"Vegetables, I think..." - by kelly klein
After six months of fantasizing about inexhaustible quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, I am in a veritable heaven. Ladakh, at 12,000 feet, in the arid rain shadow of the Himalayas, has a very short growing season and little cultivable land, and as a result, very few culinary choices. Nepal, on the other hand, despite my preconceptions, is an emerald jungle. Now I find myself besieged with options, albeit new and unknown. Traveling and living in foreign countries, at times, requires a great deal of faith. I buy and I eat, trusting that it is both edible and nutritious. But what is it?
Four new vegetables. Sorry I cannot tell you what they are called as I do not speak the language, nor do I recognize them. So, I cannot tell you what they are in any language.
Yesterday, I found a little old woman, sleeping under a banana tree beside her wooden cart of vegetables for sale. A young man awakened her when he noted my interest. She rose to the intrusion with a radiating smile. I proceeded to pick up a vegetable and make the sign for “What is it?” She would say something, which, of course, I immediately forget. I then would act out just eating it raw and she would shake her head no and mime peeling it and putting it in a pot on a stove. We followed through this charade with each new veggie, and with each I was directed to peel and cook. One, a small prickly green pod, she showed me how to open it and remove the seeds, before cutting and putting into the imaginary pot.
I picked out several of each unknown as well as many familiar ones. She carefully loaded one group at a time onto a balance scale with a weight of one kilo (2.2 pounds) on the other end. The scale of course immediately indicated that I needed more to balance it out. Well, that’s a hell of a lot of veggies for a single person. There is no way I could consume a kilo of each vegetable. When I indicated less, she produced the weight for a half-kilo. Still too much. So I suggested less again. She produced a small bag filled with sand that apparently represented a quarter kilo, or so I assume, and put that on the balance. Ah, much better. I wasn’t too concerned about getting a fair shake for my money, so I would just indicate that it was fine, even though I clearly could have more to balance it out. Picking up some small jalapeno chilies, I laughed. I certainly didn’t want a quarter kilo, just maybe four. She laughed and just motioned for me to take them. So in the end, I bought a batch of these four different unknowns, along with cauliflower, tomatoes, lemons, garlic, fresh ginger, cilantro, and, shoot, what is the English word? It is berejena in Spanish…oh, yea, eggplant, as well as these amazing string beans that reached easily two feet long.
Having completed the transaction, paying with bills that do not use roman numbers, another story, I filled my backpack with a load of colors and textures, and it cost all of $1.10. We both smiled, happy with our nonverbal exchange. She is my new vegetable teacher. I give her all the business I can. Of course I can’t resist buying from the vegetable man who uses his bicycle as his mobile store, but he is rarely around.
A stir-fry of those four unknowns with chilies, cauliflower, beans, eggplant, garlic, tomato, fresh ginger and whalaa! I have dinner. Trying to distinguish each one, savoring a piece in my mouth, chewing gingerly, I truly cannot discern a difference one from the other, but no worries. A full plate of food it makes, delicious, and fresh, and I assume nourishing.