The Fooderalist Papers
The search for screwpine oil
Kewra and lau
Pandanus tectorus is a palm-like dioceous tree that grows in Oceania and Southeast Asia. Its fruit is on the seal of the University of Hawaii, and its oil flavors foods from Ainaloa to Tambohorano. It is rarely referred to in English, but when it is it (and its 750 similar sister species and cultivars) is called "screwpine".
Its oil is called kewra or kevada in eastern and southern India. I am at a loss to describe its taste. It is certainly floral; if you have had kulfi, then kewra is the "what is that flavor?" you wondered about. Kewra's purpose in savories is similar to that of bay leaves in European cooking: it does not so much add its own flavor as clear your sinuses to bring out all the other flavors. It is characteristic of Kolkata and Oudh biryanis: a head like rosewater, maybe, but bringing with it a depth that makes the mustard oil and nigella seed stand out individually; a certain broadening and smoothing of your palate that keeps the chilies from erasing the more subtle flavors.
Lau is the Bengali word for the bottle-gourd or calapash. This plant is unusual in that the same species seems to have undergone two or possibly three unrelated domestications at vastly different times in human history. If the number is three one of them was by the first inhabitants of the Americas, and would have been the only agricultural product they brought with them.
When kept raw, the lau is reminiscent of a cucumber: crunchy and watery. When cooked down and drained of the almost absurd amount of water it releases, it is like acorn squash: inoffensive without being bland, carrying an earthy flavor that does not insist on itself but also refuses to fully disappear under any seasoning. In Mumbai our driver would eat slices of lau raw and, when he felt judged about this, say to my wife "it is to cool the body". When she was out of the car, he peered out to see that she was far enough away not to hear, turned to me, and said conspiratorially, "it is not to cool the body, sir: it is for the sex."
Lau's unremarkable aphrodisiac qualities aside (and our driver was the only person I ever heard make that claim; it's not ancient Gujarati folk wisdom or anything), it is important as a side dish in Bengal, particularly when cooked in butter and mixed with small shrimps: lau chingri. Served with rice and chilies it forms a meal on its own, or it can be a slightly sweet and soft-textured contrast to a heavier curry or biryani. To make lau chingri, as we wished of my mother-in-law, requires lau obviously; to make the biryani to serve it with requires kewra. We had neither at home.
Rue du Fauberg Saint-Denis
Wedged between Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est in the 10th Arrondissement of Paris is Rue du Fauberg Saint-Denis, also known as Little India. France had much less of a colonial presence in India than the UK did, but the city of Puducherry produced enough exchange that you can still buy baguettes on the Tamil coast, and you can still buy dosas in the 10th Arrondissement. Rue du Fauberg is the neighborhood where most of Paris's South Asian population is concentrated. The Metro's 2 line, following the path of the old city walls, closes off the north, wider end of the neighborhood at La Chapelle; the strip narrows down to a point at the southeast end of Gare du Nord.
It would be wrong to say stepping off the metro is like stepping into India. It lacks the density and the street dogs. But it has the right color palette. Jewelry shops, hairdressers, dressmakers, travel agents, and the innumerable mobile phone/remittance stores that mark immigrant neighborhoods in the West line the west side of the street; the east side has restaurants with names like "Grand Bombay" and "Taj Mahal" and "Gloire d'Inde" serving Muglai food to videshi Parisians (the short-order restaurants serving Tamil food to the neighborhood residents are a block in, off the expensive Rue du Fauberg itself). Dotted among all of these were butchers, fishmongers, and grocers. The grocers in particular were busy today because apparently they had all received a new shipment of Pakistani mangoes, which were being pawed and examined like gold on a touchstone; scratched and smelled to verify their reality. Fresh mangoes meant big crowds, and impatient crowds; a brightly colored unqueued maelstrom of people attempting to grab the cashier's attention long enough to pay and get out of there. It was into this maelstrom that I waded, looking for kewra and lau.
I found a store that was less chaotic than the rest and went in. The lau was easy to find: big, green, slightly waxy, and stacked in pyramids in a big bin. With two of these under my arms, I went to search for the kewra. Essential oils of any kind are subject in Indian grocery stores to a taxonomy that confounds the foreign mind, including mine. Coconut oil, while entirely edible, is kept with the haircare products; turmeric oil with the skincare products. Rose oil is kept with the perfumes, but rosewater (which is just diluted rose oil) is kept with the baking goods. Kewra, fortunately, is limited to the pantry and not the vanity, so when I had found the cooking oils section I hoped I was in luck. Mustard oil, safflower oil, ground nut oil, rapeseed oil, even a sad lonely bottle of flaxseed oil. But no kewra.
I went to the counter and asked the cashier, "Avez-vous kewra?"
"Do we have what?"
(Oh, right: most people in this neighborhood speak more English than French.)
"Kewra? It's screwpine oil?"
A look of recognition completely failed to flash across his face, as did a look of concern.
"It's from the genus Pandanus? Cultivated throughout the Indian Ocean rim? It was seemingly domesticated twice by human..."
At some point in my attempts to explain the light behind his eyes went out. I've been there. I've been a 23-year-old grocery clerk who could not even feign interest in the different fat contents of yogurt people asked about. He did not care what screwpine was, nor if his store had it, nor why this gora was standing there asking him about it. But I needed the oil, so I had to deploy the nuclear option.
"It's for my mother-in-law. She's in town and she says she needs it. My sasuma." Sasuma is Hindi rather than Tamil, but its utterance strikes terror in hearts throughout the subcontinent. The mother-in-law is in every family the final arbiter of whether the person who has married into the family was a good match or not. Her judgment is considered definitive and, once made, unlikely to change.
His eyes narrowed, and he stared back at me. "Kewra, you say?"
"Or screwpine, or kevada, or essence de pandan."
He immediately barked a series of orders in Tamil to somebody in the back storeroom, which initiated a frantic period of shuffling and throwing of things. Questions and answers flew back and forth over my head, and were closed off with the cashier shouting, in English, "Well open them, then!"
A minute later, hesitantly, out of the dark storeroom, an arm extends holding a small bottle of screwpine oil.
The mother-in-law card should not be underestimated.