Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Banana Blossom

When I made Kelphul (Banana Blossom) bhaji couple of weeks back, I thought of my grandpa - or Dada as we lovingly called him - sitting inconspicuously in a corner of the kitchen, laboring over freshly picked banana blossoms from the garden. While most men in his time didn't even enter the kitchen, Dada helped with cleaning veggies, chopping them, separating stones from the grains and anything else mom or grandma needed help with. He was the designated person for the more challenging tasks of carrying heavy containers of grains to the mill, breaking and grating coconut, straining kilos and kilos of Shrikhand through food mill for aaji's home run business and such.

Although Dada was industrious even otherwise, he probably didn't mind working in the kitchen because he was a true foodie at heart. I was left aghast when I caught him gorging on mutton at his friend's once. Yes, he was married to a who woman considered even saying the word 'meat' blasphemy! Dada winked at me and said, "Don't go home announcing it to everyone", and continued feasting. But mostly, he preferred down home, rustic, wholesome foods. Some bhakri, pithala and thecha satisfied him just the same. My grandma still gets teary eyed remembering how Dada loved my cooking, especially the Bharali Wangi I had made for him when I was 14. All the years that I remember spending with him, he didn't complain once about what was cooked in the house - it must have come from the hardships he faced as a kid having to earn for his own meals. And maybe that's why he was used to working hard, always keeping himself busy with something or the other even after retirement. The house where I grew up the first 10 years of my life, the house that Dada built himself, had a beautiful garden with lots of fruit trees. He loved spending time in the garden, working like a pro on the coconut, chikoo and babana trees. When the banana trees were laden with beautiful purple blossoms, he would take them down, clean the sap, remove the flowers and ask grandma to make bhaji. It was his style of letting her know what he wanted to eat. Never demanded anything verbally. Every time I make something that he loved, like this bhaji, I miss him dearly!

Kelphul is the large vibrant colored blossom of banana plant. Each blossom contains lots of flowers. When it's fresh, the flowers are a tender pink color with yellow tips. I have never been able to find fresh kelphul here. The flowers are always black and unappetizing looking. However, I gave up looking for good kelphul and decided to make do with whatever is available. The taste and texture didn't disappoint me. The flowers don't have a very strong flavor. The core, or the heart, of kelphul is much like artichoke heart - soft and supple. If you don't have access to fresh banana blossoms, you can buy canned hearts available widely in any grocery store. Kelphul bhaji is made with some sort of beans to provide some substance. Kala vatana, which I haven't found in any grocery store yet, is my favorite option. I decided to go with vaal daal in its absence. Turned out really well.

Kelphul Bhaji (Banana Blossom Bhaji)

For tempering:
2 Teaspoons vegetable oil
1/4 Teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 Teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 Teaspoon turmeric powder
A pinch of asafoetida
1 Spring curry leaves
1 Teaspoon red chili powder (adjust per liking)
3/4 Teaspoon Goda Masala (adjust per liking)

1 Banana blossom
3/4 Cup vaal daal (split cutlass beans) or kala vatana soaked for a few hours
1/4 Cup loosely packed grated coconut
1 Small piece of jaggery (~1 inch square)
1 Teaspoon tamarind pulp
Salt to taste

How to clean banana blossom:
  • To begin with, have a bowl of water mixed with juice from one lemon on the side. If the blossom is very fresh, there'll be a lot of sap that can stain your fingers. You can wear thin gloves or simply dip your fingers in a little oil or lemon juice while working with it. Remove the red/purple layer. You will find a bunch of banana shaped flowers inside each one. Remove these flowers from each layer - the closer you get to the heart, the smaller and more tender the flowers will get. The heart of the blossom can not be pealed any longer and is tender and white. You will only use the flowers and the heart. 
  • Soak these flowers in lemon juice-water. Alternatively, you can add tamarind pulp or sour buttermilk. The acid will stop them from turning black (too bad, the blossom I bought was already black) and remove stickiness of the sap. Keep the flowers soaked for 3-4 hours. 
  • Each flower has one large petal like cover which is closed. Once you open this cover, you'll see multiple stamens with one matchstick like stigma. There's a waxy, translucent small protective cover at the base of the stamens, right by the stem. The only edible parts of the flower are the soft stamens excluding stigma and the large outer cover if it's tender. The stigma and the protective 'petal' need to be removed from each flower. For the outer layer flowers, you may have to remove the large petals also if they are too hard and stringy. 
Making the bhaji
  • Once you have gone through the laborious part of separating the edibles from the non-edibles, chop the flowers roughly and the heart finely. Boil these in water for approximately 10 minutes. It'll cook the blossom and take away some more of that sap. Once cooked, discard all the water. 
  • On the side, cook the vaal daal until soft. Don't let the daal overcook and break else the bhaji will be mushy. 
  • Heat oil in a kadhai and add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds. Once they splutter, add turmeric powder, asafoetida, and curry leaves to the tempering. 
  • Once the tempering is fragrant, add rest of the ingredients to the kadhai - vaal daal, the spices, cooked banana blossom, jaggery, tamarind, and grated coconut and mix well. 
  • Season with salt to taste, mix well, and let it cook on medium heat for 5 minutes or so.

This bhaji goes well with roti or bhakari. 

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