For now I'll have to settle for growing another country's vegetables on my plot. Ever since I came across a display of vegetable seeds beside the till of a Brick Lane supermarket (a jumble of packets for growing methi and mustard leaves, snake
beans, and pointed gourds) I have been thinking about growing my own snake squash and lablab beans on the allotment.
This year I've finally decided to do it prompted by the book I've started writing with chef Sriram Aylur who's restaurant The Quilon, specialises in a modern, fresh tasting take on Southern Indian coastal cookery.
Before I start growing Indian vegetables on the allotment I thought I'd better get some expert advice. To do this I cycled down to the Spitalfield's City Farm. Situated just behind Brick Lane, the farm - a tangle of sheds, animal enclosures and polytunnels is home to Shetland ponies, donkeys, sheep, pigs and chickens but it'a also where you'll find a gardener of great skill and inspiration, Lutfun Hussain.
For the past 1o years Lutfun has run a gardening group, The Coriander Club. Lutfun is from Bangladesh where there is a long tradition of female gardener cooks. She noticed that many members of her community were finding it hard to source the vegetables they had grown up with and were also finding the transition to inner London living a hard one. The club provides a link to a more rural life as well as masses of the fresh vegetables most often used in Bangladeshi cookery. It seems Lutfun can get almost anything to grow (although she did admit to a failure with henna). As well as kudo (bottle gourd), the Coriander club grows mooli and mustards, snake gourds and naga chillies (the hottest in the world), aubergines, amaranth, chichinga, ribbed gourds, garlic and okra.
Her garden produces food in every season. It is a place of beauty through out the year with abundant marigolds in summer and tulips and cyclamen in Spring.
Lutfun's enthusiasm for her garden was equal to my own. We had much in common as gardeners. We happily swapped lists of the vegetables, fruits and flowers we grow. I have gratefully taken away her recommendations for plants I can grow on the allotment and plan to return with some globe artichoke seedlings for her in the Spring. I also learnt a good tip from her on how to grow coriander that won't run to seed (plant the seed in autumn so that the plant overwinters). The Coriander Club published its own cookbook this September (available at the farm) which also has lots of tips on how to grow Indian vegetables. I will be returning in spring and summer to watch the polytunnels fill up with shield sized gourd leaves and giant pumpkins.
I've put the idea of a real Indian garden on hold. I can still dream that garden, where I would work beneath a hot sun and grow bright flowers, ripe green chickpeas, perfumed yellow mangoes, guavas and finger bananas as well as vegetables unknown to me with strange shapes and stranger names; but for now the intense flavour of those Indian grown vegetables will have to remain just that, a dream.