Good golly, these crrrunchy green balls of Basella alba were as good as Christmas crackers!
So good, we're cooking them again. And again. With extra crunch. Before they disappear into flowers.
The sprouting buds of pNui shaak, aka Malabar spinach, creeping spinach, climbing spinach, or slippery spinach are called 'metuli' in Bangla (that's Bengali, to English-only speakers). While the heart-shaped leaves of pNui are cooked with a mish-mash of other vegetables — often with peels in, their texture serving to offset the mucilaginous quality of the shoots and greens — all year round, often partnering local freshwater fish too, the 'cream' of this crop emerges in winter.
When not quite so ripe, they are still cracklingly good, however, folded in a sunny, spicy mustard quilt with a panful of sweet carrot slivers, a few fingers of floury peel-on potato, a handful of juicy briny shrimp. Sometimes, I might add a few florets of cauliflower or broccoli, or a few roundels of red-skinned sweet potato or a little yam. A slender crab leg or two shaking about the kadhai is nice too.
Yesterday, our vegetable vendor had really ripe ones in his cart, starting to put out fair, frilly little flowers. Those, as I mentioned, are best fried crisp and simply seasoned with salt, to eat with hot short-grain rice and a drop of grainy brown ghee.
But the brown-paper package, tied up with jute string, that we got before Christmas had the slightly less mature pods. With those, we rustled up the mixed melange of a chingri chorchori. The class of Bengali recipes called 'chorchori' seems to me the most apt recipe for an audible vegetable — after all, a chorchori is onomatopoeic by definition. The name reflects the sputtering chirrup that comes from cooking vegetables in a bare minimum of oil and water. Needless to say, you need a well-seasoned wok for this family of recipes; but the result is a lovely dish of fragrant, just-tender greens, sometimes beans and sometimes Brassicae, with soft, squishable root veg developing a crust while holding their shape, all wrapped up in the aromatic sheen of the tempering spices — panchphoron, in most cases, in many Bengali kitchens, this being a five-spice league of fenugreek seeds, nigella, cumin, fennel (or aniseed, if you prefer or can only find that), and finally, the star of these culinary heroes: raNdhuni, the more sophisticated, urbane cousin of the forthrightly medicinal ajwain (carom, bishop's weed, thymol). When raNdhuni — whose name literally means 'cook' (feminine) — goes missing from the arsenal, this secret weapon is sometimes substituted by celery seeds (much too genteel) or the spicier black mustard. And that last is what I've used a paste of here, in this shrimp-and-pNui nodule version of chorchori.
4-6 side-dish servings for rice
2 cups pNui metuli, aka Malabar spinach nodules (call them buds or sprouts if you prefer)
2 tsp mustard oil (I like the bite; use white oil if preferred)
Small handful of shrimp (unpeeled and fresh is more flavourful, peeled and frozen often more convenient, and I used the latter here)
1 tsp panchphoron
1 large floury potato, cut into fingers (peel left on)
1 or 2 small carrots, cut into matchsticks or slivers
2 tbsp mustard paste (soak seeds in water for a couple of hours before grinding to remove bitterness and ensure the necessary pungent punch)
- Trim the ends of the pNui stems if woody, and cut them up into 2-inch lengths. Set aside with the other veg.
- Gently heat the oil and quickly fry the shrimp. Remove with a skimmer and set aside to drain.
- Add the panch phoron, and wait till it starts to splutter. Immediately reduce heat to the lowest possible, and stir in the potaotes. When glossy and starting to change colour, then add carrots. Toss to coat and introduce the pNui nodules. Cook, stirring vigorously, until they all acquire a sheen and the potatoes are just starting to crisp up along the edges of their skin.
- Add the mustard paste, which should be a tad runny, and salt. Stir through to just mix, then quickly cover and cook on a low heat. Check for sticking and give it a stir from time to time. Try not to add water unless really necessary — it is important not to panic and pour in extra liquid too early, or your veggies will be mushy and watery later.
- When the potatoes are still holding their shape firmly, but just yield to pressure, add the prawns and finish cooking. Check seasoning and adjust if need be, before serving hot, with warm rice and ghee.