Ever since I tasted and then cooked the agathi poo poriyal four years ago, I have looked forward to it whenever this pretty ingredient is in season.
The agathi (sesbania grandiflora) plants grow tall and their flowers hang in attractive clusters. They are in season now and, as I stood admiring the white blossoms, I happened to spot thin long and green pods growing from the withered edges of some flowers.
They were a cross between the cluster bean and the long bean and so I asked Chintamani, a farm hand if these pods were edible. She nodded and said that only the very tender ones could be eaten. She called it the agathi kai.
Her way of cooking is to boil it in water until it is tender and then sauté it with onions, curry leaves, chillies, mustard seeds and finish off with a handful of freshly grated coconut.
So many of my food experiences have been the result of casual conversations and here was another new one for me to try. What also amazed me was how I had never really noticed these slender pods before.
Search results online for the agathi kai yielded nothing and my books on nattu samayal were of little help. I called Rajesh Govindarajulu and his wife Sujatha and they said that the vegetable is very popular in their Chettiar households. They pickle it in a buttermilk solution and call it oota. Sujatha also said that a variety of seasonal vegetables such as yam, winged bean, and clove beans are also used to make oota. She generously offered to pickle the freshly picked agathi kai, which I carried back home and has promised to share the recipe too.
I was surprised to learn that this vegetable was easily available around the Vysial Street. Most Chettiar homes apparently have a perennial stock of oota that is eaten as an accompaniment to upma, idli, dosa and curd rice.
I headed to Vysial Street and my favourite street vendor Rajathi. She showed me her empty basket; she had sold the last lot of the agathi kai. But she did have a few packets of the buttermilk-cured oota. She laughingly declined to reveal her source but assured me that she would let me know when she got more.
Further down the road at Karur Renganathan stores, the small refrigerator contained a list of oota. The agathi kai is also referred to as avisi kai and it was sold out. My search next took me to Mahalakshmi foods tucked into the tiny alleyways off Vysial Street. Gokula amma, her daughter and helpers were busy stocking the shelves and brought out packets of their home-made avisikai oota.
Unfortunately I didn’t come across any fresh agathi kai that evening. But it dawned on me that this is one area where one is most likely to find local, seasonal and the freshest produce.
The avisikai oota tasted crunchy and has a slightly astringent after taste. The buttermilk infusion is light, tangy and delicious. It helps make the extremely bitter vegetable less bitter.
After an exhaustive search on the Internet, I came across a range of sites that spoke about the edible benefits of this pod, which is listed under so many names: Swamp pea, vegetable humming bird, West Indian pea, katura murunga, August tree pod, agastya tree…
There are no recipes but all the sites talk about the tender pods being laden with medicinal properties and especially beneficial for stomach ailments. Buttermilk being a good probiotic further enhances this native ingredient. Now I can’t wait to add our own avisikai oota recipes from Coimbatore onto the world wide web!
Looking for oota?
Sri Mahalakshmi Foods: 91A, Balaji Kovil lane. Ph: 2394597
Karur R Renganathan Ph: 9994536772 (made on order only)