The garden of my childhood

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vikas_khanna“I am fertile like sun, winds and waters
I flow with rivers, my sacred daughters
I shine when I see my jewel-like crops
I hear the crystals of dews and drops
I become water and reflect every color
I churn prosperity in a deeper Müller
I walk with pilgrims in search of truth
I run with pride and support my youth
I am hard like stone and soft like silk
I am black like coal and white like milk
I breathe in every fragrance of spice
I am reborn with every grain of rice
I nurture every new seedling that is born
I cry for every un-lived life and mourn
I am the sparrow that sings to the farms
I welcome everyone with my open arms
I am the gentle Earth that is also air
I live in the silent whispers of the prayer
I can sacrifice it all, just to hear your voice
I give peace and love, and that’s my choice
I am India, I am Mother India
I welcome the springs with million flowers
I bow to the summer and the sun’s powers
I bathe in the warm showers of monsoon
I fall with every leaf of the autumn moon
I surrender to the harsh winter’s treason
I will continue to flourish in every season”
— HYMNS for the Mothers

Vegetarian is not a cuisine in India; it’s a way of life. It’s much more than food; it’s an expression of love. Travelling all over the world and almost living on planes, I feel that there is nothing that can be compared to the comfort of simple home-cooked vegetarian meals. Most of our rituals begin with offering vegetarian meals to the gods. My first introduction to the world of food was all vegetarian: from the simple meals cooked at the Golden Temple for the langar to the comforting aromas of my Biji’s kitchen, growing up in Amritsar was all about flavours. Little did I know that one day, these scents and tastes would become the expressions of my art.

The wake-up call was of the vegetable vendors on the street as they went about selling their fare: carrots, cauliflowers, turnips, peas, root vegetables, tomatoes, names of the freshest greens would rend the air. I grew up amidst the beauty of the seasons and the wafting aroma of fresh produce around me. Even today, as a chef, I create my menus around the seasonal produce.

My whole childhood revolved around the little garden at home. My heart would leap with joy at the first sight of a squash blooming. Mint in the summer to carrots and peas in winter, everything that grew in my ‘temple of pearls’, as I called it, more precious than anything else. This little garden was my best friend.

To this day, I still remember the compliment, “Viku de bagh di meethi shalgam bahut hi vadiya hai (Viku’s garden has the best and sweetest turnips of all).” I felt on top of the world, so much so that I even tried to grow my favourite cardamom — maybe a 100 times — before I gave up. My grandfather used to say that I had a Midas touch, that the seeds I sowed turned out to be like gold.

And then one day, I lost the garden. It was a choice I made to create more space for my Lawrence Garden Banquets and had to sacrifice my garden. It was a difficult decision to make and I lost a part of me with my garden. I still remember that time of the year when certain seeds had to be sown. I had no place to do that anymore.

Twenty-five years later, as I sat down to write about my passion — my vegetable garden — I could recall everything, traditions, rituals, myths and the beauty of soil and its soul in every form. The result is Hymns from the Soil. I recreated each dish, adding a new flavour from my vegetable garden. I chose each vegetable with care to capture its natural essence and enhance it.

Today, all kinds of fruits and vegetables are available the year round, thanks to the advances in cultivating, storing and preserving techniques. There are only a handful of produce that can be called seasonal. It lends us a greater choice of ingredients at any given time. Vegetarianism, always an integral part of the Indian cuisine, has consequently become the preferred choice of different cultures. People everywhere are looking to include more vegetables in their meals. But that also means new challenges for chefs. In addition to the repertoire of traditional classic vegetarian recipes, there is always a demand for a different and new taste.

As new as the first tomato I saw in my garden. It was a summer morning. Radhika, my sister, woke me up. “Its here!” she exclaimed. In her eyes was a twinkle. In a flash, I was out of bed and both of us ran out to the garden. There it was. A tiny, perfectly round, green tomato. For us, it was the best day of the year. The whole process of waiting and watching the seedling break through the soil was a delight in itself.

Vegilicious Subtle to fiery, traditional to experimental, vegetables lend themselves to different kinds of aromas and tastes
Vegilicious Subtle to fiery, traditional to experimental, vegetables lend themselves to different kinds of aromas and tastes

But, the crowning moments were when freshly plucked mint or perfect ripe tomatoes from the garden made their way to the family table. My chest would swell with pride as I oversaw the dinner service with my Biji, handing out second helpings, reminding everyone that the special flavour in the potato gravy and the cilantro garnish was from my vegetable garden. At the same time, when I sat down to eat, the spoon never seemed to reach my mouth. The thought that I was about to consume something I had so lovingly grown and nurtured with my own hands made it unbearable. But then the plants would bear fruit and the world would be a happy place again.

Every Sunday, I would make my way to the local market, where farmers from across Punjab would flaunt their bounty of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. Those were the days when we would eat only seasonal vegetables. Today, in a season-less world, I sometimes miss the limited choices. There is a certain joy in picking and cooking seasonal vegetables. The glistening, firm produce gives an extra boost of flavour and adds colour to the recipes.

I suppose it was my little vegetable patch that helped me realise my connect with Mother Earth, which showers us with gifts and asks for very little in return. This strong connect that I feel inspires me to cook a feast, to bring natural and combined flavours together with ingredients. At times, as I mix and match the familiar with the unfamiliar, I conjure up new taste combinations. Other times, I simply rely on the tried and tested recipes and techniques handed down over generations.

Growing up, vegetables were the centre point of dining, and buying vegetables was a big social event. The vegetable vendor — a small, thin fellow with a booming voice — would call out to the auntyjis to come and sample his latest produce. “Aunty ji aaj ki taazi gobi lo, sasti bhi hai; Gaajar shakkar se bhi meethi hai; Mattar ek baar khaoge, to roz khaoge; Jaati bahaar ki shalgam hai, le lo, achaar bana lena; Jitni sasti subzi main deta hoon, koi nahin de sakta; Saari subzi khet se chunke lata hoon (Auntyji, buy this cauliflower, it’s fresh and cheap; The carrots are sweeter than sugar; And the green peas? You eat them once, you will eat them everyday; It’s your last chance to buy these turnips, make a good pickle out of them; Nobody can sell vegetables at the price I do; I personally pick and choose them from the farms.)”

I liken the behaviour of these ladies with the vendor to a kind of reverence and by afternoon, the whole street would be filled with the aromas of these fresh vegetables wafting out of the kitchens as they were being put on the stove. The smoke of tadkas and the simmering flavours would go from subtle and understated to bold and bright.

Vegetables are the star ingredients of my book. The recipes showcase their natural sweetness and hidden flavours. These vegetables can be enjoyed both as a main course and a side dish. The recipes are flexible and most often you will be able to substitute the vegetables and herbs with your preferred choice quite easily. This book will hopefully inspire you to discover the joys of cooking and the pleasures of creating with beautiful and sensuous ingredients.

Though, admittedly, children are not exactly fans of vegetarian food. I have attempted to create new favorites that will surprise everyone, including the youngest member in the family. If you let creativity be your recipe, you will be surprised. It’s truly inspiring how even today we have our chefs visiting Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York, looking for the season’s best vegetables. As for me, all the aromas of my Biji’s kitchen follow me wherever I go.

letters@tehelka.com

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