The roots are lovely, dark and deep

Sumana Roy | Updated on October 18, 2019

In poor light: Kochu, the Bengali name for taro root, is used as a quasi-cussword in the language   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is something inherently foreign about eating what grows underground. And the humble taro root — kochu in Bengali — comes wrapped in mystery and cultural connotations

There is something about root vegetables — their need to hide their food from us, from creatures of the day. Not just the feeling of having one’s greed being detected or discovered, but the iterant guilt of being a thief. For no matter what we eat, plants or animals, we’re always stealing from those who are actually making food only for themselves. Cooking things, thereby tweaking or ordering or changing their taste, might perhaps be our only way of claiming power and ownership over food produced by others. That feeling of guilt is amplified when we go to root vegetables. For flowers are creatures of air, light and glamorous, even exhibitionist; and leaves, in spite of being a daytime mazdoor, unassuming. Both are employees of light. Their beauty and their taste derive from light — whether we eat flowers fried or in salads and leaves cooked or raw or ground to a paste and sautéed (my favourite way), we meet their light and consequent lightness as one meets light, without feeling its assault.

Darkness is a different species altogether, and its offspring, living blind inside the earth, are truly deep creatures. Their bodies, their flesh, are produced not by a sense of deprivation of light but of rebellion — why else would the term ‘underground’ come to acquire such volume?

After such thoughts, it would seem a bit of an anticlimax to register the name of this rebellious creature of the underground. Kochu (taro root). You can tell the level of underestimation of this vegetable from the way Bengalis use its name as a quasi-cussword — for people they have little respect for, for events, real and imagined, all dismissed with those two syllables: ko-chu. How that came to be is bound to excite the historian’s curiosity as much as the amateur botanist’s. The result will only be speculation, perhaps to do with the unremarkable appearance of the vegetable or its behaviour, of causing itching inside the mouths and throats of humans. And so — kochu! But the story I am seeking is of the moment when a person called another by this name. Who was that person and could they have imagined the legacy of their utterance?

Kochu — bad boy — was kept away from me during my early childhood. I first had it at a neighbour’s place. I want to say that I returned a convert, but the truth is that I didn’t. I returned with swollen lips and a throat so itchy that it was almost trying to run out of itself. Homemade remedies were forced on me — what seemed like litres of lemon juice, firefighters sliding into my throat. A few more years of exile from the vegetable and what a loss of years it seems to my eating life now!

We lived in a mostly Bangal neighbourhood in Siliguri then — people who’d managed to wriggle out of Bangladesh when no one was watching. Often without money, their woks filled with what grew in their tiny patches of land: Squash, their stems and leaves, cooked in magical ways; chillies, which they used in abundance; and heart-shaped green leaves with hidden roots that they forced out of the earth with ends of iron spatulas. I watched in amazement — this large rat-looking thing being poked out of its burrow. Soil wrapped it as light wraps flowers, probing and intimate. At moments it felt like it wouldn’t be odd if the vegetable were cooked with its soil skin.

There is something inherently foreign about eating things that live underground or in water. Those of land are related to us by having light’s surname as it were — we see each other, and that visibility allows us to become relatives. Perhaps that is why the depth of colour of root vegetables is always a surprise: The redness of the beetroot, as if the soil’s haemoglobin had been condensed in it; carrots the colour of dawn and dusk, replicating the colours of the day it has been denied from seeing; the whiteness of potato, to balance the darkness of soil; the orderliness of onion and garlic.

But to return to my favourite kochu. A recipe, if such bareness of detail and moodiness can be called recipe at all. The vegetable is peeled, boiled and ground to a paste with coconut, mustard seeds, green chillies and salt; and after this operation, a little mustard oil, almost like an afterthought, a balm to keep it alive, to protect it from oxidising perhaps, like the Egyptians are said to have kept their dead alive. It is wrong that I should mention death. What the kochu paste does is wake up the senses. As I eat it with rice, I think of this wedding — the coconut, a fruit that grows and lives high above the ground, mating with this underground creature, the marriage sealed by the heat of chillies and mustard. In such heat and pungency too is sweetness and light.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on October 18, 2019

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