There’s a certain romance in enjoying a rustic meal in a humble rural home in India. Whether it is a simple zunka bhakar on a damp, monsoon morning near Sinhgad fort in Pune or enjoying sarson ka saag – makke ki roti topped with homemade butter on a chilly February afternoon in Ajnala, in the suburbs of Amritsar.
No matter how hard we try, we are hardly able to achieve those smoky flavours of a bhatti or the pungency of the mustard in a similar meal which is cooked in the city. No matter how perfect the recipe was, and no matter how many times I tried to improve it with fancy techniques, I was almost never able to achieve the pure flavours of these classic dishes in the city.
Then one day, I stumbled upon the reason for my not-so-perfect cooking. I was in Ajnala, in the suburbs of Amritsar for some research for Masterchef India a few years ago. While chatting with the lady of the house, I just picked up some wild mustard leaves, growing near the hinge where the cows were tied, and chewed them just like that. To my surprise those leaves were tastier than any salad or sarson ka saag that I had every tasted. Fresh, flavourful, pungent and perfect!
This was a eureka moment for me. I had always wondered why mom’s aloo-gobhi so proudly exhibited the fragrance of cauliflower while my aloo gobhi tasted like masala on a bland floret. I only realised after this incident that my mother buys cauliflower from a local, farmer’s market that sells organic or “gawthi” produce, while I buy large, beautiful looking vegetables from the supermarket.
This made me wonder whether the next generation will recognise any flavours other than garlic! We are so used to masking the blandness of our vegetables with garlic, that garlic is all we know, garlic is all we can taste. If you don’t believe me, try making a clear vegetable soup or vegetable puree and you will realise that it tastes like nothing. No distinct smell of vegetables, no pungency and no fresh flavours.
When vegetables are genetically modified or injected with growth boosters for speedy growth and bigger size they don’t always develop the flavours completely. In rural areas on the other hand, people have the space and luxury of growing their own vegetables. They also have easy access to “gawthi” or organic produce growing nearby, which is also cheaper than GMO (genetically modified) vegetables due to lower investment on growth and size boosters. Hence, when you eat a meal in a rural home or a dhaba, they taste distinctly different, fresh and pronounced in flavours other than garlic.
In a city like Mumbai, it is a challenge to buy “gawthi” produce at affordable prices, let alone grow your own vegetables. There are a few tricks and tips however, that can help grow a few vegetables at your window.
6 Ways you can Grow-Your-Own Food
- You can easily grow smaller plants like chillies, tomatoes and even bell peppers at your window garden. You can simply dry and use the leftover seeds of these vegetables before they are refrigerated. These vegetables grow easily, and also fruit quickly.
- It is a good idea to plant any type of beans in the soil before planting any other kind of vegetable. Beans make the soil fertile and nitrogen-rich, which will aid in growing other vegetables better.
- Coriander, methi and mustard among other herbs are easy to plant. The fresh herbs are ready to use in just a couple of weeks. What’s more? Most Indian households store coriander seeds, methi seeds and mustard seeds in their spice box. As long as they are not roasted, they can simply be planted on damp cotton.
- When planting beans, it is good idea to soak them overnight, then tie the soaked beans in a damp cloth until they sprout. Once they sprout, they can be planted in damp cotton or directly in soil.
- Keep a larger pot with some soil aside at your window. Throw in fruit or vegetable peels, even egg shells in this pot. The soil should remain damp. In four to six weeks, this soil and other contents can be used as manure for your vegetable plants.
- I simply bury leftover fruit and vegetable peels in my full-grown vegetable plants. This nourishes the plant with no extra effort.
There is a strange sense of satisfaction in plucking a few fresh coriander leaves and tearing them into a freshly made, piping hot bowl of dal and teaming it up with a side salad of freshly picked homegrown heirloom tomatoes. It is a feeling that can hardly be described but only experienced. If you too feel that vegetables don’t taste the same any more and have ideas to make a difference in home cooking. Do share your views in the comments below.