I have a dream. Mind you, nothing as lofty and noble as Martin Luther King’s.
But a dream, nevertheless
Of a kitchen garden. Lush with greens of every denomination, bejewelled with early morning dew. Dotted by surprises of tomatoes, bursting their plump scarlet-ness upon you every now and then. Over there, a royal court of brinjals - some long and pendulous, others short and rotund like giant eggs; some green, others purple; dangling heavily from the stems like freshly oil-massaged, soporific potentates. And over here, a monitor of lady’s fingers; admonishingly pointing their primly elegant green selves to the mud below. As if to say, look, that is where those uncouth potatoes are fattening up. In the distance, the Brassica family – radish and cauliflower and cabbage rising up in impeccable, soldierly rows. And because they are so pretty with their sunshine yellow flowers, there will be mustard plants artlessly scattered in between.
Of course the garden won’t be complete without the vines. The horizontal ones creeping tiredly along the ground because swelling on them, like the bellies of some invisible overweight garden gnomes would be the pumpkins; some pale-powdery pista, some mutli-hued like the swirls of a caliph’s turban. Then the vertical ones, clambering up with their delicate, downy tendrils that curl and cling in ways that would shame the kiss curls of a yesteryear heroine. And from which hang - like the imagination of a mad, magical bottle maker – the gourds : cucumber and ridge gourd and karela.
There will be a lemon tree or two, studded with lemons glowing like electric lights with skins so fine, they are called “kagzhi”. And there’ll be the mandatory curry leaf bushes whose leaves I will brush ever so gently as I pass by so that they release their fabulous lemony pungency for me to sniff and be transported. There will be chilli plants with wicked little stilettoes of chillies, pots of baroque-like pudina and coriander like green lace picked out in white and mauve....
I dream of meandering every morning through this garden, muttering happily to myself, planning the lunch menu as I pluck this and that and the other….
Alas, it remains a dream.
Oh, it’s not that I haven’t managed to get pots of pudina going (even a baby can grow these – just stick a cutting into a soil and watch), a few patches of coriander, a chilli plant or two. I‘ve had occasional triumphs with a brinjal here and a methi there. I’ve even grown sweet potato and yam and one year – pigeon pea (tuar dal)!. But they’ve all been sporadic, patchy efforts, nothing that can come anywhere close to being called a kitchen garden.
Nevertheless I persevere, clinging on to that dream. I buy books and CD’s on organic vegetable farming. I assiduously trawl the Net for expert tips and advice. I read longingly about other people’s successes and gaze jealously at their pictures of perfectly formed cauliflowers and tomatoes that must surely be fake. And every now and then, making a fresh batch of resolutions and swearing to spend less time on Twitter, I sow seeds. Some that I get from the vegetables used for that day’s lunch, others that I buy.
And so, a few months ago, when I was thus once again seized and taunted by this vision, I got myself a whole new batch of assorted seeds. French beans, brinjal, tomato, spinach, ridge gourd, even onions. But life, as always, had other plans. The weather got sickeningly hot and dry and we decided to get the house renovated; to have it ready before the monsoons struck. By the time that was done, all that was left of my beautiful batch of seeds was one little soggy, rotting bag of dill seeds.
Now before I continue, let me tell you a bit about dill. It’s a gorgeous, fragrant green that doubles up both as vegetable (the leaves) and spice (the seeds). In India it is known variously as “suwa” (Hindi), saddakuppai (Tamil) and “sappsige” (Kannada). (Dill is a particular favourite with South Indian cooks, added to all kinds of dishes including sambar and vadas.) Cousin to jeera and coriander, dill was used by the ancient Greeks as a “sleeping pill”. In fact, the name “dill” probably originates from the Old Norse dilla or dylla which means to “calm”, “soothe”. In Ayurveda, it’s an old friend is used to treat flatulence, as mouth freshener, even to improve lactation.Dill also figures as the star ingredient in a modern day medicine - gripe water! Last but not the least, the gorgeous little umbrellas of sunshine-coloured lace that are dill flowers are butterfly magnets!
So, back to my story. There I was, cleaning up post-renovation debris and contemplating this sorry, soggy bag of dill seeds and was just about to chuck it with the rest of garbage when I remembered my seed rule. Never throw away seeds; instead scatter them in the mud because who knows what will happen. And right I was because before long, I had a beautiful little patch of baby dill struggling bravely up from the soil – delicate, fern-like plants with leaves looked like deep green feathers! And every morning, I ‘d visit them; spraying them gently with water and cooing encouraging things to them before getting on with the business of the day.
A few days ago, lunch was being planned and we had decided on spartan fare - plain tuar dal with carrot and methi leaves bhaji. But the greens man let us down. So no methi. Then I remembered dill-patch and asked my mum if we could substitute methi with dill. She wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea and instead reminded me of a recipe that used to get regularly made in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen – dill pakoras….
And so, here they are. You may be thinking – pakora is a pakora is a pakora. So what’s so special about these. Well, it’s the dill that makes it so special. Sensory things are very hard to describe and perhaps taste is one of the hardest, but I’ll try. Many distinctive flavours in foods are also very strong ones. Not so in the case of dill. It’s a very subtle but very unmistakable presence – I’d say it’s the lovechild of lemon and pepper….
So, for every 15 pakoras, you’d need
A large cup of besan
1/3 cup of dill leaves washed and chopped very fine
1 small onion chopped fine
2-3 green chillies, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander
A pinch of hing
Salt to taste (about 3/4 tsp)
(You can reduce or increase each one of these ingredients according to your individual preference)
Mix all the ingredients well with a little water to form a thick batter. (Make sure the batter isn’t runny otherwise the pakoras will “drink” up oil like sponges when you fry them.)
Heat oil in a kadai. When it is very hot, drop spoonfuls of the batter into the oil.Fry till golden brown.
I have written this for two reasons. First because it’s always very gratifying to share food – in any which way. hare this simple but delicious food with you. Second because I hope it will motivate me one day to make my dream come true….