I am cooking banana flower today. It is a good-looking if shy vegetable, hiding its offerings under pink, smooth skin. Peeling a banana flower requires patience and if you are lucky, community. Joint families are best for this vegetable because it invites sitting around and gossiping. Women in the proverbial ancestral home will sit on the ground in a circle and painstakingly remove the kallan or stigma along with the pink outer skin. The next step is to dunk it into a vat of buttermilk. Otherwise, it will turn black. The same rule applies to brinjal, except that you dunk it in salt water.
Banana flowers are more accepting than a brinjal. You can chop them up in a haphazard way and they won’t bruise like the tender green brinjal. In time-constrained homes, the woman will peel the banana flower the previous night and keep it dunked in buttermilk overnight. This gives the dish a pleasing sour-salty-tangy taste.
The banana flower does not do well with speed, which is why so few restaurants serve it. It is, in that sense, a luxury. To eat it, you have to be invited to an Indian home of a certain ilk. Not the home that is used to throwing parties of the “show-offy” kind, pardon the expression; but a home that is authentic and unselfconscious. You too have to be a certain type of guest in order for a hostess to serve you the banana flower. You have to be family—or almost family; or a friend who can walk in unannounced. In such situations, particularly if it is lunchtime, you may be lucky enough to eat hot rice with ghee; or adal-bhath served with a few lightly sautéedsatvik (healthy) vegetables. This is home food of the best kind. Steamed rice, fragrant goldenghee, piping hot lemon-rasam, and one or two curries.
South Indians cook the banana flower (vazhai poo) as a poriyal (dry curry), kootu (with lentils as a gravy) and a paruppu usili (with ground lentils). Bengalis stuff the banana flower into a potato patty-type thing and deep-fry it asmochar chop. Coastal cuisines make a vada out of it. I have eaten this vada at the Taj group’s masala restaurants, at Karavalli, and at the ITC’s Dakshin restaurant. But I prefer the home-cooked version. A simpler recipe suits this rather retiring vegetable. Restaurants gravitate to two other kinds of vegetables: those that are flamboyant and those that are accepting of torture.
Take the potato. You can fry it, mash it, whip it, sauté it, scramble it, mix it with just about anything, and it will accept all that you dole out with the patience of an earth-mother. No wonder restaurants love this vegetable. The cauliflower is a good-looking vegetable that does well when you sauté it with tomatoes or with potatoes; or shroud it as a gobi-manchurian. The asparagus is a drama queen that demands pride of place in the centre of the plate with only a few drops of contrasting emulsion, the better to highlight its looks and taste. Mushrooms too demand a tart to rest their butts in; either that or they will allow themselves to be whipped into a foam—no middle ground for these masochists. The carrot is too good-looking for its own good, which is why cooks hate it. You can cut it into strips and serve it as a crudité, or you can julienne it for stir-fries, or blend it into soups. But it becomes sweet when cooked, which is a monkey-wrench for those who want a savoury taste in their vegetable dishes.
We Indians have chosen the path of least resistance with respect to this determined vegetable: We make a halwa out of it; and it is arguably the only vegetable that masquerades as a sweet; at least the only one with any provenance. Nowadays, people make halwa out of pumpkin and other nouveau vegetables but they are at best poor approximations, if not outright shams. The carrot, like other brightly coloured vegetables, ought to be handled with care, because it is mercurial and can blow hot, blow cold, depending on when it was picked.
The beetroot, its cousin, is similar. Russians use the beetroot in their hearty borscht, but they douse it with cream to curb the beet. In India, we make cutlets out of it, but mostly we are at a loss in terms of how to handle this volatile vegetable. You can make salads, thoren (Malayali curries) with coconut, and even sambhar with the beetroot, but somehow the cook is left feeling that he hasn’t quite got it right; that he hasn’t quite figured out how to handle this vegetable. The beetroot has the last laugh; or smirk, as if it were saying, “You can bend me but you will never triumph.”
The banana flower, along with yams, bitter gourd, cluster beans and certain gourds, are all native Indian vegetables—not “English vegetables”. They all share one characteristic: They aren’t flamboyant. This is a problem because they require doctoring—unless you happen to be in the satvik frame of mind that appreciates the simplicity of these vegetables. In my house, we do doctor the banana flower into aparuppu usili (lentil mixture). For an usili, you have to grind soaked chana dal (or tuvar dal), green or red chilli, salt and asafoetida (hing). That’s it. You coarsely grind this mixture, then steam it till it is cooked. Finally, you separate the mixture with your hands so that it crumbles (this is what usili means). You mix the crumbled lentil mixture with vegetables such as beans, cabbage and banana flower. There you have it: vazhai poo paruppu usili, home style.
Shoba Narayan’s favourite banana flower dish is the Maharashtrian version with Goda masala, jaggery and tamarind: kelphulachi bhaji. She is waiting to be invited to a Maharashtrian home so she can try the authentic version of this dish.
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