An Indian Vegetable Grows in Brooklyn
For as long as I can remember, my family has taken part in the “sport” of picking fruits and vegetables. And, oh, do they excel at it! I have this photo of my great aunt, grandmother, mother, and father battling an unassuming guava vendor in Delhi last winter as they ravaged his cart looking for the perfect piece of fruit.
As is the way with genes, I also love the challenge of a good produce hunt, especially in the open markets of India where there is a bounty of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables to choose from.
Which brings me to how I ended up coming up with the crazy, harebrained scheme of smuggling back some Indian vegetable seeds to be grown in Brooklyn and served at one of my pop-up dinner events. Not that I have anything against the kale salads and cauliflower steaks that are all the rage, but I wanted to give my diners an opportunity to experience vegetables they may not normally get to taste.
Before leaving for India last winter, I asked my buddy and head farmer at Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, Jason Gaspar, if he’d be into the idea of growing Indian vegetables from seeds I’d bring back for him, and he was more than happy to try the experiment out. The man has quite the green thumb, judging by the insanely huge sunflowers growing in his garden and this spread in Edible dedicated to his work, so I was psyched and confident he’d be the right guy for the job.
We also discussed having the dinner at the Museum, which I found out later is the oldest building and first historical landmark in New York City. Finding a venue for my dinners sometimes is the hardest part of planning the event so that was a major score!
I headed to the southern part of India in December to meet my parents who live there for a few months out of the year. My mother grew up in Bangalore, which is referred to as the “Garden City of India” because of its greenery and many public parks. I have fond memories of the majestic and sprawling Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, where my family would picnic, eating out of stainless steel tiffins brimming with tamarind peanut rice, flat beans palya, and refreshing cucumber raita. I snapped this photo of my mother on our last visit to Lal Bagh:
Bangalore was once a sleepy town, but now is a bit of a bustling, tech hub. Thankfully, beautiful Lal Bagh still remains pristine and is where I purchased all of the vegetable seeds for Jason to grow.
I have to say, I did get a number of concerned parties responding to my excited Instagram and Twitter posts about bringing back Indian seeds to the U.S. to grow. I guess for me, smuggling items into the U.S. from India is second nature — that’s what you do. Throw in some achaar, a spicy Indian condiment made from sour fruits and vegetables, fried snacks, dried coconut . . . hell, throw in some spices, flours, sweets, and you basically have the contents of my family’s suitcases coming back to JFK on an Indian Airlines flight. I was a little more nervous than times past bringing in these seeds, but guess what? We all made it through unscathed!
After handing over the seeds to Jason to work his magic, I started to think about what this dinner was going to be about. In the past, I’ve liked to collaborate with others because it’s always more fun that way and I end up learning a ton. For this dinner, I hooked up with my friend and cookbook author, Diana Kuan, who specializes in Chinese recipes. Diana and I teach cooking classes at a few places together and we've toyed around with the idea of doing an Indo-Chinese event a couple times. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity.
Our first step was coming up with a name for our concept. I had written an article a while back on the area of Tangra in Calcutta, which has been home to four generations of Chinese from the Hakka community and a really interesting mix of Indo-Chinese fare. There are a few of these Indo-Chinese restaurants in and around New York City serving popular dishes like Hakka noodles, Gobi Manchurian, etc., but Diana and I wanted to come up with a menu that was completely original and also showcased the Indian vegetables as well as what was in season around us. We ended up deciding to call our dinner Tangra Summer, thinking future dinners would always refer to the season in which we were cooking our Tangra-style food.
Once we had all the logistical, boring things out of the way like setting up an Eventbrite page to sell tickets and getting the word out, we got to the fun part — visiting Jason at the farm to see what vegetables we’d have to work with. Jason greeted us with the huge sorakkai squash or bottle gourd, white cucumbers that are unique to Mysore where my mother was born, and Mangalorean or lemon cucumber:
Diana and I then started collaborating on a menu and testing out recipes. It was on one of these occasions that Diana taught me how to fold my first dumpling and wonton, which was totally exciting for me!
We stuffed them with a South Indian sweet potato stir-fry and added a sorrakai coconut chutney for dipping. We liked them so much, they ended up on the menu.
Now, not everything we tested came out well — I’d say our bok choy raita was less than exciting and a little weird tasting — but the majority of the dishes pleasantly surprised us and really brought together our respective cuisines, like this sweet and sour tomato chaat:
While we were coming up with the menu, we wanted to find a beer sponsor for the event and the perfect one came to us in the form of Big Alice Brewing Company, a new small batch brewery out of Long Island City. I had met one of the owners, Rob Crafton, while speaking on a panel for the New York Travel Festival.
Rob had mentioned that his company had started brewing beers with curry leaves, which is one of my favorite ingredients in Indian cooking. They provided three varieties with really complementary flavors for our menu, using ingredients like lemongrass, lapsang souchang tea, and turmeric. The blends were delicious and unlike any other beers I’ve tasted. We were honored to work with such a talented group of brewers on our first Tangra dinner.
I’ve found that there’s a good deal of manual labor that goes into hosting pop-up dinners. Having done these quite a bit, I know that I have to always be prepared to transform into somewhat of a kitchen mule. Not only do I end up bringing pounds and pounds of food to the venue to warm and finish preparing, but I often have to bring serving bowls, dishes, utensils, decorations, pans, etc. — thank my lucky stars for the helping hands of friends! We opted for a minimalist (real cheap and light) table setting with bamboo plates, dried flowers, mason jars,
and this menu that Diana designed:
Since the grounds of Wyckoff Farmhouse are so unique, we asked our guests to come early to wander around and take in the beautiful garden.
It’s an oasis in a very urban setting. You can’t really get a photo of the main house without a car wash sign or gas station creeping into the frame, which I think adds to the charm of the place.
We also got to show them some of the vegetables that Jason grew for us:
At every event, once guests sit down in anticipation of the meal, there is a frenzied energy that takes shape in the kitchen. I love/hate it because it makes me uneasy but also ecstatic.
We served this meal family-style and came out to talk about the preparation from time to time. All in all, we wanted our guests to feel relaxed and enjoy the food in a leisurely manner. Jason and my fiancé served the dishes and were our eyes and ears in the dining room.
As the last dish goes out, there’s always a feeling of calm that comes over me, but also a feeling of that’s all? It takes months and many long hours to plan such events and, at the end, there is nothing tangible after the meal is complete and your guests have gone (except the photos, if you have time to take any). Yet, I’d do it all over again because I’ve realized I’m addicted to the act of creating. On the heels of this event, Diana and I had already started to discuss our next chapter: Tangra Fall.
It was only after the dinner, when I was looking back at all of the photos, that I saw how the story had come full circle. Growing up in America, I struggled a lot with wanting to fit in and push aside my Indian heritage. It wasn’t until a few years back that I started to reclaim that part of myself through my work in food. Planting these seeds from India in Brooklyn was in many ways a cathartic act for me, and the gesture of creating a celebration around what we grew allowed me to honor my family’s traditions in a style I never imagined possible.