The more I hear of invaders and a thousand years of slavery, I think how spurious these debates are in the 21st century. I mean, have you simply considered what you are eating?
I assume the potato-tomato-chilli proposition is known widely enough to not bear repeating. Unless you were living under a rock, you do know these Indian staples, without which most Indians would not consider their food desi enough, are not Indian at all, don’t you? Let’s begin then by thanking the Portuguese.
In recent times, we have seen more influences creep into our food. All those OTT weddings in Delhi’s Sainik Farms/Mehrauli/Goa/Turkey/pick your place are not complete without an Italian counter or a Thai counter. Our markets are full of vegetables and herbs we never heard of just two or three decades ago.
Food, like culture, is ever-evolving, and it is virtually impossible to whip up a meal in new India that does not have influences from beyond our borders. If I recall correctly, it was sometime in the late 1990s that we began seeing jugni in Delhi, the local corruption of the cucurbits known to the world as zucchini. I remember trawling Delhi’s INA Market to delightedly snap up basil and galangal—although not so much broccoli.
I have had a wary relationship with some of these invaders. I know they are packed with nutrition and all that, but I never could adapt to either broccoli or zucchini. It could be that I am no great fan of the gourd family, which is where the zucchini hails from, kin to the cucumber, tinda (apple gourd), parwal (pointed gourd), kumbalkai (ash gourd), surekai (bottle gourd), watermelons or whatever else you call them. They are all climbers, growing on vines, and are fruits, not vegetables.
My relationship with broccoli has been even more tense because it is so closely related to the cauliflower (both are vegetables), which I abhorred for many years. In my middle years, I am more accepting of certain vegetables that were once the enemy because I find I can adapt them to my taste.
I specifically discuss these two “English” vegetables—as many grocers still call them—this week because they are what I used this week to put together the vegetable salad that you see alongside.
Cooking is always more interesting when it becomes a challenge, and there was enough of that this week. The teenager was continuing her there’s-nothing-interesting-to-eat-in-this-house nonsense. Of course, I did think of telling her that she should jolly well eat whatever is put before her, which I frequently have, but then I thought, how can the food in my house be called boring?
The other challenge came during my visits to the neighbourhood store, which stocks particularly fresh and lush-looking broccoli and zucchini. I buy both, occasionally. The child is not averse to steamed broccoli and the wife likes zucchini when it’s roasted.
So, I bought a head of broccoli and zucchini and waited for the gears to fall together in my head. I remembered that we had a bottle of pomegranate molasses but had never used it. Could I now?
Pomegranate molasses is commonly used in Iran and the Middle East, but I had little idea what to do with it. I discovered you could make it at home—a reduction of pomegranate juice, sugar, and lemon juice. Perhaps I will someday, but that did not sound a good use of my time.
The pomegranate is a fine example of shared culinary heritage, growing as it did in ancient Persia and in India as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation. You will find references to it in the Rig Veda and the Atharvaveda. It is celebrated in Ayurveda for its medicinal properties, and the Mughals improved its stock by bringing in improved varieties from their old homelands to the west. At home, pomegranate seeds are favoured garnish for the daughter’s mosranna or curd rice, which she adores.
Given the spread of culture and history in my ingredients, I thought it best to keep it simple. I blanched the beans, steamed the broccoli and pan-fried the zucchini. When I presented the finished product to the suspicious teen, she poked around at first, then took a taste. Her eyes widened, and she ended up doing something she never had with vegetables—she took five helpings. And that, dear reader, is what can happen if you open your mind to the world beyond.
‘English’ vegetable salad with pomegranate molasses dressing
1 green zucchini, peeled, cut into long strips, and halved
One cup broccoli, small florets
10 green beans, whole
1 tbsp pomegranate seeds
1 tbsp feta, crumbled
1 tsp marjoram
Half tsp black pepper powder
A small pinch of salt
For the dressing, mix
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Juice of 1 lemon
Pan-fry the zucchini in a bit of olive oil. Steam the broccoli. Blanch the beans. Place together in a dish. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Drizzle the dressing over lightly. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, feta and marjoram.
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. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.