It’s that time of the year when in the midst of all the country greens one gets to see bright flashes of red. This velvety flower when in bud stage curves outward like a long beak and hence the name ‘humming bird flower’ fits like a glove. In Tamil Nadu ,it is referred to as Agathi poo. The plant is like a small tree. These flowers hang in bell like clusters behind the thicket of leaves . Depending on the species the flowers are of two colours white and the crimson , that I am more familiar with. The fruit of the agathi tree are thin long bean like pods . These however do not figure in the culinary scheme of things. The tree is grown mostly for it’s leaves (keerai ) . They are cooked very often for a typical South Indian lunch. Both the leaves and flowers rank very high in nutritional and medicinal value. It is said to be named after Sage Agastya who specialised in ancient medicine. Those who have grown up around and have spent a considerable amount of time in the country side are the ones who understand the value of the Agathi poo in a dish. One cannot find it in supermarkets for two reasons. There is little chance of them being commercially viable. It’s also quite a delicate blossom. Harsh winds and incessant rain will do considerable damage to it. It does not have a long shelf life , it must to be cooked within a day of plucking.
This past week I was delighted to receive this beautiful flower from not one but two sources. Bio basics had it on their weekly available produce list .The next lot came from my cousin Narmada , whose family own farms in Karapaadi. She was more than happy to share the seasonal bounty with me. Narmada looks forward to this season to make her special Agathi poo kurma. She like me is sad that these locally grown greens and flowers are not being experimented with . By not doing so we are in fact depriving ourselves of the nutrients that are available at this time of the year. The younger lot will also never learn to acquire a taste for unusual foods.
This tree grows best in hot , humid regions. Cold climate is detrimental to it’s growth. The botanical name that it is known by is Sesbania Grandiflora. It is grown in certain parts of South America , Australia , Thailand , Indonesia ,Philippines , West Africa , Nepal. This tree does have it’s origins in the Asian region only. However there are many instances of native species in certain parts of Australia. The white flower is used considerably in Thai cuisine. The flowers do tend to be bitter . The red ones are more astringent than the white. Both Indian and Thai recipes use coconut as an ingredient to counter that hit of acrid pungency. I believe that when working with a recipe , one should stick to these basic flavor equations. If we dig deeper I’m sure we would find that coconut adds a nutritional balance along with the taste , to the agathi poo. By trying to be all new age and wanting to stay away from using coconut we may just end up ruining the taste of the dish.
The quantity of agathi poo that I had was not enough to make a complete dish , on it’s own. The idea of using green beans with the flowers sort of stuck in my head. Beans take well to the flavor of onion , green chilli and coconut. So ,into a traditional tempering went in the finely chopped green beans. A dash of water, lid on and a scant 15 minutes later the beans were cooked with a bit of crunch still left in them. The flowers need nothing more than just to be washed and carefully pulled apart. They come away easily ,leaving behind the stamen and the calyx. All that needs to be done is to gently run the knife across the petals and shred them. Add them into the cooked beans and golden onions and toss through until just wilted. They will turn a deep purple within a minute.It will turn dark green if overcooked ! Quickly take off the fire ,add the grated coconut and mix through thoroughly until the coconut gets coated with all the spices and seasonings. The dish turned out better than expected and one that I look forward to making again !
With children being more exposed to shows , clubs and contests relating to food , they are aware of zucchini blossoms being a delicacy. The Agathi flower is considered to be just as exotic . It is stuffed and batter fried just like the zucchini blossom. Do check out farms or organic stores close to your homes. Create a demand for this ingredient. That is a positive step towards encouraging the availability of produce that is available for a limited time. Hone your cooking skills by experimenting with such foods. It does make for a truly satisfying experience.