizzle of mustard oil and cooked wrapped in leaves. “It’s immensely popular in the Mayurbhanj region,” says Dehury.
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In fact, the Oriya kitchen too turns out quite a bevvy of dishes made with onion scapes. Finely chopped piaja sandha is mixed with rice flour and seasonings, formed into flat, round discs and shallow-fried on a tawa to make piaja sandha bara, or stir-fried with potatoes, garlic and mustard paste to make piaja sandha alu besar bhaja. A potpourri of winter vegetables - new potatoes, brinjal, ripe tomatoes and piaja sandha - cooked with rich mustard paste is another favourite. “Vadi or sun-dried lentil pellets, freshly made during winters in Odisha, add a meaty bite to the dish,” says Dehury. Sometimes, dried or smoked fish is added too. “In rural Odisha, a rustic stir-fry of piaja sandha is often paired with steaming hot rice and horse gram dal or desi moong daal tempered with loads of garlic, for lunch or hearty bowls of basi pakhala for breakfast under the winter sun,” she adds.
For food stylist and blogger Maumita Paul Ghosh, winters mean chicken cooked with juicy oranges and onion scapes, a decades-old recipe she found among her grandmother’s collection of newspaper cuttings “Back in the day, my mother would make a dryish curry with masoor dal, eggs and peyaaj koli, that we typically eat with hot chapatis on cold winter nights,” says Ghosh. But I am especially taken by Ghosh’s mother’s signature goat liver stir-fried with shallots and onion scapes. The fiery heat from a generous dose of freshly ground black pepper and whole peppercorns is beautifully balanced by the sweetness from the shallots and onion scapes that also add a hint of crunch. It’s the quintessential winter treat – a warm, sprightly mélange of flavours and textures.
Mete Peyaaj Koli (Goat liver stir-fried with onion stalks/scapes)
250 g goat liver or mete
2 cups peyaaj koli / onion stalks cut into 1.5” pieces
4 tbsp onions, coarsely ground
1/2 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp black pepper powder freshly ground
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp lemon juice
4 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste
1. Marinate the liver with 1 tablespoon of ground onion, garlic paste, ginger paste, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon black pepper powder, ½ tbsp mustard oil, a little salt and a pinch of turmeric powder. Keep aside for an hour.
2. Heat the remaining mustard oil to the pan. Once it reaches smoking point toss in the shallots and peppercorns. Fry until the shallots turn a shade of light brown.
3. Add the remaining coarsely ground onion and continue frying until the raw smell of onions is gone.
4. Tip in the onion stalks and sprinkle the remaining black pepper powder, turmeric powder and salt.
5. Cook over a medium flame for 5-7 minutes until the water released by the stalks has almost dried up.
6. Now add the marinated mutton liver along with the marinade and continue cooking until the liver changes colour to just a hint of an opaque brown. If the masala seems too dry or spices begin to char, feel free to add a splash of water.
7. Cook for another 2-3 minutes. You would not want to overcook the liver.
8. Adjust seasoning. Finish with a sprinkle of black pepper or a squeeze of lime if you like.
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Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer