When I first moved to Mumbai, a few years back, I spent an inordinate amount of time bitching about the generally abominable quality of the produce available in local markets. Tomatoes were small and flavorless; cauliflower was soft and gritty; herbs were shriveled and limp; and many of my favorite ingredients—leeks and radicchio and fennel, to name a few—were non-existent, save those produced at significant cost by a couple of specialty growers.
But when I stopped rolling my eyes and lamenting my ill fortune, I started to notice some of the stranger-looking ingredients stacked at the local veg stalls: indigenous ingredients that, as it turned out, were both cheaper and more flavorful than foreign cultivars introduced over the last few centuries. Below are a few of the most notable kinds.
Drumstick (Moringa oleifera): The long, slender pods of the moringa tree are grown and consumed all over South India, where they’re frequently used as a vegetable in curries and, most commonly, in the sour and spicy lentil preparation known as sambar. If you’ve ever eaten a typical dosa, sambar is the red soupy dish usually served alongside it. Eating cooked drumstick seeds involves scraping the pasty pulp, which has a texture similar to overcooked asparagus, from the ridged woody skin—with a spoon if you’re being polite, or your teeth if you’re doing it properly. The leaves from the moringa tree have a radishy flavor when raw, but get milder, not unlike spinach, when cooked into various dals.
Ridge gourd (Luffa acutangula): You probably know the ridge gourd as the fibrous exfoliating sponge found in showers around the world—though the blue one you got at Bed Bath & Beyond is probably made from plastic. In its younger form, the ridge gourd is cooked either as a dry or curried vegetable across India, and is particularly popular in Bengal to the east, Gujarat to the west, and across the southern states. The tough, fibrous exterior can be used to make a pickle or chutney, while the absorbent and mildly flavored white flesh of the vegetable, which becomes pretty mucilaginous when cooked down, can be prepared more or less however you like: with poshto, or white poppy seeds, in Bengal; with chickpeas and tomato-based gravies in the north; with coconut and mustard seed or as a chutney soured with tamarind down south.
Rat-tail radish (Raphanus sativus var. caudatus): Though closely related to other varieties of tuberous radish, rat-tail radishes (so called because of the distinctive shape of their edible green or purple pods), grow without taproots. Rat-tail radish pods are long and slim like haricots verts and, when eaten raw, give a pungent kick to the sinuses, similar to their cousins. My only encounter with this peculiar but wonderful ingredient has been in the cooking of Gujarati Jains, who, thanks to the very intense dietary strictures of their faith, cannot consume root vegetables. The Jain recipes I’ve encountered involve sautéing chopped radish pods lightly in oil and seasoning them with mustard, cumin, turmeric, red chili, and asafetida, a resinous extract from a plant related to fennel that, when cooked, gives off a flavor and aroma not dissimilar to roasted leeks.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum): If you’ve encountered fenugreek in the States, it has almost certainly been in the form of its small, brown, cuboid seeds, or, weirdly enough, in artificial maple syrup, for which it’s the primary flavoring agent. Here on the Subcontinent, the plant’s greens, called methi in Hindi, are used just as frequently. With a texture not unlike soft cress, and a mildly bitter flavor reminiscent of frisée, fenugreek can be served lightly wilted with garlic and chili; cooked into the thick, fried north Indian flatbreads called paratha; or battered and deep fried to make a pakora. The plant’s microgreens are also popular around Maharashtra, particularly along India’s central-western coast, where they’re grown in salty soil near the sea. Well rinsed and tossed with other greens, they make a fantastic salad, but I like them best lightly fried with mustard seeds and kokam, a sour, dried berry common along the Konkan region, which extends south from Mumbai along India’s west coast.
Elephant Ear/Arbi (Colocasia esculenta): Arbi, which is the local term for taro, turns up across the Subcontinent, used both for its starchy tuber and its large green leaves. The mild, fibrous root can be smashed and fried like a tostone or cooked into curries. The leaves are edible, too—but since they’re covered in microscopic fibers that can irritate your lips, tongue, and throat, they have to be boiled or pickled to make them safe to eat. Young rolled leaves are used for curries in the coffee-growing hills around the southern town of Coorg, while in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra they’re either coated or stuffed with chickpea flour and fried. The leaves can also be chopped and cooked with various beans or legumes to make a stew.
Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus): Jackfruits, which can grow up to eighty pounds, are oblong and covered in a spiky green skin that makes them look both reptilian and, when hanging from a tree, decidedly lethal. The unripe fruit, skinned and chopped into cubes, can be cooked and preserved as a pickle or used as a sort of meat substitute in a variety of curries. Raw jackfruit flesh can also be boiled, mashed, breaded, and fried to make fritters or cutlets. The sweet arils, which have a custardy texture and powerful aroma not unlike durian (though not nearly so strong), are usually eaten as a fresh fruit, though they can also be used to flavor the south Indian rice pudding known as payasam. The seeds found inside the ripe arils, roughly the size and shape of Brazil nuts, can be boiled and eaten like chestnuts.
Nimbu (Citrus limettioides): The most important citrus used in Indian cooking—though not the only citrus commonly available here—looks more or less like a key lime, with a thin skin and greenish-yellow color. Never larger than a golf ball (and often smaller), nimbu is both sweeter and less acidic than either lemon or lime, which probably explains its ubiquity in Indian kitchens and on Indian tables. It can be halved and preserved by pickling, squeezed fresh over salads or fish or fruit, dipped in red chili and rubbed onto the surface of freshly grilled corn—as it is on the streets of Mumbai—or juiced and mixed with water to make nimbu pani, or fresh lime soda, India’s answer to lemonade (at its best when made with both sugar and sulfuric black salt).
Curry leaf (Murraya koenigii): The name of this small, pointed green leaf comes from the Tamil word karuveppilai, which basically means “sauce leaf” (kari for sauce, pilai for leaf). Used across southern India and the western coast, curry leaves impart a citrusy and resinous aroma and flavor that’s pretty much incomparable to any other herb. Most often, the leaves are used whole and added to hot oil along with mustard and/or cumin seeds and chilies. This either happens at the beginning of a recipe, in a process known as tempering, or at the end, when the flavored oil, known as a tadka, is poured over a finished dish (a particularly delicious example of this is in South Indian curd rice, which is both extremely simple and extremely delicious on hot summer mornings). The word curry, used across India to denote any dish prepared with sauce, is derived from the Tamil word that gives this plant its name, and was adopted by the British to refer to the specific mixture of spices that people in the West think of as curry powder. That particular flavor profile has nothing to do with the flavor of curry leaves, or really with anything I’ve encountered in India at all.
Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan): Though pigeon peas are commonly used across Asia, Africa, the American South, and Puerto Rico, the plant was cultivated on the Indian peninsula for several thousand years before traveling to Southeast Asia and East Africa. Known in much of India as toor dal, pigeon peas are one of the most commonly used lentils on the Subcontinent, turning up in South Indian sambar (along with curry leaves and drumsticks); in standard dal preparations across the north and west of India; and in the popular West Indian sweet known as puran poli, a sweet bread stuffed with a mixture of pigeon peas and jaggery, an unrefined palm or cane sugar. In some parts of India, the pods of fresh pigeon peas can also be used as a vegetable.
Karela (Momordica charantia): I spent my first six months in Mumbai suspiciously eyeing the ubiquitous stacks of Indian bitter gourds around the city’s markets, assuming they were some sort of weirdly spiked cucumber. In fact, they’re more like India’s version of broccoli, the vegetable that parents force down the throats of their unwilling children. Difference being, kids are justified in hating karela: the vegetable’s bitterness makes chicory seem like a pixie stick. For adult palates accustomed to bitterness, karelas are remarkably versatile. You can stuff them and fry them (with onion and spices up north, with coconut and coriander down south); you can slice them thin, crust them with sugar, turmeric, chili, and coriander and then deep-fry them into bitter-spicy-sweet chips (a Gujarati preparation); or you can make a sour, spicy, and bitter achar (pickle) from them. My housekeeper, Julie, tells me they’re “good for your blood.” No, I don’t know what that means.