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Garam masala: Drumsticks add flavour to food

Could the humble drumstick find its way into Heston Blumenthal’s celebrated kitchen.

, ET Bureau|
May 14, 2010, 04.49 AM IST
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Heston Blumenthal, the innovative British chef, whose Fat Duck restaurant is regularly rated as one of the best in the world, has been asked to help improve the taste of hospital food in the UK. This is really important since the need for patients to get the right nutrients is often negated by the fact that the food is so bad it makes them wonder why they should go on living. Blumenthal says he is going to tackle this by focussing on umami — the fifth taste which means a certain savoury, lingering mouth sensation.

There is still debate if umami is a taste like sweet, sour, salty and bitter, or some other type of physical reaction which influences how we perceive foods. It is often linked to monosodium glutamate which is used in Chinese cooking because it stimulates the umami sensation and makes any food it is added to feel intense and delicious. But many other much-loved foods have it too, like tomato ketchup, soy sauce and cheese — in fact, its argued that this is why they are so loved.

Blumenthal says that the umami effect doesn't seem to diminish in old age the way other tastes do, and that by increasing it in foods he can make them seem more appealing, without appearing too radical for sick people, who aren't likely to want to experiment with what they eat. It's going to be comfort food, but with the comfort tweaked upwards with the help of umami increasing ingredients. These could be things like dashi, a kind of Japanese stock made by boiling dried bonito fish flakes, or kombu, dried seaweed, which Blumenthal says in powdered form doesn't alter other tastes, but increases umami.

I wonder if Blumenthal has considered drumsticks. I don't know if the Japanese laboratories that specialise in analysing foods for their umami factor have ever done tests on the long green pods of the moringa oleifera tree, known across India by names like muringakai, shevga, sahjan, sojne, saragvo. I think such tests would show that the pods when cooked are full of umami and that is why they are added to dishes like sambhar. So many of us who happily seek out the fibrous pods from a bowl of sambhar, and split them and suck out the pulpy substance and seeds inside, would be hard pressed to describe what exactly the flavour is, but we know its good. That would seem to be a definition of umami.

It is a property that seems intrinsic to nearly all the parts of the moringa tree. This rather amazing tree, from the genus, Moringa, which is the only one in its entire family, known as the Moringaceae, is now called the 'wonder tree' in the global developmental business because of its exceptional properties of cultivation and nutrition. It grows easily and fast in semi-arid tropical places, exactly the areas most prone to malnutrition - which the moringa helps remedy not just through its pods, but its leaves and flowers as well.


The leaves are exceptionally healthy, packed with beta-carotene, vitamic C, protein and potassium, and they taste quite nice too, with no bitter vegetal taste, but a general savouriness, which would seem to indicate an umami presence there too. In the south it is sold in regular vegetable markets, but in cities like Mumbai one has to look out for hawkers selling bunches on the roadside. I once stepped out of an expensive gourmet food store, having seen nothing worth buying in my budget, and found a guy with a basket full of drumstick leaves. He said he had cut them in a public garden that morning, and while I guess I shouldn't have encouraged this presumably illegal activity, I couldn't resist paying Rs15 for two huge bunches, a far better deal, gastronomically and nutritionally, than anything in the gourmet store.

The flowers also seem to have umami - one writer suggests they have a mushroom taste. They are surprisingly little known, but those who do know value them: the title of Renuka Devi Choudhurani's wonderful Bengali cookbook Pumpkin Flower Fritters suggests her partiality to fried flowers, and she notes that drumstick flowers, which she cooks as Sajne Phuler Bora, "have a unique fragrance which is very pleasing". Bhicoo Manekshaw, in her Parsi cookbook, does the favourite Parsi trick of cooking them with eggs in a recipe for Sekta Ni Singh Na Phool Par Eeda. The real problem with drumstick flowers is getting them in a decent condition - I have seen dried ones, but with hardly the same taste.

The one part of the drumstick tree that is little used today is still responsible for the name by which it is known abroad: the Horseradish tree. The British discovered that the moringa root has a hot, pungent taste similar to the horseradish which gave them one of their favourite condiments to eat with roast beef (some recent research suggests that moringa roots have potentially toxic ingredients, which might explain why it's hardly traditionally used in India). But the British were also willing to try other parts of the moringa and in Culinary Jottings for Madras Colonel Kenney-Herbert's 19th century magnum opus, he suggest boiling drumstick pods and then scraping out the pulp and seeds. This is mixed with salt, pepper, melted butter, cream and an egg yolk, then gently cooked until it thickens and then served on toast for a savoury starter.

It's a recipe worth trying because, unlike most Indian recipes, it serves up the drumstick pod pulp with almost no other masking flavours. On their own they are revealed to have an interesting mix of meaty and vegetal flavours, with fresh, slightly spicy overtones. It is an ingredient worth experimenting with (I've seen suggestions for treating it like a bharta), not least because it has another benefit - the water in which the pods are boiled. It was my friend Suresh Hinduja, who runs the gourmetindia website, who first suggested to me that it would make a great vegetable stock and he's right.


I recently made a regular vegetable stock with onions, carrots, celery and leek, and another with the same ingredients, but with drumstick pods added. The first was good, but the latter had an added, spicy, more intense flavour, perhaps due to umami, and possibly with some of the many healthful benefits of moringa thrown in. I think if nutritionists were to experiment with making invalid food with it might be shown to have some of the taste and health making benefits that Blumenthal is striving for - just much more accessible and affordable for Indian hospitals and kitchens.

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