Mani was a vegetable seller who came rolling his cart full of fresh vegetables. He had this reputation for bringing good quality veggies at a slightly premium price. He was able to sell all his produce by noon and happily roll home. By 6 PM he was ready to hit Tasmac with the allowance his wife allotted him to enjoy his milli’s.
The colony ladies all supported his rolling business. In his area of enterprise he was accepted as the expert for he knew his vazhakkai and amavasai and Agathu keerai and dwadashi. In season he brought in the Vadu maangai and cut the avakkai mango’s to just the right sized segments for his clientele. The green pepper stalks and maangay inji (ginger with the strong mango flavour) with flat juicy lemons and the mahaalikizhangu (sarasapilla) turned up bang on seasonal demands. If it was Pongal the fresh ginger and turmeric shoots decorated his cart and the green piles disappeared before you could say Pongalo pongal. Mud Ganesha’s sporting beady eyes and colourful umbrellas rolled up with erukkam poo garlands and Arugam grass bunches for Pillayaar Chathurthi.
In this hunky dory situation, the one complaint the ladies had was that he avoided the king of vegetables. When asked why he didn’t bring it, he would side track the issue by saying, “Just look at this bitter gourd…..is it not shining thala thala….good for your husband’s diabetes”! Or he would say, “Today I have a different selection of cucumbers. this is a new variety…just look at its greenness…great thirst quencher in this hot weather!”
I had been a bystander in these interactions. I had retired from a bank and then for a decade worked in a private company. Suddenly one morning I woke up and decided, enough is enough. I am going to enjoy my life and quit the 9 to 5 band wagon. My wife supported me and gradually initiated me into the joys of home making and cooking. This was not without a reason. She was going to the US to look after my daughter through her pregnancy and child birth. I was not in a position to go for an extended stay because my elderly mother was with us.
What intrigued me was the popularity of Mani. There was a vegetable and fruits Angadi nearby and a couple of supermarket chains. Yet the ladies bought their stuff from him. In my marketing forays, I picked up the produce but the strident call of Mani at 8 AM was like the soulful music of the Pied Piper and one by one, the ladies stepped out of the houses and apartments to buy his produce. For the first few days, I stood in my balcony and watched the trading process that was going on between Mani and the colony inmates. Then I decided to step down one morning and pick up a nice green cabbage.
“Come Saar, come, come! What would you like today. Amma has gone off to the US…has Baby delivered the child?”, he asked with genuine interest.
“Cabbage please” I said and passed him my bag. “Just a minute Saar. Second floor madam has to go to office….I will attend to her requirements first”, he said and there was non-stop banter from him. Finally he picked up the cabbage and weighed it out for me. That was my first purchase from him and soon I was shopping from him regularly. We exchanged news, argued politics, discussed prices and mourned over the status of the state. In fact there were two or three other Mama’s and the morning news analysis and commiseration about the nation’s problems began to be centered around Mani’s vegetable cart. 8.30 AM began to be Mani ki Baath time in our colony.
Browsing in my Fb group one day, I saw a post for Vaangi baath with attractive pictures. My culinary skills were challenged and I decided to try my hand at it. Mani’s cart rolled in and I eagerly ran down to pick up some brinjals. The ladies were still surrounding the cart and in my anxiety, I peered over corner house Kamala’s shoulders and said, “Mani…I want some brinjals…keep some aside for me!”
There was pin drop silence as all the ladies held their collective breath. Then Sharada Mami’s reedy voice piped up, “Seenu….no brinjals”.
“No eggplants as my daughter-in-law Mary calls it,” said Vaidehi Mami with a shrug.
“They call it aubergines over there” said Paddu Mama authoritatively as he joined the group with his basket and wallet in hand.
“Nahin ji….no baingan” said Jaspreet.
“Oh! No brinjals in his basket today, is it?” I asked.
“Mani doesn’t sell brinjals”, said Karuna as she closed her cross body bag, slung it over her shoulders, put on her helmet and started her Scooty saying a “Byeeeeee” before buzzing off to her IT grind.
It took me a few minutes to process this information. Meanwhile the ladies clientele finished their transactions and moved on to their daily routines. I stood at the cart and asked Mani, “What are these ladies saying Mani? You did not bring brinjals from the market today?”
“Saar…look at this podalangai saar….have you seen such a looooong one, ever? It is from my brother-in-laws garden…home grown…with a stone tied to its end to make it grow long. Periamma….your mother will like it if you make it into a nice dhal dish with coconut and black pepper” he said giving me the traditional recipe for snake gourd for free.
“Brinjals Mani,,,,,brinjals….lets talk about the king of vegetables, brinjals!”
“Let it be Saar….no kings or queens anymore in this Republic of India!” he said.
I stood arms akimbo waiting for more. “Why no brinjals? There must be a reason….a valid reason…why Mani….why no brinjals?”
“Simple Saar….every other vegetable, I can tell my buyers….this is good…this is fresh….but that ….that …brinjal….it is a big headache Saar!”
I didn’t prompt him. he bent down and pulled out a bottle of water from the undercarriage of his cart and took a swig.
“Saar! Everytime I sold brinjals, the ladies would pounce on me the next day and complain…it was rotten, it was black, it had seeds, it had…..” he gulped another mouth of water….”It had…..worms” he whispered. “What can I do Saar….can I tell each brinjal….Open Sesame and walk into it and inspect its inner quality…..each brinjal is different….it will look shiny, purple, plump and fresh…..But inside when you cut and see…..Oh my God!….that is like taking a trip into the paathalam….the underworld….the unknown”.
Mani concluded, “No Saar…never….no brinjals for me…sorry….you have to go to the Angadi….no other go!” he offered a solution, gathered up his bits and pieces, rolled out his cart and began to yell, “Fresh vegetables….beans, cabbage, potato, tomato, raw banana, pumpkin. Today’s special farm fresh long long snake gourds and drumsticks” as he went down the street, turned the corner and disappeared from sight!
The vaangi baath was not cooked that day!
Vangi baath is a dish that originated in the Maharashtrian cuisine. Brought to Tanjavur by the Marathas, it spread to Karnataka as well.
150 grms brinjals (baingan / eggplant)
3 cups long grained rice (basmati)
1 big sized onion thin slices
1 teaspoon Mustard seeds
2 teaspoon cumin seeds (jeera)
1 teaspoon urad dhal
2 tsp chana dal (split Bengal gram)
1 tablespoon shredded curry leaves (kadi patta)
1/2 teaspoon Hing powder
3 to 4 tsp vangi bhath powder
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
2 tablespoons Peanut powder
2 tbsp sesame/til oil
2 tsp ghee
salt to taste
coriander leaves for garnishing
Heat a saucepan and dry roast 3 tablespoons of grated coconut till golden in colour. Keep it aside.
Roast 3 red chillies till brown. Keep it aside.
Roast 1 tablespoon of chana dal, urad dal, dhaniya seeds.
Add 1 teaspoon each of sesame seeds, cumin and methi seeds, 4 pieces of cloves and 1 stick of cinnamon.
Cool and blend into a powder all the ingredients together.
The Brinjal vangi bhath
- Wash brinjals, cut into long thin pieces and immerse in salt water to prevent the vegetable becoming black.
- Cook rice till grainy in a rice cooker or pressure cooker.
- Heat oil in the same saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and when it pops, add cumin seeds and stir. Add chana and urad dal and roast till golden in colour.
- Add curry leaves and hing, onions and salt and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Add sliced brinjal ,turmeric and sauté for 3 minutes.
- Add curry leaves, vangibhath masala powder and stir for another minute. Cover with lid and simmer cook for 2 minutes.
- Add tamarind paste, roasted peanut powder and mix in all the ingredients. Cook for another 2 minutes.
- Mix this dry stir fry into the boiled rice and add salt.
- Mix in a teaspoon of ghee and leave it covered and cook for 5 minutes.
- Serve hot after garnishing with chopped coriander leaves.