If you haven’t noticed, we love edible plants at the nursery. The only thing more satisfying than watching the fruits of your labor come to fruition is getting to eat the fruits afterwards.
Today, we’re going to continue that theme with a discussion of ethnic culinary gardening. Specifically, we’re going to explore how you can apply this cool gardening philosophy to Indian cuisine.
We’ll cover what ethnic culinary gardening is, go over the different categories of ingredients you can grow, and (of course) leave you with some recipes to try at home.
Let’s get started!
What Is Ethnic Culinary Gardening?
It sounds like something fancy, but it’s actually really simple. Ethnic culinary gardening means growing groups of food that provide ingredients for a specific ethnic cuisine.
In particular, it means cultivating the relevant herbs and spices, as this is where most of the “ethnic” flavor comes from.
Once you know the ingredients that give a particular ethnic cuisine its taste, you can design your garden accordingly, creating a renewable source of ingredients for your favorite foods.
Today’s post focuses on Indian food, but the principles will apply to any cuisine of your choice.
If this topic excites you, we invite you to have a look at this guide from Life on The Balcony or pick up a copy of the book Ethnic Culinary Herbs: A Guide to Identification and Cultivation in Hawaii.
Herbs and spices are the heart of any cuisine. When we say that something tastes “Mexican,” “French,” “Caribbean,” etc., we’re really talking about the way the food is seasoned.
The same is true of Indian food. Ingredients like curry leaf, ginger, turmeric, chilli, coriander, and garam masala (to name just a few) all give Indian food its rich, complex, and often spicy flavor.
Here are a few plants available at the nursery that will allow you to flavor an endless number of Indian dishes:
- Curry leaf plant
- Red and green chilli peppers
- Coriander (aka Cilantro)
And of course, these aren’t only for Indian food. That’s the beauty of growing your own herbs and spices. Once you get the plants, you have a starting place for dozens of cuisines and thousands of dishes.
While seasonings give ethnic cuisines most of their character, other ingredients are important as well.
In particular, vegetables and legumes play a vital role in traditional Indian food. You’re probably familiar with most of the ones available at the nursery, but I bet a couple will be new to you.
Much of traditional Indian food is vegetarian, so it lends itself well to things you can grow right at home. And even in non-vegetarian dishes, veggies and legumes abound.
The following vegetables/legumes are all available at the nursery and go great in plenty of Indian dishes:
- Pigeon pea – A type of lentil that you’ll often find in dal, a mashed lentil dish that is an Indian food staple.
- Malabar spinach – Not really spinach, but a hardy green that tastes similar to spinach when cooked. Features in curry recipes like this one.
- Eggplant – An ingredient in dishes like baingan bharta.
- Okra – An important ingredient in traditional dishes such as bhindi masala (more on this later).
- Tomato – Needs no explanation, but is often used to complement rice or chicken dishes. Or to make tomato curry.
And just as with the herbs/spices we already discussed, these are versatile ingredients that will keep you cooking all year long.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the sumptuous fruits that feature in Indian dishes. We’re particularly lucky in Kauai, since we can grow these tasty tropical fruits right at home.
Fruits used in Indian cuisine (and available at the nursery) include:
- Mango – We love this one so much we wrote a whole post on it. In Indian food, you find mango in dishes like mango lassi and mango dal. And chutney, of course. We’ll have a great recipe for that later on in this post.
- Tamarind – The sweet, juicy pulp features in preparations such as tamarind chutney. (not available at the nursery yet, but hopefully soon.)
- Jackfruit – In the same family as the fig tree, these sweet (and often enormous) fruits show up in dishes like jackfruit curry. They have a meaty texture and a taste similar to mangoes.
- Starfruit – Hey, we’ve written about this one before, too. You’ll find this tasty and distinctly shaped fruit in Indian foods like star fruit pickles. Make sure to admire the beautiful shape before digging in.
These wonderful fruits can all be enjoyed on their own as well, but we hope you’ll give them a try in an Indian recipe of your choice.
Now that we’ve covered the different ingredient categories, let’s discuss how to use them in a few different dishes.
The great thing about Indian food is that it covers a huge range of regions, flavors, and preparations. We picked the recipes below because they include or feature many of the ingredients discussed in this post.
But these are only a starting point, and we hope they will inspire you to explore further.
Bhindi masala is “a semi dry, lightly spiced north Indian curry made with okra,” as the original recipe describes it. In addition to okra, this vegetarian delight includes tomato, coriander, red chilli, turmeric, and ginger, as well as several other ingredients that you can either grow or buy.
This would make a delicious side item for the chicken curry described below. Or you could even increase the portions and pair it with a couple other dishes to make a vegetarian Indian feast.
Telangana Chicken Curry
Of course we had to include a curry. This dish takes its name from the Indian region of Telangan, where the author first discovered it. While it includes a lot of ingredients, it’s fairly simple to prepare.
You can grow the curry leaf, ginger, coriander, turmeric, and red chilli from plants available at the nursery, and the rest is not that hard to get.
Like most curries, this one pairs excellently with rice.
Sweet and Spicy Mango Chutney
Last but not least, you have to try this amazing mango chutney recipe. It’s only nine ingredients, and you probably have a couple of them already. You can grow the mango, coriander, and red chilli from plants at the nursery.
Here’s the full video.
So tasty, and pairs perfectly with both of the dishes we’ve already discussed.
Start Cooking and Growing Today
We hope this post has given you a glimpse of what ethnic culinary gardening is all about. The possibilities are nearly unlimited once you get the right groups of plants growing. Indian food is just one example – the principles apply to any ethnic foods you can imagine.
For tips on cultivating the plants mentioned in this article, contact us or stop by the nursery.
Also, if you’d like a head start with cultivating your own Indian ingredients, we’re giving away a curry leaf plant to our newsletter subscribers. If you’d like a chance to win, you can subscribe here.
What would you like to know about ethnic culinary gardening? Have any experience with the recipes we mentioned? We’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.