I do not know when the drumstick tree flowers, because I seldom get to see the tree, unless Susan Visvanathan brings me some fruit from JNU or I pay a visit. However, I have learnt that its botanical name is Moringa oleifera, and that sometimes, it can have two flowering seasons in a year. Friends and vegetable vendors bring me its flowers and fruit, so I retain the pleasure of savouring them often enough.
In the hot summers of my-growing-up-years, we travelled to Tamil Nadu. There was always a Murungai (maram) tree in someone's backyard, or growing in the back lawns of quarters in suburban government colonies. Summer months in May and June were spent foraging for pods on the upper branches of trees at least fifteen feet tall. This involved getting on to balcony parapets and leaning precariously to grasp one leafy branched arm, while divesting its stem of , knobbly-jointed long-finger-like pods. We called the green pods murungakkai (vegetable of the murungai ) . This tree is indigenous to India, and a claim can be staked for southern parts of India being the earliest home of the Moringa oleifera. No marks for noticing that murungai(local Tamil name) and Moringa(the botanical name) sound similar!!
Each murungakkai was cut into two inch sections and cooked with pigeon pea lentils to give us an exquisitely flavoured sambar. Grandmothers, aunts and mothers also cut up murungakkai and cooked it in sour tamarind, to give us vetthalkozambu, a thick sour stew made with tiny whole onions (kutti vengayam) and drumstick pieces and bengal gram dal, transforming the eating of rice into an exotic feast. Dry roasted papad and roasted potatoes and curd rounded out the meal which was usually the precursor to a more elaborate feast in the offing. Vettalkozambu, in any case, was consumed in small quantities and had a longer shelf life, often turning up the next day as a sauce accompaniment to sooji and rice upmas or providing the pickle alternative in its tango with curd rice.
The delight of saving up drumstick sections from sambaar and vettalkozambu is a cultural memory for legions of eaters who stockpiled them on their plates at mealtimes and savoured them; biting into the juicy sections and extracting the flesh of the drumstick and its plump seed from the inedible section of the pod. The drumstick eating saga didn't stop at this.
The thin outer pod is chewed into shreds, in the same way as sugarcane sections are. Unless this is done, food satiation levels seldom reach requisite plateaus of pleasure. Tamarind pulp, infused into the water while cooking drumsticks for sambaar and vettalkozambu, is the contributory factor. At the end of the meal, the largest stockpile of well chewed drumstick sections on the plate defined the victor. This was not altogether a joyous moment for all those with smaller debris on their plate. They left the food table dourly, puzzled as to why the victor (who clearly was allotted more sections) was favored.
Drumstick leaves were added to adais ( lentil based dosas) and were cooked along with moong dal as a dry leaf and lentil vegetable. They make for delicious paranthas and pooris and do equally well when batter fried into bajjis. My friend Benu Mohan Lal swears by them as the ultimate in flavor when added to kadi pakoris. The drumstick was also cooked with pigeon pea lentils, ( arhar dal) coconut, red chillies and ground zeera and could be relished along with rice or chappatis, after a mustard seed and karipatta chaunk.s
Living at New Delhi has introduced me to drumstick flower bharta. I usually make this around January, since the flowers surface in local markets around that time. The recipe is from my neighbour, Rita Bajaj who has a tree growing on her Soami Nagar lawn and a refrigerator abundantly stocked with frozen flowers and pods. For the bharta, the flowers need to be boiled in salted water for ten minutes . The water is drained. In a pan, onions, tomatoes and garlic are added to a little oil and cooked into a thick paste. Next peas and cooked drumstick flowers are added along with dhania powder, zeera powder and red chilli powder. When fully cooked. check for salt and spices, garnish with a dollop of curd and chopped dhania leaves and then take off the fire. if the tomatoes are not tart enough, a little amchur ( green mango powder)helps.
Of late, dealing with a generation that instagrams food in lieu of art and accepts smooth purees a la masterchef as de rigueur, the tearing and chewing of drumstick sections with the help of fisty fingers and teeth , has joined the rank and file of eating techniques that are infra-dig at the dining table. So, when the drumstick is not tender enough to be cooked whole, I slit the drumstick, open it out into a flat strip and use a heavy spoon to strip it off the flesh. The shell I snip into smaller pieces and boil put water to create vegetable stock. The flesh makes a nice aloo, onion tomato vegetable, popular in North India with jeera tadka to which I add some ground mustard seeds( borrowed from recipes from Pashchim Banga, that takes the dish to a whole new level.
Left to myself, I would put in sections of whole drumstick, but given the fact that this is now a WHO approved superfood with an astonishing array of nutrients, ( every article on drumsticks on the internet provides celebratory details) seeing that it is frequently consumed remains the greater priority.
So, on days when I'm humoring the people I cook for, I make a drum stick soup by adding the drumstick water stock to the flesh of one drumstick, a fistful of drumstick leaves , one tiny onion and some crushed garlic that has been sauteed in a little butter or ghee. Garnish this with lemon juice and pepper after bringing to a boil and the soup is ready for consumption.
However, there is no substitute for the eating solace that comes from extracting pulp from cooked drumsticks with fingers and teeth and slowly chewing small sections into cud. Some day, soon enough, I plan to go back to cooking with whole sections all over again.