On 2 September, my father would have been 89. He passed on in January, leaving, as you might imagine, a big void in the family. A former police officer who believed in duty, honour, country, family and ambition—not in that order—he was also a big advocate of good food and hospitality.
When I was a boy, house guests and dinner guests were common, food was never in short supply, and my mother was always prepared to oversupply the dining table.
I commonly walked in with friends for lunch, and my mother never appeared fazed. In college, friends would spend holiday mornings on our driveway playing tennis-ball cricket. To deter wild swipes that would damage my father’s prized roses and crotons, the rule was that if a shot off your bat detached more than three leaves, you were out: Consequently, many of us kept leaves in our pocket to hasten dismissals, and the game was filled with loud accusations of cheating.
This unruly mob took lunch for granted because they knew our kitchen was prepared for excess. On one breezy day, an entire tandoori chicken that had been prepared disappeared into seemingly bottomless teenage stomachs. When my father returned for lunch, the chicken was history, and he settled, as I recall, for vegetables.
Unlike my mother and brother—who famously scrawled on his wall a quote he wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, “Vegetarianism is the last refuge of scoundrels”—my father was far more accommodating of vegetables. Indeed, he wanted a vegetable or two with his meal. At night, he insisted on a green vegetable, either palak (spinach) or methi (fenugreek), a habit I adopted in my 40s; the difference is that I eat them for, um, good digestion and health, while he relished them. He was strange in that way.
None of this detracted from the fact that he liked his meat and fish, especially the latter, since he was, after all, a Konkani boy from north Goa. For years, at his favourite restaurant, Sunny’s in Bengaluru, he would only order almond-encrusted fish, breaking the monotony, occasionally, with lamb ribs.
On his 89th, as his absence hung heavy over the house, we decided to observe his birthday as he would have liked it: We called his closest friends for lunch. My mother garlanded his photograph and placed before it a box of dessert, his favourite part of the meal. There were no speeches and no tears, only laughter and memories. He would, undoubtedly, have approved.
I thought it only apt to dedicate this column to my father, especially as a tribute to his love for vegetables. The timing is right because more than a few readers recently mocked my claims that I had lately done better by vegetarians. “You cook only meat, don’t you?” one woman told me, dismissing my protestations, and ignoring the fact that my wife was vegetarian and ate the food that I turned out.
I thought it best to delve into my mother’s traditional family recipes, many of them written and sent to her in a series of communications from her mother sometime in the early 1960s. I have written previously about these letters from my grandmother and her rumal vadi, a steamed cabbage cutlet of sorts. This vadi has gone through many iterations over the years. The latest one here is something my mother’s housekeeper of many years, Laxmi, evolved from the original rumal vadi, using spinach, my father’s nightly favourite. He would have approved. So did I.
Laxmi’s besan and palak vadi
1kg cabbage, grated
1 large bunch of spinach, cleaned, chopped and drained of water
1 bowl besan (chickpea flour)
1 green chilli, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp red chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
Quarter tsp cooking soda
Salt to taste
For the tempering (optional)
A pinch of asafoetida
Half tsp mustard seeds
Mix all the dry ingredients and add besan. Mix well. Do not add water as spinach and onion have their own. Add only a few drops if needed. Knead well to form a dough.
Boil water in a kadhai (wok). Oil a cooker vessel and make balls of the dough. Flatten each and place in the vessel. Place the vessel in the kadhai with boiling water. Cover the kadhai and steam the dough balls. Check after 10-15 minutes. If well cooked, a fork poked in should come out clean. When well cooked, remove and cut into squares or slices. Shallow-fry or place in air fryer. Temper with asafoetida and mustard seeds if you like.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11
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