Morning light of late autumn streams through the windows of the kitchen, one that's older than the occupants of the house, faintly illuminating the dark corners. My mother and her mother, sit on a long pidhā (low rise bench) surrounded by the day's vegetable paraphernalia, occasionally stirring pots atop the gas stoves. Modern stoves replaced earthen chulhas many years ago in this kitchen but the utensils and equipment still survive, narrating stories of the past.
K, the house-help brings water that shew drew from the well in the backyard of the house and spills a few drops as she places the kansa (bronze) vessels on the floor. A hail or two from my Aai, grandmother, who is known for her quips with K.
Half-asleep and half-awake, I've entered the kitchen, looking for my mother who is busy cleaning a plate of banana blossoms along with a bunch of greens, which have marked the forthcoming winter with their arrival. The air is fragrant with the smell of tea and resounding with the chatters of aunts who are discussing the fate of the cleaned flowers of bananas — whether they will be made into cutlets or chops or will they be mashed with a potato or simply steamed in banana leaves with oodles of mustard. K now takes over the meticulous task of cleaning the flowers from my mother who moves onto other cooking errands.
She removes the reddish purple petals and carefully separates the bunch of florets, which resemble bananas, and hands over to Aai. Aai then opens one floret at a time, removes the translucent cover and discards the style and stigma, and collects the cleaned floret in a bowl. They work for an hour — clearing flower after flower, floret after floret — until they come across florets which are too tender and the perianth or outer cover which is too tight. An aunt takes these and chops them straight. This collaboration continues until a point when the banana's whitish heart is seen.
By now mother has served breakfast, eaten hers, and takes over the home stretch of the banana flowers' cleaning. I join her to drench the cleaned florets and the sliced heart in water, and then adds them into the pressure cooker for a quick whistle or two. After this, the florets are ready to be cooked into healthy delicious dishes only to be finished in minutes!
Amidst this warm nostalgia, one thing stands out more than anything. The womenfolk of the household behind all chores of the kitchen. Banana blossoms or flowers, which are native to southeast Asia, are one of the oldest vegetables grown and eaten in India. And, like many indigenous tubers of India, banana flowers make some of the most traditional Indian recipes. Although so ancient and full of health benefits and taste, their popularity declined over the years owing to the time-consuming process of cleaning them. As Vikram Doctor rightly says in an Economic Times article, "...what we think of traditional Indian food depends on the generally undervalued labour of wives, daughters-in-law and servants", and given an option, they're willing to pick less laborious food preparations even though those are less traditional.
Banana flowers like many other indigenous foods of India got tremendous revival during COVID-19 lockdowns — a time when tattered cookbooks were sought to dig up old recipes, forgotten ingredients were delved upon and cooked reminiscing grandma's cooking, forgotten equipment like grinding stones were rescued and arm muscles were exercised. A new era heralded in the Indian food arena — regional food and practices packed with a dose of nostalgia.
While all of this is much needed and easy to glorify as culture and tradition, the underneath fact — women slogging in the kitchen — that led to these 'difficult vegetables' disappearance from our food scene mustn't be ignored. Those who do the daily cooking, irrespective of the sex of the person, are usually also responsible for other demands of maintaining the household. So, if they're unwilling to clean a banana flower or grind a chutney on a sil-bata and rather pick an ingredient or equipment that saves them time and helps them ease a bit in the kitchen, we mustn't complain, judge or attempt to preach "old is gold!"
What else if no banana flowers?
When you have time at hand and access to banana flowers, I've two easy recipes for you to try from eastern India. Mochar Ghonto from Bengal, which is much popular on social media and Kadali Bhanda Patua from Odisha, a lesser known dish. Taste wise, banana flowers are close to a well cooked red cabbage, which is much easier to handle. Although most will not agree. So, if you can't find banana flowers, you may try these recipes with red cabbage.
Bengali Mocha'r Ghonto
The Bengali ghonto and the Odia ghantau are a class of dishes that are a mélange of ingredients, a mish mash or a mixture presenting a variety of seasonal vegetables. Roasted lentils or legumes or fish/shrimp usually accompany the vegetables to add texture and proteins.
Ghontos usually don't rely on a lot of spices and bring out the most of the vegetables themselves. They're not stir-fries and neither gravies and usually have a consistency of a mash where the vegetables don't loose their shape entirely but are thoroughly cooked. Sometimes, ghontos are named as per the number of vegetables used. For example, a paanch mishali torkari has five veggies while a saat mishali torkari has seven. Chorchoris may also be thought as ghonto although the former tends to be close to a stir-fry.
In Bengali, banana blossom is called mocha. The mocha'r ghonto (banana blossom's ghonto) can be made both as vegetarian and non-vegetarian. For the vegetarian version, Bengal gram or black chickpeas are soaked and boiled and added to give texture while the non-vegetarian version has shrimps or small freshwater prawns. The vegetarian version can also include red lentil (masoor dal) dumplings, dale'r bora. The addition of Bengal gram, boras or prawns adds a layer of crunch to the steamed and mashed mocha.
Odia Kadali Bhanda Patua
The Odia patua is similar to the Bengali paturi. Patua and paturi are class of dishes in which the ingredients are either wrapped in leaves and steamed or roasted or the ingredients are laid out in thin layer on a skillet or pan and then covered and cooked. However, paturi and patua are usually associated with the idea of ingredients wrapped in leaves.
Food historian Pritha Sen elaborates that paturi isn't limited to the technique of leaf parcels alone. In this video, she prepares a mulo'r (radish) paturi which is baked in an oven.
In Odia, banana flowers are called kadali bhanda. The kadali bhanda patua involves mixing the cleaned banana flowers with a mustard paste along with thinly sliced or finely chopped potatoes or other soft vegetables like eggplants, dousing a glug of mustard oil and some green chilies and then slightly cooking it in a pan before spreading out in a layer and steaming on low heat. You can make a Bengali version of this dish too, mocha's paturi. The only difference will be the the addition of grated coconut, an ingredient commonly used in East Bengali cooking.
Cleaning Banana Flowers
Start with removing the outer petals or bracts. For each bract removed, collect the florets in that layer and keep aside.
Keep doing this until you reach the inner most layer where the whitish heart of the flower exists. Keep the heart aside.
You may oil your hands to prevent stickiness. Go back to the florets. For each floret, discard the calyx, which is the scaly translucent covering, and the pistil (style and stigma) which has a thick stalk and a sticky bulbous head. Keep the remaining floret separately. Continue the same process for the rest of the florets.
Chop the cleaned florets and keep them in water/lime water or buttermilk to prevent blackening.
Take the heart of the banana and cut it into half. Then slice lengthwise and then chop evenly. Keep the chopped heart with the cleaned florets in water until cooking.
2 small to medium sized or 1 large banana blossom
3-4 tbsp Bengal gram or black chickpea (kala chana) soaked overnight or 70-80 gram small prawns or shrimps marinated with a pinch of salt and turmeric
1 potato chopped into cubes
For tempering: 2 tsp mustard oil, 2 dried red chilies, 2 bay leaves, 1 clove, 1 cardamom, 1-inch cinnamon, 1/4 tsp cumin
2 tbsp grated or desiccated coconut
3-4 green chilies slit lengthwise
2 tbsp ginger paste
Dry ground spices:1 tsp turmeric, 1/4 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp cumin powder, 1/4 tsp Bengali garam masala (cloves + cardamom + cinnamon ground)
Salt to taste and a pinch of sugar
1/4 tsp ghee
Drain the water in which they're soaked and then add them to a pot of boiling water or a pressure cooker with water. Cover and cook with 1/2 tsp salt and turmeric. For pressure cooker, 1 whistle is enough. Otherwise cook for 5 minutes.
Strain the cooked banana flowers and let them cool. Once cooled, mash them slightly but take care to retain some texture.
If using prawns, heat 1 tsp mustard oil in a wok or pan, let it smoke and then add prawns to it. Fry on medium heat for about a minute and then take the prawns out. Keep aside.
Heat the mustard oil, then add dry red chilies, bay leaves, cardamom, clove and cinnamon. Toss them around and then add cumin.
Next add chopped potatoes and sauté till golden. This will take about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, make a paste of ginger paste, turmeric, chilli powder and cumin powder with little water mixing with a spoon in a bowl.
Add grated/desiccated coconut to the potatoes and stir to combine. Then add the ginger-spice paste and sauté. Add salt and sugar, give a mix and then add half of the green chillies. Stir again splashing water to prevent spices from sticking to the pan/wok. Add the soaked and drained Bengal gram, mix and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add the strained and mashed banana flowers, sauté, then cover and cook for 6-7 minutes on low heat. Open in between to check and add the remaining green chillies. Give a good mix.
If using prawns, add them upon opening and then mix well. Add some water or milk if the dish is too dry. Cover and cook on low heat again for 3-4 minutes.
Upon opening, add ghee and Bengali garam masala. Give a good mix and turn off the heat. Serve with hot steamed rice and dal!
Kadali Bhanda Patua
2 small to medium sized or 1 large banana blossom
4 tbsp black mustard seeds or 2 tbsp black + 2 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
4-5 cloves of garlic
2-3 green chillies
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp turmeric
1 potato very thinly sliced or finely chopped
2 tbsp mustard oil
salt to taste
Soak the mustard seeds in warm water along with 3 garlic cloves, 1 green and 1 red chillies.
Clean the banana flowers.
Drain the water in which they're soaked and then add them to a pot of boiling water Cover and cook with 1/2 tsp salt and turmeric for 5 minutes. Strain the cooked banana flowers and let them cool.
Drain the mustard and other soaked ingredients and then make a fine paste.
Mix the banana flowers and the potatoes in the mustard paste, add salt and turmeric and 1 tbsp mustard oil, and mix thoroughly.
Now add this mixture to a heated pan along with 3-4 tsp water and sauté it for 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and spread out the mixture as a layer. Cover and cook on low heat for 8-10 minutes. Or Add the mixture on a banana or gourd leaf, cover and cook in a pan on low heat or in a microwave for 8-10 minutes.
Open, add the remaining chopped garlic and green chilies and serve!