Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The best way to eat a snake or feast on a smart tomato

Someone needs to speak up for vegetables. Not for the trendy exotics trapped in cling film halfway between wilt and rot: lettuce in frigid clench, flaccid lobes of bok choy, chiffons of napa cabbage, crumpled and bedraggled. No, not for these. Nor for darker merchandise that lures the closet pedophage: tight tiny scalps of red cabbage and pudgy caryopsis of corn, pinprick tomatoes congealing on the stem and inchoate paws of ginger so translucent they aren’t even foetal.

Such vegetables have their place on Food Network and Instagram. On rare occasions, they may even be eaten, but not a drop of ink do I bleed for them.

I speak for the silenced millions: ignored, snubbed, slighted, sold in heaps and bundles at every corner of the city and consumed by the tonne. They bulk our meals and pass unnoticed to bulk our sewage. But not before they are murdered. Drowned in primeval sludge, doused with toxic mordants, blistered in boiling oil, bludgeoned with hate, they collapse on the plate, then slide into oblivion unfelt and untasted. We demand tenderness of vegetables—hey, how about some reciprocity?

I thought of this when a snake ambushed me yesterday.

I was late, and walking home to an empty fridge. Looking for the usual quick fix, tomatoes, I spotted that snake glistening in the rain on Balu’s shrouded vegetable cart.

Subtle as a serpent, a skein of silver, discreetly plump. Only a faint green stripe on the office suit betrayed a depth of coolth. An exceptional green, the Pantone shade of 2020. A meditative green, halfway between idleness and epiphany.

How could I walk past, uncaring?

Cotton-mouthed, milky-fanged, it looks up trustingly from my shopping bag, a snake cute as a cucurbit.

I remind myself sternly that it is chachinda, pudalankai, padwal, Trichosanthes cucumerina. It is also lunch.

I need something quick and basic. A light, delectable, one-dish meal to put a laugh in me. Comfort food, but witty with repartee.

But this isn’t a vegetable with much conversation. A flirty sauté may leave it slack-jawed. In the company of abler gourds, it will simply shrink back, abashed. To square its shoulders and be noticed, chachinda needs a lesser intelligence: moong dal.

A lentil of arrested development, clingy and infantile, moong is the perpetual doormat. Treachery is encoded in its DNA. It can singe, slither, and clump, it has a sneaky pelagic pong that can upstage the most aromatic of vegetables. But I have that in hand.

The silvery green arcs that slide off my knife have bite. Into a bowl with just enough water, and the veriest pinch of turmeric. Salt.

Now for the heartbeat of the dish. A small chunk of asafoetida. That’s right, chunk. The size of, say, two peppercorns welded together.

The chachinda craves muscle. That yellow dust in a plastic shaker won’t cut it. Gimme the resin straight up. Lithified sap, pure amber. Its ways are mysterious, but if you aspire to the pinnacle of pleasure, asafoetida will get you there.

As they take the same cooking time, in three generous bowls into the pressure cooker they go—rice, chachinda, moong.

When it comes to spice, “less is more" with all vegetables but particularly so for this young adult. That subtle green stripe packs insolence, better countered with parental openness and generosity. Avoid the snark of onion, and garlic’s sulfurous sting. Coriander is plain naïve, cumin is too critical. I’ll go with the kindly heat of pepper. And, as defence against the moong dal’s gloop, a spoonful of fresh grated coconut. Spritzed with a splash of hot water it makes a milky paste, coarse with crushed peppercorns.

Meanwhile, the garnish. That calls for papad, pappadam or appalam. A crisp wafer entirely innocent of grease.

Now the assembly.

I introduce the moong dal to its date, and as the green bits swirl into the mush of moong, inhale.

The top note is ferocious, a tiger spring of asafoetida, soon lost. As conversation unfurls, scent will permeate the simmer stealthily, kittenish, and velvet-pawed.

In goes the ground paste. It still needs a catalyst to clear its throat. A sprig of curry leaves, slid in whole, will get it humming.

The chachinda gems a gravy of molten gold, and the crushed topping of papad sinks in slowly as I ladle it over a jasmine bed of rice.

It is light and delicate on the tongue, the bits of gourd tender, the dal rich and gentle till pop goes a peppercorn. The papad unfurls like an invisible flower and slides away. The dal no longer lisps. It accompanies, not clings, perfect arm candy for the chachinda which reveals texture, even heft.

Now let me tell you something crazy. The slender green cylinder I brought home is actually a plump red tomato. In Africa, the motherlode of human wisdom, the chachinda is snake tomato. Harvested when a sunny orange, tart and sweet, it will out-tomato any tomato in sauce or stew. And in magic too, lycopene for lycopene. When it comes to Vitamin C, the chachinda is, definitely the smarter tomato.

Accompaniments? Dahi, raita or pachadi. Or my choice, Navarasa salad.

But that’s another story, for another time

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their most recent work is ‘FAT: The Body, Food And Obesity

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