Last week, in the midst of deadlines, music lessons, housework and doggy duties, I had this sudden urge to make the Punjabi gaajar gobhi shalgam achaar (carrot, cauliflower and turnip pickle). I had carrots and cauliflower, but no turnip. Not one of the cluster of vegetable shops near my home had turnip. They were all stocked up with knol kohl (kohlrabi), and small tender ones at that. So I decided to use knol kohl instead of turnip in the pickle, and it turned out well.
While it looks like turnip, kohlrabi is a bulbous stem and not a root, from the cabbage family. This rare encounter with kohlrabi made me wonder why I hardly buy, or cook, with this vegetable.
A casual question on Twitter about what all you can do with kohlrabi got an avalanche of responses. While a few expressed their dislike for it, passionate tweets from the Kashmiris stood out. Prateek Sadhu, chef and founder of the Masque restaurant in Mumbai, wrote to me that monje/monjji (as kohlrabi is called in Kashmiri) is the lifeline of Kashmiris. From pickles to a plain stew with hing (asafoetida), or with lamb, it is one of his favourite ingredients. Later, he also told me monje is a daily staple in Kashmiri homes; and in season, monje achaar is a delicacy. The other two favourites of Sadhu and his mother are monje in combination with fish as well as tripe. His mum added that a preparation of monje with chilli and mustard oil called dum monje is one of the dishes made during vrat, or fasting, days.
As an extension of our Twitter conversation, I asked Kashmiri journalist Aditya Raj Kaul if all Kashmiris love kohlrabi by default. “I used to hate it as well. But once I moved out from home during college to Mumbai, I realised its value. Whenever back home in Delhi, I used to expect Ma to prepare monje haakh (kohlrabi with greens). I remember when I was in Iraq for reportage in 2014 and had to return after a frightening and hectic two weeks, Ma asked me what to prepare for meals. And I told her monje haakh and dum aloo,” he said.
The second story he shared was even more heartwarming. Kaul first went abroad, to Austria, with his parents in 1998 to visit his uncle. While walking through the farmers’ market, they found kohlrabis that were much bigger than those in India. His dad was so excited they not only cooked with it there but also brought one back home.
Landscape architect, food blogger and friend Anita Tikoo, who is my resource for home-style Kashmiri recipes, tells me monje is cooked in a number of ways, and by combining it with a variety of ingredients—meat, fish, nadru (lotus stem), potatoes, moong dal and paneer, to name a few.
A Kashmiri, @mrsolivegreen on Twitter, wrote to me that when her parents recently visited her in Uttar Pradesh, her dad had specially downloaded pictures of kohlrabi on his phone to show to vegetable vendors there so he could get his fill of his favourite vegetable. I couldn’t stop smiling.
4 medium kohlrabis with leaves
2 tbsp mustard oil
A generous pinch of asafoetida
2 green chillies, halved
1-2 dried red chillies
Half tsp salt
A pinch of baking soda
Choose tender kohlrabi, with fresh leaves. Peel the skin, cut into halves, and each half into half-inch-thick slices. Roughly chop the leaves.
In a pressure cooker, heat the mustard oil until smoking hot. Turn off the flame and stir in the asafoetida so that it does not burn. Restart the heat and add in the chopped kohlrabi pieces. Sauté for three-four minutes and then add the chopped leaves. Sauté for two-three minutes until the leaves are wilted.
Stir in the chillies, salt and one cup of water. Sprinkle baking soda and give it a stir (it helps with colour and cooks the tougher leaves well). Close the lid of the cooker and allow to come to full pressure (first whistle). Reduce flame and cook for six minutes. Release the pressure by lifting the weight with a ladle and open the lid so that the greens retain their colour. Serve hot with rice.
Monje haak is flavoured with a bit of Kashmiri ver masala (spice mix) in the end, but if you don’t have that, it is fine without it too.
KOHLRABI SALAD WITH KASHMIRI FLAVOURS
2 small kohlrabis
1 tsp lime juice
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
4-5 radish leaves, chopped
Edible flowers for garnish, optional
Quarter tsp toasted fennel seeds
2 tbsp mustard oil
Quarter tsp ginger powder (sonth)
Quarter tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
Quarter tsp fennel powder (saunf)
Quarter tsp salt
1 tbsp lime juice
Peel the kohlrabi and cut into 1cm thick slices. Cut each slice into thin juliennes. Slice the apple into 1cm-thick slices. Remove seeds and core. Julienne the slices like the kohlrabi. Toss the kohlrabi and apple juliennes in lime juice and keep aside. Wash, dry and roll the radish leaves into a cigar and slice thinly. Mix the dressing ingredients in a bowl and whisk with a fork until well combined and thick. Add the walnuts. Combine all the salad ingredients except the garnish with the dressing, tossing gently to coat well. Garnish with edible flower petals and toasted fennel seeds.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, will be out in March.