A friend leaving for a long overseas sojourn remarked that she ate tindas every day before her departure: “It’s the taste of Indian summer I miss the most. I dream of tindas.” To which her stay-at-home sibling exclaimed in mock irritation, “Some people are so lucky in the things they dream of!” Behind this badinage lies a long tradition of making fun of simple, summer vegetables of the squashy gourd family: the tinda, or apple gourd, also known as the Indian baby pumpkin; lauki (bottle gourd); or kaddu, the orange pumpkin also called petha. In Punjabi a nitwit or simple-minded fellow is sometimes dismissed as a tinda or kaddu, as in “Oi, bilkul kaddu ai.”
The constant reviling of these humble but healthy seasonal offerings comes from the fact that they are neither rare nor exotic; relatively inexpensive, often tasteless, and all too easy to cook, making many children hate them as food foisted down their gullets. They are the Indian equivalent of boiled cabbage or spinach in the West, the mainstay of boarding school horrors or austerity drives at home. The same parents who force them upon their children (“Eat it up! It’s good for you!”) wouldn’t dream of serving tinda or kaddu at a dinner party.
Or wouldn’t they? The late cultural czarina Pupul Jayakar was a person of exceptional taste, her home a model of Gujarati simplicity seamlessly melding into sophisticated elegance. She also kept a fine table. What looked like a chilled, light and airy vichyssoise appeared in delicate Japanese bowls on a hot summer’s evening. Guests discreetly began a guessing game. Leeks? Potatoes? Cream? Mrs Jayakar let everyone have their say before triumphantly announcing: “It’s tinda!” She then gave the three-step recipe, so quick and easy that it has remained a summer staple of our household ever since.
The Net is overflowing with innovative solutions to jazz up plain, fresh, everyday produce. But other traditional vegetables have also suffered a loss of reputation in middle-class homes. Three or four casualties that come to mind are karela (bitter gourd) kathal (jackfruit), kamal kakri (lotus root) and jimikand (Indian yam). People can’t be bothered to look for them, let alone cook them in their numerous variations. The resistance to these – for reasons opposite to the mundane tinda, lauki and tori – arises from their distinctive tastes, complex textures and difficult preparation.
In his massive, comprehensive tome India Cookbook (Phaidon, 2010), with over 1,000 recipes in their staggering regional versions, the gastronome and culinary scholar Pushpesh Pant (who had a distinguished parallel career as a professor of international relations) lists the result of several years of painstaking research. Leafing through this treasure trove, I am reminded of the TV cook Madhur Jaffrey posing a simple question to students at blind food tastings: “Does memory have taste?” If a cultivated ear can recognise the strains of Raga Malkauns or a Bach concerto, and our olfactory senses differentiate between asafoetida and the attar of roses, then what is the well-versed palate’s power of recall? Professor Pant’s book is a cornucopia of many forgotten Indian tastes.
When I was growing up, there was no baby corn, asparagus or pak choi around. Red and yellow bell peppers were unknown; there was only the modest green Simla mirch. I didn’t know what an artichoke or avocado looked like, had no idea of their taste. Though choice was limited, recipes in homes, not always simple, were inventive, laboured over and, therefore, memorable. Little was wasted. Vegetable peel, tree leaves and flowers were transformed into delicious dishes — neem leaves and banana flowers in Bengal, lauki and karela shavings in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, and in Punjab, cauliflower stalks and kachnar buds of the flowering Bauhinia variegata are considered delicacies.
Nothing has changed more than culinary fashions in recent decades. Many of the tastes of my childhood have vanished or are borderline basket cases, facing certain extinction.