Monday, February 10, 2014

The Indian Peas' Process

"What is it about Indians and peas?" a friend asked the CC recently, "Why are they so obsessed about them?"

A most worthy question and certainly one that requires more than an offhand answer and since its her birthday, the CC will answer at leisure.

("Does the CC ever answer not at leisure and without copious footnotes?" is the query from the peanut gallery which is a question he will ignore.)

Perhaps this should be a series? "What is it about Russians/Korean/Japanese and mushrooms?", etc. which follows roughly the same line of questioning and the same analogous answer as well.

The answer, slightly speculative as it might be, involves geography, growing seasons and plant biology.

Peas are ancient and have grown all along the Mediterranean and the near East since ancient times. Even in what is modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are talking at least 2500 B.C.E. or earlier.

Peas are annual plants. They produce a seed within the year and die.

Peas are a cool season crop. They can only germinate from late spring to early summer. In fact, last summer, the CC couldn't get fresh peas at all the farmers' market because the waves upon waves of heat destroyed all the pea crops.

India lies just north of the equator and has a short winter but an even shorter spring. Summer arrives with a vengeance right around April.

So the answer should be clear. You can only grow these for the shortest of growing seasons in the winter which is not as cold as the rest of the world. The window is barely a few months (Feb. to late Mar.) which explains its nature as "delicacy" not particularly different from the way that asparagus is considered a delicacy in Europe or North America.

In fact, the Mughal emperors used to grow them in Kashmir which has an extended growing season for peas because of its altitude. We have additional evidence from ingredients in rare royal dishes which are paired with peas like mushrooms. These are not any old mushrooms. They were morels (gucchi) from Kashmir. Morels are seasonal, rare and expensive and require foraging since they couldn't be cultivated easily.

(We are just beginning to understand the science to cultivate them right now!)

Also, if you look at it from the Emperor's perspective, you can't just chomp down a bunch of foraged stuff. You have to have an "official taster" to make sure you're not getting poisoned from mushrooms which means you need even more of them than just for the dish.

Almost every modern-day Indian dish that substitutes the common button mushroom comes from these rarefied dishes that served Emperors once upon a time!

In the modern world, all of this is not particularly germane because you can get ingredients shipped from anywhere in the world right down to your home. Not to mention frozen stuff which doesn't matter if you are going to purée the peas anyway.

However, cultural habits are reinforced by geography first and foremost and modern technology cannot make up for millennia of habit. (Have absolutely no argument for the fact that "habit" and "culture" are nothing more than pseudo-legitimatized bias in some shape or the other!)

So peas. And Indians. And pea-shelling, pea-eating, pea-loving Indians.

Of course, this wouldn't be complete without the CC providing a favored recipe. This one is a Gujarati classic that is both simple and lip-smackingly delicious.


2 cups fresh shelled peas
3 small tomatoes (chopped really fine)

1 tbsp. dhanajeeru (equal parts cumin + coriander, roasted, and ground fine)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp amchur (dried green mango powder - NON-NEGOTIABLE!)
1 tsp chilly powder (or to taste - not so important)
pinch of asafoetida

1 tbsp. corn flour or chickpea flour



Heat up the oil. Fry the asafoetida till it is fragrant. Add the rest of the spices and the tomatoes and fry till they are soft. Add the peas and some water and let it cook till done.

Sprinkle the flour all over and mix vigorously till the sauce is thickened.

Eat with rotis or parathas. The CC is biased. He prefers the latter.

This stores well. Easy to reheat too although the peas will not have the starchy crunch which is partly what makes the dish so irresistible.

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