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.

| Winter 2013-2014

  • 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
  • Snake gourds are mild and soft on the inside, similar to a Chinese luffa gourd or somewhat like zucchini.
    Photo courtesy fotolia/Swapan
  • Tulasi, also known as holy basil, is a very important plant in the Hindu culture.
    Photo courtesy fotolia/Swapan

  • Photo courtesy fotolia/Bert Folsom

  • Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray

  • Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray

  • Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray

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, 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.



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