A Taste of India

The foundation of Indian cooking need only be as far away as your backyard garden; from tulasi and turmeric to fenugreek and bitter melon.

fenugreek seeds

Fenugreek is versatile and is used fresh like a vegetable, dried like an herb, and is also grown for the seeds to use as a spice.

Photo courtesy fotolia/Corinna Gissemann

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My pregnant friend Monica has had her tenth dinner of Indian food in the past couple of weeks. I bet she is craving the comfort food of her childhood. Her father, from the old Madras area in India apparently makes a killer sambar and masala dosa. I had similar cravings when I was pregnant, and my younger daughter was born 3 weeks early with a lusty cry and an appetite for vindaloo. With the wide range of aromatic herbs and spices found in Indian food, it’s no wonder Monica and I are only a couple of many Indian cuisine aficionados regularly seeking that wonderful alchemy of spicy, tangy, and aromatic flavors. 

Most Indian restaurants in America serve Punjabi cuisine, characterized by the onion, garlic, and ginger flavors, with the decadent richness of ghee and cream in many dishes. Tandoori-cooked foods are an American mainstay and can be found in most neighborhood Indian restaurants. However, the very large country of India is comprised of many ethnic groups, cultures, and religions, giving rise to a great diversity in what is Indian cuisine. For example, garam masala is known as an Indian spice mixture made up of some combination of coriander, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, and other dried herbs and spices. However, each culinary region has its own distinctive garam masala blend. 

Just as diverse is India’s landmass. There are coastal regions and deserts, hot and humid cities and cooler climates. The cuisines and crops of India vary just as widely. Fortunately, many vegetables called for in the best Indian recipes are commonly found in North America. To gain a broader taste of India, gardeners need only acquire the seed to try the herbs and vegetables that are more difficult to find, even in international grocery stores. The herbs and vegetables below are several suggestions for great crops to try. They are wonderful and easy to use not only in traditional Indian cooking, but also as a substitute for similar Western herbs and vegetables. 

Snake Gourd

At first glance, the aptly named snake gourd can be spotted as if flash frozen while slithering across the garden floor, or hanging off a trellis in a serpentine pose. The snake gourd plant produces long, often curved fruits that are green with thin white stripes along their lengths. This unusual and very ornamental tropical gourd also features pretty, frilly, white flowers that only bloom at night. Prolific and easy to grow, ready-to-harvest snake gourds are about 10 to 20 inches long but can actually grow to many feet long! Snake gourds are mild and soft on the inside, similar to a Chinese luffa gourd or somewhat like a zucchini. When harvested young, the fruits are delicious and can be used any way you would use a mild summer squash. Having a cooling effect, Ayurvedic cooks love using snake gourds in healthy dinners.

Snake gourd plants thrive in gardens with a long, warm season. Those with a short season should start seeds indoors in early spring, but otherwise, seeds can be started directly in the garden. Seeds have a thick seed coat, so to grow, nick the seed coat first and then provide a little heat to speed germination. Once the weather warms, this plant will climb up a strong support and will grow prolifically. Keep on top of the harvesting and remember to pick the fruits when young for best taste. 

Tulasi

Tulasi, also known as sacred or holy basil, is an important plant in Hindu culture. Traditionally, these aromatic shrubs are situated right in the center of Hindu family courtyards. Today, most families still have a plant in the ground or grown in special containers. During religious ceremonies, tulasi represents the goddess Lakshmi, and leaves are offered at the feet of the God Vishnu. Thus symbolically, tulasi represents the offering of love.

Tulasi is a sacred plant and not typically used for eating. In fact, the culinary use of meat and tulasi together is considered offensive. In other cultures though, tulasi is eaten and enjoyed for its aromatic herbal fragrance and slightly spicy bite. In Thai cuisine, this plant is called by its common name holy basil and is an important ingredient in the well-known dish “drunken noodles.”

Tulasi also has many medicinal properties and is used in Ayurvedic medicine. The leaves can be made into a tea and used to treat colds, headaches, and upset stomachs. In warmer climates, tulasi is grown as a perennial, but in milder climates, it may need to be treated as an annual. Start seeds indoors in the early spring and transplant into the garden when the soil warms. Harvest leaves as needed. Because tulasi wilts quickly and does not store well, harvest just before using. 

Tinda

Known in India as tinda or Indian round gourd, this pale green gourd is also known as Indian baby pumpkin or apple gourd (it should not be confused with the hard gourd often called “apple gourd” that resembles large apples used for crafts when dry). These little Indian gourds look much like a small, slightly flattened apple or baby pumpkin. And as evidence that cultures around the world are much more similar than we think, “tinda” is a common nickname in India, just as an American parent might lovingly call her child “pumpkin.”

Tinda is coveted for its tender texture and mild, slightly nutty flavor.  These little gourds are used in Northern parts of India and Pakistan and are either cut in pieces and thrown in curries, or cooked with a more elegant preparation. Experienced home cooks will cut an X partway through the gourd, creating a little pocket to stuff with a spice mixture or a vegetable and chili pepper mixture. The gourds are then sautéed, covered with a lid to cook till tender on the inside, and then possibly loaded with other ingredients like tomatoes, shallots, and cilantro. The finished product is coated with a slightly crusty herb and spice-blackened outside, and a soft, spicy inside. Tinda gourds grow prolifically on 4-foot-tall vines. Start seeds indoors in early spring and transplant to a sunny spot with a trellis to climb. Harvest at the immature stage, when fruits look like small, flattened, green apples.

Bitter Melon

Indian bitter melon is a grotesquely beautiful and unique fruit that has been touted to have numerous medicinal benefits. It is practically anti-everything-bad for you. It is a productive vine without many pests and is versatile in the kitchen. The only hurdle to get over with bitter melon is the fact that the fruit is unequivocally bitter. While first-timers may need to brace themselves, bitter melon has a cooling, almost refreshing bitter taste that can easily be acquired.

There are two main types of bitter melon. While the Chinese bitter melon is often longer with smoothed out bumps, the Indian bitter melon is intensely warty, shorter, and with pointed ends. To prepare, the fruits are cut lengthwise. The pithy insides and seeds are scooped out with a spoon. Then, each half is cut into c-shaped segments. Bitter melon can also be stuffed and then cooked in oil. Cooks will sometimes salt the pieces first, removing some of the bitterness, but this is not a required or always desired step. In Indian cuisine, bitter melon is often cooked in a curry. In one popular dish, it is cooked with potatoes and spices and served with yogurt to tame the bitterness.

Bitter melon is best started indoors in spring and transplanted outdoors when the soil warms. The vine will quickly climb up and over a trellis or arbor throughout the summer.  Harvest bitter melon while still green or just beginning to yellow. As the fruits mature, the outside will become more bitter and inedible, while the insides will turn red, mucilaginous, and sweet. Some salad recipes will call for the ripe red insides of bitter melons to be used raw. 

Pigeon Peas

Pigeon peas have been cultivated for over 3,500 years in India. Having made their way to Africa and the Caribbean over time, these pretty protein-packed beans are eaten in most of the world, including in the southern states in America. In South India, pigeon peas are commonly featured in sambar, a traditional dish in which the beans are cooked down with spices until soft. Because these beans require a slow-cooking process, the softened beans and cooking water or broth help to create a thick savory soup or stew.

Pigeon peas are also a gardener’s favorite because they are nitrogen-fixing plants, and easy to grow. Though they self-seed once established, they’re best grown as an annual. Sow seeds directly in the garden once the soil warms. Pigeon peas may be slow to germinate and slow to start growing, but plants will take off after a few weeks. To harvest, use like green peas or allow beans to dry on the plant for use as dried beans. 

Fenugreek

Known in many parts of India as methi, fenugreek is widely grown in India. The herb gives a quick curry resemblance to many dishes and has a strong, pleasantly bitter and slighty sweet aroma. Fenugreek has a long medicinal history and has been shown to offer health benefits to people with diabetes. It is also a main ingredient in many “mother’s teas,” as it is known to increase the production of breast milk in nursing mothers. Fenugreek is versatile and is used fresh like a vegetable, dried like an herb, and is also grown for the seeds to use as a spice. When harvested for fresh eating, fenugreek leaves are used in salads or added to soups and dals to pack an aromatic punch. Because fenugreek leaves are typically pricey, many recipes that call for fenugreek will suggest substituting a smaller amount of fenugreek and bulking the greens up with spinach. Dried, fenugreek leaves are strong in flavor and wonderful in meat dishes.

Fenugreek seeds grow in long, thin pods, and the squarish pellets are often roasted first and can then be ground into a powder if desired.  Fenugreek powder or seeds are a key ingredient in many pickles and vegetable dishes. To use seeds whole, heat some oil in a pan and throw them in for a few seconds until fragrant just before adding vegetables and remaining ingredients. Fenugreek is grown as an annual. To grow, sow seeds about ¼-inch deep directly in the garden in spring. Fenugreek thrives in full sun and fertile soil. Harvest for fresh leaves when still young. Fenugreek wilts quickly so use promptly. For seeds, harvest seedpods in early to mid-autumn and then allow seeds to fully dry out. 

Turmeric

Turmeric is an herbaceous tropical perennial grown for its rhizome. Turmeric plays an important role in the Indian culture and is used in many different ceremonies. As an example, the deity Ganesha, recognized with the head of an elephant, is known as the “remover of obstacles” and is invoked at the beginning of most ceremonies. During these ceremonies, turmeric is mixed with water and shaped into a form that represents Ganesha.

Turmeric has an important place in the culinary realm as well. The slightly sweet, peppery and almost mustard-like flavor contributes to the combination of spices that give Indian food that exotic taste. Turmeric pairs well with ginger, its relative, as well as other spices and curries. Recently, research has indicated numerous health benefits as well. Turmeric has been found to have a synergistic cancer-preventative effect when added to cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. Freshly grated turmeric has a richer flavor than the powdered version available at most supermarkets and should be added towards the end of the cooking time to keep the flavor vibrant. If there is more harvested than can be used, the root can be cut into chunks and frozen until needed. Be careful, though, as the root bleeds a deep yellow color that will stain fingers and cutting boards. It’s no wonder turmeric has been used as a dye for brightly colored saris as well as robes for Buddhist monks. 

To grow turmeric in the warmer zones, plant rhizomes in the garden in late fall about 2 inches deep with buds or knots facing up. In colder zones, start plant indoors in 12-inch container or larger anytime and allow to bask in a sunny room. Turmeric foliage is very attractive and when grown in a pot makes a lovely container plant. Either way, in about 8 to 10 months, foliage will begin to die back. Dig rhizomes up to use, saving a piece of two for replanting. 

During my most recent outing to my local Indian grocer, the owner told me that it only takes three ingredients to form the foundation of any Indian dish – onion, garlic, and garam masala. From there, it’s just a matter of taste whether the cook wants to heat things up with other chilies and spices. With the range of vegetables that are as common as the tomato or as exotic as the snake gourd, a taste of India need only be as far away as your backyard garden.

Enjoy this Indian Dish: Snake Gourd and Bitter Melon Stir Fry Recipe


Wendy Kiang-Spray is a gardener, cook, and high-school counselor. She blogs at www.GreenishThumb.net and is working on her first book on cooking with Asian vegetables.