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The bounty of neighbours, from kale to biryani

You may not get to choose your neighbours but you can choose what you make of them. Try using food to do that

Kale is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. (istockphoto)
Kale is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. (istockphoto)

The kale, bok choy and baby spinach arrived at our doorstep the day after the biryani.

The biryani came not for us but for the 12-year-old, from Ishrat aunty a floor below. Not spicy, flavoured only mildly with masala and with no excessive oil, the biryani usually arrives on Eid but also every other month. It is truly unique. I say this after having paid close attention to and eaten every type of biryani over five decades.

I have listened to Hyderbadis and Lucknow-wallahs vie for top honours; Tamilians ignore everything except their short-grained, spicy Ambur style; Bhatkalis from coastal north Karnataka swear by their genre, made not with rice but vermicelli; Bengalis wax eloquent about their potato-laden version—very dodgy; but Ishrat aunty’s, I agree with the daughter, is the best.

This isn’t a paean to the biryani, however. Allow me to shift gears and discuss green vegetables.

Never satisfied with what’s in the local markets, the spouse often experiments with urban farmers and rural folk trying to reach urban markets. If there is an Instagram handle or WhatsApp announcement about an organic farm, you can bet she will try it sooner than later, which is how we now receive a box of salads and spinach every now and then. Last week, the number was shared with a friend nearby and she ordered so much that she sent some over.

We may cook, we may happen to like what we produce in our little kitchen, and we may feel great satisfaction at how a good home-cooked meal enlivens our quiet existence, but the bounty of neighbours is, nevertheless, an important part of our lives.

Only last week, someone was telling us of how impersonal life had become in India’s big cities, how busy schedules and online entertainment had caused us to withdraw into our shells and be ignorant of neighbours.

I could not identify with this rumination because this is not our experience. We include among our neighbours not just those in our building but those who live on nearby streets and the next neighbourhood. Our prime mode of contact is food—a sudden WhatsApp, an unexpected knock on the door or a phone call.

Apart from the fact that it is always nice to be surprised, the variety of food that lands up at our doorstep keeps us on our toes—in the case of raw ingredients—or ensures we keep space in the fridge for unexpected bounty.

Cooked food, like the biryani I mentioned, is easily handled. But I especially like the challenge that comes with raw ingredients—exotic spice, raw meat or unfamiliar vegetable.

Since vegetables had flooded in, courtesy the good neighbour, it was only fair that I bring my limited culinary talents to bear. I was reasonably unfamiliar with kale, a green vegetable I used to eat when in the US, especially in California, where it is regarded as an avant-garde spinach and superfood.

Kale is indeed one of the most nutritious foods around, packed with vitamins, antioxidants and other good things, beneficial to diabetics and anyone invested in staying healthy. A cautionary note: Like everything else, too much is too much of a good thing. An excessive amount of kale, some scientists say, can interfere with thyroid functions.

But since kale is hard to get and we are not about to stuff ourselves with it, go ahead and use it when it’s available. The bake I made was inspired by one of those Instagrammers (@cookingwithplants) I had never heard of. I was most attracted to this approach because the bake was suffused in a creamy sauce—with no cream, butter or fat used.

I like using baby spinach because it isn’t as bitter as regular Indian spinach can be, although here in Karnataka we have varieties of soppu, or spinach, my favourite being dantina soppu, or amaranth. For that reason, baby spinach is also good in salads, also being more tender and sweet.

The bake that emerged was a good counterpoint to the biryani. If the weekend was spent with rice and meat, it was good to begin the week with greens and sweet potato, heavier to lighter, secondary food to primary food.

So, I give thanks for having the neighbours we do, neighbours who give us food today, but, more importantly, give us memories to cherish for tomorrow. The writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.” That is all very well but what we make of our neighbours is not up to God.

Sweet potato, carrot, baby spinach and kale bake
Serves 4

The dish before going into the oven. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
The dish before going into the oven. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

250g sweet potato, cut into thin slices
A handful of kale + baby spinach washed and chopped
1 large carrot, thinly sliced into rounds
Half tsp fresh rosemary
Whip the following in a blender for a minute
Half cup milk, room temperature
1 cup vegetable stock or soup
Half tbsp miso paste (optional, because this may be hard to get)
Half tbsp tahini (optional, for the same reason as above)
7-8 almonds, blanched and peeled
1 tbsp walnuts
4-5 cashews
6-7 cloves of garlic
Half tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp fresh pepper powder
Salt to taste

Preheat a greased oven-proof dish. Mix the sweet potatoes and carrots and use them for the bottom layer. Sprinkle with rosemary. Heap and spread the kale and spinach over the potatoes and carrots. Pour the blended mixture all over the kale. Bake at 175 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes and carrots are cooked.

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 on Twitter. 

Also read | Food that lets you keep the party at home

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