VEGETABLES, EXOTIC AND UNUSUAL , THEIR ORIGINS AND NUTRITIONAL VALUES
In recent years, vegetables have become increasingly popular. We are now well informed and, as a result, more aware of the benefits of vegetables and, furthermore, many people have chosen to become totally vegetarians. The fear of heart disease and other problems associated with regular consumption of animal fat, vegetables have moved to the centre of the culinary stage. As well as the regular vegetables on our market stalls and supermarket shelves, we also see the unusual and the exotic from far-flung destinations. Have you ever wondered how to cook and enjoy the benefits of these wonderful vegetables? The tropical and sub-tropical vegetables, which were only available in ethnic shops until a few years ago, are now so readily available at affordable prices in our supermarkets that it is a pity not to make use of them. You can now add more interest and enjoyment to your meals without the need to visit a specialist shop. They will truly entice your senses and please your palate. Here is a list of a few of those exotic vegetables that have become a familiar sight in our supermarket shelves:
Aubergine or Eggplant: Aubergine or eggplant is a member of both the tomato and potato family. It originated in India and later spread through to South East Asia and finally to Europe with the Moors. In America and Australia it is known as ‘eggplant’ and the name comes from the yellow or white egg-shaped aubergines which were cultivated in 18thcentury Europe.
The large purple skinned aubergine is the type most commonly available in the UK. India has numerous varieties of aubergine and they are an extremely popular vegetable. They are cooked in many different and delicious ways, each method producing a distinctly different taste and flavour. All around the world, this lovely vegetable is used in creating fabulously flavoured dishes: Greek Moussaka, Italian Permigiana di Melanzane, Arabic Baba Ghanoush, Baghare Baingan and Baingan Bharta in India are all created with this single vegetable which seems to magically transform into an endearingly velvety soft texture when cooked. It can be sliced, tossed in turmeric, chilli and salt and batter-fried to make ‘pakore’ (fritters) as it is done all over India. In South India highly fragrant coconut-based curries are made with aubergine. A type of pilau rice, known as ‘BrinjalBhat’ is made with aubergine, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mace, onion, chillies, freshly grated coconut and chopped coriander leaves.This dish makes a wonderful vegetarian main course.
While buying aubergine, look for the firm ones with a glossy unblemished skin. If they are fresh, you can safely store them in the salad drawer of your fridge for up to two weeks.
Aubergines are low in calories (unless deep fried!) and contain B vitamins as well as small amounts of calcium and iron.
Sweet Potato: Sweet potato is believed to have originated in Central or South America. They are now grown in warm climates all over the world. Christopher Columbus introduced sweet potato to Europe after his first voyage to the Americas. It then spread to China, Asia, Latin America and Africa. There are numerous varieties available around the world, one of which has a pale creamy flesh and another which has a lovely, bright orange flesh are the types we find on our supermarket shelves. The taste and flavour of sweet potatoes can be determined by the colour of the skin. The flesh of the dark skinned sweet potatoes is sweeter and moister than the pale variety. They can be stored in the same way as white potatoes, i.e. in a cool dark place where they will keep well for up to two weeks. They are nutritionally rich, especially the orange variety, which is packed full of antioxidants which fight free radicals. In addition, they also contain potassium and vitamin E. However, being a starchy vegetable their calorie content is similar to that of white potatoes.
Sweet potatoes can be cooked in the same way as white potatoes. Sweet potato chips baked in the oven with olive oil, salt, freshly milled black pepper and a couple of sprigs of rosemary are delicious. They can also be steamed, roasted, mashed and used as a topping for baked meat, poultry or fish. In East and North-East India, sweet potatoes are used to make a sweetmeat which is to die for! The mashed potatoes are mixed with ground cardamom, brown sugar and dusted in plain flour and fried gently until browned. They are generally eaten with afternoon tea. Baked sweet potatoes are also delicious with a knob of butter.
Sweetcorn:In Europe corn is known as ‘maize’ which is a derivative of the early American Indian word mahiz. Corn was unknown to Europeans before settlers came to the New World. It was introduced to Europe, Africa and Asia during the 16thand 17thcenturies. By the 18thcentury maize became a staple food for the African-American slaves in central Europe. It is now the most important cereal grain in Africa and Latin America, but it wasn’t until the 20thcentury that cultivation of maize was started with suitable agricultural support.
The best season for corn is May through to September when they can be bought with bright green ears, snugly fitting husks and golden brown silk. At this point the kernels are really plump and quite milky. Once picked, the sugar in the corn starts converting into starch. This reduces the corn’s natural sweetness. For the best taste, cook corn on the day of purchase, removing the husks and silks just before cooking.
Sweetcorn is a common sight in most supermarkets. Both fresh cobs, with or without the husk, and frozen corn are available all year round. Besides roasting, grilling and barbecuing, you can make numerous other dishes using sweetcorn. The kernels are delicious in a pancake, whole corn thickly sliced and poached in coconut milk, chilli and coriander, made into fritters with onion, chilli and gram flour and the tender, golden kernels make colourful pilau rice when combined with a few emerald green garden peas.
Kohlrabi: I hope this little paragraph about kohlrabi will help to end British reluctance in using this beautiful vegetable in their cooking. The name comes from the German word ‘kohl’ meaning cabbage and ‘rabi’ is Swiss-German for turnip. Hence it is also known as German cabbage. In England it is more commonly known as ‘knolkhol’ and the Hindi name is ‘Nukal’. It is a lovely vegetable with a versatile nature and plenty of nutritional properties. Slimmers would love it as it is 90% water making it very low in calories.
The young green leaves can be stir-fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli and served as a side dish. It is also great in a salad when grated and tossed in a vinaigrette dressing and topped with a few toasted pine nuts and roasted with garlic and rosemary. Indian cooking uses kohlrabi in all sorts of different ways such as adding to a slow-cooked mutton curry when it is cut into large chunks. It can be finely chopped and stir-fried with a few spices such as whole mustard, cumin and chilli. Try steaming chopped kohlrabi with fresh ginger and green chilli, allow to cool, and then puree with thick plain yogurt and top with a sprinkling of fresh coriander. This makes a really versatile sauce which is wonderful with grilled meat and poultry.
When buying kohlrabi look for the bright green tops and firm roots without any blemishes or discolouring.
Okra: Okra is known as ‘gumbo’ in Africa and ‘bhindi’ or ‘ladies’ fingers’ in India; the latter because of their long and slender appearance. It originated in Africa and later travelled to North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, Arabia and India. Today okra is grown and used extensively in tropical and subtropical countries worldwide. It is highly popular in the Louisiana French cooking.
The mucilaginous quality of okra is not everyone’s cup of tea, but delicious stews with meat, poultry and seafood are made when the taste of this special characteristic is more evident. In India okra is deep fried, stir-fried and also cooked with lamb or mutton. For those who want to avoid the gelatinous nature of okra, it is best to leave them whole and stir-fried in a hot pan with a sprinkling of cumin, coriander and dried chilli flakes. Choose the tender, bright green ones for this style of cooking. I often add thin fingers of sweet red pepper and white onion which creates a striking combination. Cook the vegetables until al dente for a delicious crunchiness. This also retains the full nutritional and medicinal values of the vegetables. Sliced and deep-fried, they are sensational in a ‘raita’ as in the recipe here. Okra has plenty of nutritional value as it is rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium as well as vitamin C and carotene.
Plantain: First and foremost, bear in mind that bananas and plantains are two completely different fruits/vegetables. Although plantain belongs to the banana family, the banana with its golden skin that we commonly consume is sweet and starchy whereas plantains often have a dark green skin and they have to be cooked. Plantains are thought to have originated in South and South-East Asia and it has been an important food for many civilizations for hundreds of years. Travellers introduced plantains to Australia, Papua New Guinea and Africa and numerous strains of plantains in the African rainforest are now available. Alexander the Great discovered plantain during his travel to India and introduced it to the people of Southern India where he landed. Plantain is cooked in so many delicious ways in South India that you can probably go through a whole month without repeating the recipe! They can be treated the same way as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam etc. Choose plantains with firm green skin for cooking although they can be ripened at room temperature and eaten raw.
Plantains have more calories than bananas but they are also highly nutritious. They contain dietary fibre, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin B6.