Monji Haakh: Kohlrabi cooked in Kashmiri Style
Kohlrabi, the word being a combination of German words kohl meaning cabbage and rabi meaning turnip, although native to Europe, is a celebrated vegetable in the Kashmiri cuisine in India. This stew like preparation of kohlrabi using Kashmiri culinary style of subtlety renders a dish that's reminiscent of comfort food.
Kohlrabi is known as Ganthi Kobi in Odia, the language of the people of Odisha where I was born and grew up. When we lived outside Odisha, we knew it as Ganth Gobhi, and let me tell you that it was one of the most rarely eaten vegetables at home. I remember mother forging it into cutlets or mingling it with some other vegetables in a bharta or making pickles out of it to ensure we ate it.
It's intriguing that sometimes things that we never enjoy eating as children are the ones that we embrace once we set foot outside our homes. My journey with kohlrabi, a vegetable that originated in northern Europe and was unknown until about 500 years ago, is a similar one. The same subtle flavour that I did not particularly find exciting on my plate became cherished after I discovered the magic of Kashmiri cuisine.
On a rather torrid summer day in Bombay, sometime when the British Council Library used to be located at Nariman Point, I had stepped out of the library following a failed attempt of finding a good book to borrow. My friend had a membership, and I had accompanied her all the way from New Bombay to the library. Both of us are nerds, and what could be more exciting than books? However, that day's expedition had been unexciting — you know the ones when you're keen to find an interesting book to read but nothing on the shelves entices you?
So, leaving M at the library who wanted to research on some material she had been lucky to find, I went on to grab an ice-cream sandwich at Rustoms, a 15-minutes walk along Marine Drive. Hot weather doesn't discourage Bombayites to walk, and when you have the seaside boulevard at your disposal, an umbrella for some shade and a handkerchief to wipe the sweat keep you going. Few meters before Rustoms, I spotted the usual roadside bookseller. "I could get lucky" I wondered, and hurried to see his collection.
Amidst my wonted fiction targets, I saw this book, Kasmiri Cusine through the ages by Sarla Razdan. While the book wasn't in its best shape, the exquisite pashmina shawl map was clear on the cover, Dal Lake sitting serene on the inside page, flanked by lofty mountains and lush forests. Black and white photographs of Jhelum narrated the story of this mystical land, and beside a flower laden boat, Sarla's words stirred me instantly:
"Lunch at 9 am. That is my earliest food memory from Kashmir. When I was a little girl in Srinagar, my mother used to spend hours cooking the simplest of things like (collard greens) and batta (rice) for her three children. A pressure cooker was, of course, a dream. So lunch was at nine in the morning, to arm us for the rest of the day, as we left home."
Several miles away in Bombay I could visualize Razdan's home scene, reflecting on my own childhood where lunch was served at 8 before I and my sisters boarded the school bus. I had never been to Kashmir nor eaten typical Kashmiri meals ever, and yet the book drew me in. Sarla Razdan's descriptions of home and simple food had made a place in my heart already. Few pages later, I had paid the bookseller and arrived at Rustoms, relishing an ice-cream and imagining the food of this slice of heaven on earth, Kashmir. Such is the power of food, it's ability to connect people and evoke memories lending common ground to share and create.
Back home, I and Auntie A (my then landlady) went through the book together, cruising through the many photographs of the old and new Kashmir and the delectable food of the valley. Auntie A shared her stories of her trip to Kashmir after her wedding, long back when the political situation of the land was far from today, browsing through the multitude of vegetarian recipes in the book. Contrary to many people's perceptions, Kashmiri cooking is rich in many varieties of vegetarian dishes.
Kohlrabi is called monji/monje in Kashmir, and Kashmiris truly esteem it. It grows easily and abundantly, and being cold tolerant, it continues to grow on the fields in winter, so much that a little frost even helps it. In a place like Kashmir where winters can be tough, it isn't surprising that kohlrabi is valued for its hardiness and availability when little of anything else can be hard to find. Kohlrabi, like other members of the Brassica family, takes well to pungent flavours like mustard oil, asafoetida and ginger used extensively in Kashmiri cuisine. It also blends very well with the dried Kashmiri masala known as ver masala. In Kashmiri cooking, the leaves of the kohlrabi, haakh (any kind of leaves are called haakh in Kashmir, popularly referred as saag in Hindi), are also used along with the stem, making the entire dish wholesome, healthy and delicious!
Kashmiri cuisine is one of the oldest in the world and a witness to many foreign influences. Many people are often reticent about cooking Kashmiri food, because, like any other delicacy, it demands a certain degree of instinctiveness and finesse in techniques and methods. Even after measuring the ingredients by consummate spoons and cups, the cook's discernment goes a long way in enhancing the flavours. Cooking with fewer ingredients is more complicated, because, lesser the ingredients, greater is the ability involved to control the behaviour of each constituent. The philosophy of "less is more" shimmers throughout most dishes in the Kashmiri cuisine, holding nafasat, the Urdu word for refinement, in its behest.
Sarla Razadan's book was my first lesson in Kashmiri cooking, and later I discovered exquisite Kashmiri food bloggers including A Mad Tea Party and Spice Roots whose beautiful recipes from the Kashmir valley inspired and taught me well. I have cooked many Kashmiri dishes over the years, and every time I recreate something, I continue to learn anew. Like most things in cooking, practice improves your judgement and instinct in balancing flavours in Kashmiri food. It's this delicate balance of mustard oil, whole red and green chilies and asafoetida that brought about a newfangled flavour profile in kohlrabi for me. I can't imagine a simpler way of cooking this underrated vegetable and one that generates such indelible flavours with so few ingredients. By no means I claim to be a master, although I have developed my own relationship with Kashmiri food.
Kashmiris rely on haakh (greens) and chawal (rice) as their staple food. It's so common in households that until the Kashmiri pandits migrated to other parts of India, haakh wasn't part of special meals like weddings. So, you can imagine how Kashmiris have kept their hands in preparing leafy greens! Since monji haakh is an everyday homemade dish, it's nevertheless simple and easy to put together.
Kohlrabi is also cooked with meat and fish in the Kashmiri cuisine, and the greens are also cooked with eggs or paneer.
Haakh and kohlrabi are winter vegetables, with a season lasting from autumn and throughout spring. To cook a tasty monji haakh, the freshest produce will yield the best results. I remember a lady who used to by the side of the gate at the City Lights market at Mahim in Bombay, selling vegetables which are most often not welcomed by many, including kohlrabi. On my way to the Dadar West local railway station from my college, I didn't mind walking an extra 15 minutes to her paraphernalia and gather the best kohlrabi. She would jab the vegetable in the center to make sure it was tender. Kohlrabi can grow large and woody, but always taste great when young. Kohlrabi tends to get softer after cooking while still holding its shape, a characteristic of bulbous stems. It's often confused as an underground root while its actually over-ground stalk.
The freshest kohlrabi yields the best monji haakh. In case, your kohlrabi is a bit old, try adding a pinch of Kashmiri garam masala or ver masala. If your kohlrabi is at its prime, you don't need garam masala at all.
Kashmiris don't finely chop the leaves of a vegetable or the leafy greens. Remove coarse and hard stalks but keep the leaves whole.
You may cook this in a pressure cooker, especially if you don't slice kohlrabi and rather keep them as cubes. Although I find it easy to make in pan or wok by the traditional technique of braising and simmering. If you use a pressure cooker, manually remove the pressure once done and don't let the leaves sit in the steam within. This can lead to leaves loosing their vibrant green although the taste wouldn't be diminished.
Over spicing this recipe with anything other than the mentioned ingredients is a strict NO! It will largely alter the flavour and overpower the delicate flavour of the kohlrabi stem and leaves alike. Mustard oil is already a pungent ingredient and sufficient to lend flavour to the dish. You may make it with any other oil, but the taste won't be the same.
2-3 kohlrabi with leaves
1 tbsp mustard oil
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2-3 dried red chilies
2 whole green chilies (you may prick the chilies slightly)
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Using your hand, remove the long stems from the bulb or use a knife to cut off the stems. Remove the leaves from the coarse stems and keep aside. You may tear extra large leaves into two but don't chop them too small.
Peel the kohlrabi and slice the bulb into medium thick pieces. Give the leaves and sliced bulb a rinse and keep aside.
In a wok or pan, heat mustard oil till it smokes. Then, add asafoetida and the kohlrabi slices. Braise them for 3-4 minutes and then add 3 cups of water, and then add salt and chilies. Bring it to a boil.
Add the leaves and give a mix. Now cover and cook on low heat for 5-7 minutes. Open the lid and then let it simmer on medium heat for 15 minutes or until the leaves and vegetables are tender. If cooking in a pressure cooker, use about 2 cups of water and cook for 5 minutes (1 whistle on high pressure and another 1-2 on medium heat), and after removing from heat, release pressure by lifting the whistle using a spatula. Serve with rice and some yogurt.