Culinary Gene: Aloe Versatility
Now there is nothing novel about the suggestion that aloe be used as a beauty product because Cleopatra endorsed it (given her penchant for odd beauty treatments); I would also confirm from personal experience that it works. Teen years were not kind to my skin and no amount of “beauty moisturiser” could help quench the thirst of the dry skin I was born with. The one and only ingredient that worked for me was an aloe based gel that turned dry patches into supple and grease free skin. So maybe old Cleo was on to something. The ancient Egyptians are said to have dubbed aloe vera the “plant of immortality.” Similar sentiments were echoed by the native Americans who called it “the wand of the heaven”. The nom de plume was not so much an homage to an ancient queen but was coined to honour the plethora of ills the spiny leaf cactus could possibly cure – right from belly aches to blocked sinuses and from insomnia to eczema, burns and fatigue.
Aloe vera’s medicinal worth, especially in eastern medicine, is well known despite the fact that the plant is 99% water (being a cactus and all that). It’s goodness is due to the remaining 1% which is packed with nutrients including vitamins (B1, B2, B6, Choline, Folic acid, C etc.), enzymes, minerals (Calcium, Sodium, Chlorine, Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Iron and Magnesium), sugars and many more.
Chances are, you already know some of the above; what you may not know (I didn’t!) is that Aloe vera is quite a culinary star as well. Dim one, but a star nonetheless.
“While we continue to look around for exotic ingredients from faraway lands, we tend to forget that there are some great home-grown, healthy and nutritional ingredients that can be used innovatively in both our day-to-day and commercial cooking,” says Amardipta Biswas, an independent F&B Consultant and brand mentor at IFHT. As a restaurateur he is always on the lookout for new and interesting ingredients. In that quest, he says, looking closer home, sometimes, may be an intelligent thing to do. In his case, the inspiration came after he tasted a salad that his sister-in-law had prepared. “The salad came a tad slimy, but I loved it (including the texture – I was asked to keep an open mind!). Once I ate it, I was told, the ‘twist’ and the taste, was from the slime of Aloe Vera!”
That was just the beginning of a culinary adventure that gave rise to creations such as ‘Ginger Orange Salad Dressing’ and the ‘Oriental Seafood Salad’. Aloe vera is not exactly an alien in the Indian kitchen. Known as gwarpatta or ghrit kumari, it has been used in sabjis and stir fries for some time now. “A lot of aloe vera recipes available suggest that it is cooked in different regions in India in different ways, using different influences – from the Chettinad to the north Indian flavour. A Gwarpatta Sabzi, alongside a Chettinad curry and a Ghekawar ka Halwa, could testify the acceptability of Aloe taste to the Indian palate,” says Biswas who also feels that given such diversity, one would expect that aloe vera cooking and the diverse and interesting recipes involving it, has been around from much longer than our grandmothers’ time.
While he drew on personal experience to work with aloe, Chef Aditya Fatepuria of Sattvam, Bangalore, was inspired by its use in sattvic cuisine. “During my research on sattvic food I collected lot of ancient books like “pak kala”, books by Raja Nal and Bheem who were expert cooks. Therein I found a few recipes with aloe vera and learnt about its health benefits.”
His experimentation led him to invent his own version of the gwarpatta subji. The traditional dish has been improvised upon with the use of crispy greens like spinach, dill leaves, cluster beans and fenugreek, with panch phoran masalas. The “twist” is made necessary by the typical bitter taste aloe naturally possesses. One way to combat it is to use strongly flavoured herbs (like dill and basil) with it and/or cooking it with vegetables known for their characteristic taste (aubergines, cabbage, capsicum, etc.).“This balances the associated bitterness and the use of strong flavours gives the dish a unique character, taking away from the apprehensions surrounding its edibility. In fact, the slime gives a nice (though unusual) texture to the dish,” explains Amardipta.
From a traditional curry to more exotic oriental salads, aloe vera works well in a wide range of cuisines. It’s a testament to the versatility of this plant and perhaps also of the changing nature of cuisine in general.
“In the 21st century, cuisine is hard to define, as boundaries have diminished, and just as aloe vera found its way around the world from North Africa, over the centuries, a lot of other ingredients have similarly lost their national or zonal identity to the new global; creating new cuisines, new dishes and new horizons for professional chefs and housewives alike, to explore,” says Amardipta. Can’t argue with that, can we?
Text: Prerna Uppal
Concept and photography: Sanjay Ramchandran
Chef Amardipta Biswas IFHT Mumbai
Chef Aditya Fatepuria : Sattvam Bangalore