If you go by Wikipedia, the year 1822 was fairly unremarkable in the history of India. The page “1822 in India” has a solitary, forlorn entry mentioning that it was the year when Bombay Samachar, the longest continuously published newspaper in Asia, was launched. What it does not mention, though, is that 1822 was also when cauliflower seeds were first sown in Indian soil, yielding over time delights like aloo gobi, phulkopir shingara and gobi manchurian.
Unlike potatoes, tomatoes and chillies, all staples of Indian food that reached India aboard Portuguese ships, the cauliflower was introduced by the British. One Dr Jemson, a botanist from Kew who managed the Company Gardens in Saharanpur in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), first imported the vegetable into the country. From then on, the cauliflower took root.
For the colonialists, there were primarily two reasons for importing exotic vegetables like cauliflower, food historian Utsa Ray writes in her book Culinary Culture in Colonial India: “One was to bring new (modern) food to the subject population as a symbol of progress. The other was to recreate a sense of belonging for the colonisers in the colony.”
By the mid-19th century, such was the thrall of the cauliflower that botanists, agriculturists and writers were all documenting its evolution. In his 1889 book Gardening in India, British botanist George Marshall Woodrow, for instance, elaborates on the intricacies of growing the vegetable in India. “Cauliflower being a delicate plant always needs great care and attention in its cultivation but much less care is necessary in this country that in Europe,” he writes. “The soil most suitable is a rich friable loam, such as occurs in the black soil of the Deccan, the alluvial tracts in the basins of the Ganges and Nerbudda (Narmada).”
The domestic trade in cabbage, cauliflower and radish began flourishing around late 19th century, especially in the vicinity of large towns, says the book Reminisces of Colonial and Indian Exhibitions (1886) edited by author Frank Cundall. Woodrow mentions “a variety known to English seedsman as large Asiatic” that “established itself in the Northern Provinces where a good head of cauliflower is procurable in December for ½ anna. In Bombay the same head would cost ten times the sum.” He says the Asiatic was considered dependable but “inferior in flavour and delicacy” to the English varieties.
Into Indian kitchens
The cauliflower came to the subcontinent exactly 200 years ago, although it had been around for around 2300 years. It is believed that it was first grown in Asia around the Mediterranean Sea and from there travelled across the world, building an impressive portfolio. Since then, it has been peddled in the bazaars of Ottoman Istanbul, nurtured in English gardens, smothered with florid sauces in the kitchens of 17th century French aristocrats and served up with flair at royal repasts. King Louis XIV of France, for one, is said to have had a soft spot for cauliflower blanched in nutmeg-scented broth and served in a pool of melted butter.
Cookbooks and instructional manuals published by colonial residents during the Raj, especially the second half of the 19th century, feature several cauliflower-based recipes – cauliflower laced with cheese or soused with French sauces, cauliflower baked, stewed or cooked au gratin. One Colonel Kenny-Herbert, in his book Culinary Jottings for Madras, calls cauliflower au gratin “the great dish to be studied thoroughly”. He references other recipes too in the book, albeit less effusively. Among them are cold-cooked cauliflower folded into buttered eggs served on toast and cauliflower served with a topping of Bechamel sauce or Sauce Piquante.
From elaborate European recipes it didn’t take the cauliflower long to make its way into hybrid dishes. In Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, published in Madras in 1849, Dr R Riddell, an army surgeon in the Nizam’s court, counts cauliflower among the vegetables best suited for fish curries. Around three decades later, Grace Johnson published a book titled The Anglo Indian and Oriental Cookery (1893) that features a recipe for tamarind-laced mutton curry cooked with carrots, turnip and cauliflower, and flavoured with cloves, cardamoms, bay leaves and a “tablespoon of the best currie powder”.
In The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India, written under the pseudonym “A Thirty-Five Years’ Resident”, cauliflower features in dishes like Chahkee (vegetable curry cooked with minced onions, garlic and chillies in mustard oil and an “uncommon” pickle); cauliflower soused in a cinnamon-scented emulsion of sugar and vinegar, dyed red with bruised chunks of beetroot; and English numbers like Bubble and Squeak, a dish of meat stewed with a rainbow of vegetables served bubbling and squeaking.
By the end of the 19th century, along with the British, Indians too were writing cookbooks with recipes featuring new vegetables like the cauliflower and its cousin cabbage. Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Pak Pranali, for instance, speaks of a minimalist cauliflower roast (florets fried in ghee or butter, roasted on a pan, and served with a splash of melted butter or ghee, flavoured with cardamom and salt) as well as of Phulkopir Surua (a rich broth made with pigeon meat, cauliflowers and the unguent brain matter of golda chingri or giant freshwater prawns).
For the affluent middle-class Bengali, the cauliflower was an exotic addition to her mundane meal. Rabindranath Tagore’s cosmopolitan household cooked several recipes with the vegetable, including cauliflower cooked with eggs and cauliflower dampokto (dumpukht). Such was their fondness for the vegetable that the bard’s niece Pragyasundari Devi picked it to create a special sweet for his 50th birthday in 1911. The opulent dessert – rich with saffron, nuts and raisins and embellished with gold and silver leaf – baffled the guests who couldn’t guess the main ingredient. It was christened Kavi Sambardharana Barfi.
Unlike the Tagores, the more orthodox did not readily accept the alien vegetable. As a result, it was never included in the ritualistic food offered to Hindu gods, especially in temple cuisines that followed scriptures composed before the advent of the cauliflower. In Bengal, Ray writes, “Although rice was the most significant food in the context of commensality, whatever was new came to be considered a caste taboo.” This included, among other things, cauliflower too.
If Bengalis had any misgivings about the cauliflower, they are long past them now. Be it garom cha and phulkopir shingara (samosas stuffed with spiced potato and cauliflower), or a bowl of maachher jhol (soupy fish curry) fragrant with the mellow nuttiness of fried cauliflower, or special dishes like phulkopi kamala (cauliflower cooked with oranges), cauliflower is the star veggie of Bengal’s winters. In the Bengali imagination, cauliflower has found a spot in lofty philosophical questions. The 20th century Bengali mystic and folk songwriter Bhaba Pagla asks in a song, “Where does the telepathic live/In the cabbage or in the cauliflower?”
In Bengali kitchens, cauliflower is cooked into curries with other winter vegetables, added to spiced lentils, cooked in rich gravies along with fatty steaks of Catla or thick paves of Bhetki, paired with prawns or simmered with climbing perch and a few deep-fried bori (sun-dried lentil pellets). Aside from these, there are special dishes, such as phulkopir muri ghonto (large cauliflower florets cooked with fragrant Gobindobhog rice in ghee, tempered with aromatic whole spices) and the feted Bengali phulkopir roast (a wedding banquet staple). Nothing, however, comes close in addictiveness and simplicity to the deep-fried cauliflower florets with their crisp caramelised crust that gives them smoky undertones.
Punjabi kitchens are just as enthusiastic as Bengalis in their celebration of the cauliflower. It’s quite impossible to imagine Punjabi winters without thick parathas stuffed with spiced, grated cauliflower, topped with a dollop of butter, or gobi gajar aur shalgam ka achaar – a piquant winter pickle made with carrots, cauliflower and turnip. In Amritsar, it’s hard to miss stuffed pellets of dough – with generous fistfuls of finely-chopped cauliflower mixed with onions, ginger, fresh coriander leaves and spices – being rolled out and slapped to the walls of hot tandoors to make crisp gobi kulchas that come bathed in ghee. And then there is the homely gobi aloo (cauliflower florets and potatoes, cooked together with a host of spices) that is best savoured rolled up in soft rotis slathered with homemade ghee.
From the north to south of the country, a version of aloo gobi exists everywhere, each with its own flair. Alka Keswani, who documents her native Sindhi cuisine on the blog Sindhi Rasoi, makes a Sindhi-style gobi aloo by first shallow-frying cauliflower florets and potato wedges, and then cooking them with pounded green garlic, chillies, coriander and tomatoes. “Sometimes I mash up leftover gobi aloo and knead it into a dough with flour to make thick rotis,” said Keswani.
If ever a cauliflower map of the country is drawn, alongside aloo gobi would feature other delights: Uttar Pradesh’s tehri (a light pulao made with potatoes, peas and cauliflowers), Tamil Nadu’s spicy poriyal (a lightly spiced vegetable saute), Parsi gobi ma gosht (cauliflower cooked with mutton and finished with coconut milk), among many others.
In some recipes, cauliflower – which is a great complement to meat because of its nutty, sweet undertones – is employed as a replacement for the protein. One example of this is gobi musallam. As culinary historian Charmaine O’Brien explains in The Penguin Food Guide to India, “Meat dishes like murgh mussallam [stuffed whole chicken] were adapted to be made with cauliflower instead” for vegetarian Hindu guests of the meat-loving Nawabs of Lucknow. Apart from its meaty bite, the stocky, rotund cauliflower, enrobed in silken gravy, provided a visual approximation of a whole roasted bird.
Shoots and leaves
It’s not just the creamy white curd of the cauliflower that delights the taste buds. Cauliflower leaves and stalks too are repositories of flavour and nutrition and are often used by resourceful cooks in home kitchens. “In Odisha,” said food chronicler Shweta Mohapatra, “tender cauliflower leaves, along with other winter greens like spinach, mustard greens, amaranth, onion leaves, and some brinjal or raw bananas are cooked with garlic and mustard paste or with lentils to a velvety finish.”
Bengalis grind cauliflower leaves into a paste and cook it in mustard oil tempered with nigella seeds to make a saporous bata, which is best eaten with hot rice. Another way they use the leaves is by coating them in batter and deep frying them to make crunchy fritters. In Sikkim and Darjeeling, the leaves are chopped up, fermented and sun-dried to make gundruk (the generic name for dried, fermented leafy greens), which is added to soups and stews or tossed with salads. The list of recipes is inexhaustible.
Of course, these days, cauliflower is no longer a seasonal treat. It’s available almost all year round. While purists insist on eating cauliflowers only during winters, old-timers often complain that the flavour of the past is lost. As poet Raghuvir Sahay ruminated in his poem Vyavharik Log (Practical People):
Nowadays books are as tender as cauliflower
And cauliflower as bland as books
What would one gain reading cauliflower, or eating book?
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.