Monday, 18 July 2011

Brinjal or Eggplant or Aubergine - What's in a Name?

Brinjal or Eggplant or Aubergine
This vegetable of the Nightshade family is known by different names in different parts of the world: Aubergine in France, Eggplant in North America, and here in India we know it as Brinjal. Brinjal is native to India and there are nearly 2500 varieties of Brinjal grown here. They can be white, green, purple, round, long, huge, tiny, striped, etc. So when I sourced my brinjal seeds from the local nursery without knowing the variety, there was much suspense about the kind of fruit I would get. Nearly three months later I found out that my brinjal is the small, round, purple variety. 
Brinjal Bounty
Before cooking brinjal, one is advised to salt, rinse and drain it, to rid it of its slight bitterness. Raw Brinjal, in fact, can’t be eaten as they are somewhat bitter; the reason is that they contain minute amounts of nicotine. Here’s a fun fact sourced from Wikipedia: Nine Kgs of brinjal contain a cigaretteful of nicotine. But once brinjal is cooked, its flesh turns succulent, almost melting, with a rich, slightly meaty flavour. This vegetable is extremely versatile and there are a mind boggling number of recipes that one can choose from around the world. Very often, the brinjals in my kitchen find their way into sambhar, vangi bhaat (brinjal rice) or a tomato brinjal curry. Yet, Deep-fried Brinjal slices (Sicilian style) and Baba Ghanoush are my favourites.
A Recent Harvest
Salted Brinjal Slices: To be Rinsed and Drained
Baba Ghanoush is a wonderful Middle Eastern dish, in which baked brinjal is mashed and combined with olive oil and seasoning. There are many more mouthwatering brinjal recipes. Like the Turkish Imam Bayildi (brinjals stuffed with tomato, garlic and onions and simmered in olive oil). Imam Bayildi literally means the “Imam (Muslim Priest) fainted”; he fainted after eating the dish as it was so good. Now, with an interesting name like that, one is strongly urged to try it out.
Let me sign off with the story of an unusal  experiment. An Indian farmer from Chattisgarh has grafted Tomato and Brinjal into a single plant and is getting good results. Since both tomato and brinjal belong to the same family, such an experiment is possible. Here is the link to the video. Can we further this logic and grow all Solanaceae species in the same plant. Can we have a “potato, tomato, chilly, capsicum and brinjal all-in-one” plant? Somehow, I find the idea disagreeable, even if it is to bear fruit (pun intended).

Thursday, 14 July 2011


What do you see in the picture below? A dried Almond tree leaf, a fallen almond and some other dried leaves. Look harder.
Camouflage: Spot the Odd One
Can you spot the spindly legs of the brown Leaf Insect sitting on the almond leaf? I nearly missed it, but when I saw the leaves move in the absence of a breeze, I looked closer and was in for a surprise. Not only does this creature look like brown leaves, it also tries to mimic the movement of leaves being blown in the wind. The insect rocks back and forth as it moves.

Brown Leaf Insect
Here is a clear shot of the insect. If someone can help me identify it more accurately, please let me know.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Meet the Oldest Tree in Chennai

The international headquarters of the Theosophical Society is located in Chennai, just a couple of miles from my home. Dedicated towards Theosophy, this unique society encourages the study of different religions and philosophies.  According to Lonely Planet, its library houses a vast collection of religious books, including “thousand-year-old Buddhist scrolls and intricate, handmade 19th-century bibles”. Yet, more often visitors, including myself, are drawn here for another reason – its natural beauty.  Of late, I’ve been making regular trips and I find I’m getting addicted to the fragrance and the loveliness of the place.
Burmese Pink Cassia
Tree Canopy
Vinka Lined Path leading to the Parsi Fire Temple
The entire campus is canopied by old, majestic trees. Paths leading to various bungalows and places of worship are lined with flowering shrubs that are often mobbed by swarms of butterflies and colourful dragonflies.  Although nature hasn’t been allowed to grow completely wild, here you will not find well manicured gardens, save for a few patches. Instead you may often find yourself under eerie bat colonies, buzzing bee hives or monstrous hornet nests. But it is this wilderness, in the heart of bustling Chennai, which I find so alluring.
Flying Fox Colony
Bee Hive Near the Cannon Ball / Nagalingam Tree
Hornet's Nest
The star attraction of the Theosophical Society is the Great Banyan Tree, the oldest tree in Chennai.  The tree is over 450 years old, and by the latest record, is spread over 65,000 square feet. It is not surprising then, that it can host a gathering of 3000 at a time.  The tree’s central trunk was destroyed in a storm, years ago, but now its prop roots support the tree and it continues to encompass more ground each passing year.  When one learns that the tree has been host to great souls like Gandhi, Maria Montessori, the Dalai Lama and J. Krishnamurti among others, one feels even more reverence for it. 
Great Banyan Tree: Over 450 years Old and Spread Across 65,000 sq ft.
There is another tree that characterizes the campus: the Nagalinga tree or the Cannon Ball tree. Native to the Amazonian rain forests, this is a tall tree with beautiful fragrant flowers that one can smell from a mile off. The Nagalinga flower attracts  hordes of bees and strangely it springs directly from the bark of the tree trunk.  If that’s not enough oddness for one tree, there’s more.  Its fruit is woody and resembles a cannon ball that can cause considerable harm if it were to fall on you. The flower is considered sacred in India as the petals resemble the hood of a Naga (snake) protecting a Shiva lingam (the stigma).
Nagalingam Tree/Cannon Ball Tree
Nagalingam Pushpa (Flower)
From Another Angle
Bordering the campus is the Adyar river, on the banks of which one can find many large water birds and Giant Ghost Crabs. And though I tried hard to get a picture of the Giant crab, they were just too quick for me. These crabs crawled into their holes, the moment they sensed my presence from afar. 
Cactus Flowers
Palm Flowers
Enclosed within 100 acres of land, the Theosophical Society campus is a treasure house of diverse plant and animal species. The campus can easily be mistaken for a botanical garden. For a pictorial reference of the flora and fauna that reside here, click on the links you will find here.
Tamarind Drying
Harvested Coconuts
Rofous Treepie