How I Learned to Like Beets

by Samia Altaf

Soon after President Obama moved into the White House, Mrs. Obama set up her vegetable garden. She planted tubers like carrots and turnips, leafy veggies such as spinach and kale, and herbs—thyme, sage, mint, and whatnot. But she did not plant beets. Why? I was quite perplexed and tried to find out the reason. I called the White House but did not get a satisfactory answer. “What the hell are you talking about?” said someone who picked up the phone. Maybe her children do not like them, said my child who was not overly fond of the vegetable. Not like beets? How is that possible? Of all the tuberous veggies available to man, the beet in my view is one of the best and the most poetic.

I, too, as a rebellious ten-year-old, did not quite like beets. Well, I liked them all right, I just did not like to eat them. I liked looking at them laid out with the dirt still clinging to the quivering roots. And the color! The color, that deep dark red verging on purple, intrigued me. In Urdu poetry, the idiom khoon-e-jigar is central. Though the literal translation (“blood of the liver”) is both prosaic and meaningless, it leaves the Urdu poetry buff aswirl with the despair of true or imagined loss mixed with the exquisitely tender pain of thwarted desire. The color of beets would be the color of that pain. If the liver bled that would be the color of its blood, as I confirmed during surgical training when I saw blood in the hepatic vein. So, whenever I heard Ghalib’s immortal line dil ka kya rang karoon khoon-e-jigar hone tak I’d think of beets and feel that the great nineteenth-century poet was thinking of them too. Concentric circles of dark and darker still, altogether a swirl of vivid colors and smoldering passions and black brooding juxtaposed against the colors of the leaves, the dull green of the old on the outside and the fresher lighter tone of the new, tender and vulnerable on the inside. I loved cutting a beet in two, looking tentatively inside, and rubbing it on my lips till grandmother gave me hell. My mother, who had much disdain for new-fangled cosmetics like lipsticks, said that brides in her time rubbed bleeding beets on their lips, a practice that was strictly prohibited for the unmarried.

I loved beets. I just did not like to eat them.

My mother, may she keep smiling in the heavens above, took food-related issues very seriously. When she and her children were young, cooking to feed them and neighbors and friends was her all-consuming passion. When she discovered I did not “like” beets, she tried talking it through. None of her rationales that had succeeded with others—it would make your skin glow, your hair shine, fetch a handsome groom—worked with me, who, with the wisdom of a young girl otherwise taunted as fat and dark, understood that race was already lost. So why bother? I much preferred to cut the beet in half, look at it, watch its juices ooze out leaving it drained, and talk to it of the pain of loss.  

Not one to give up easily, my mother rolled up her sleeves and went to work on us both—the beets and me. I was coaxed into tasting them once at least, ordered to eat them, and warned of dire consequences for the future if I did not. The beets were boiled, marinated, poached, and everything in between. Being an Anglophile, she insisted on trying all the “English” recipes learned from her latest cook, who had earlier served for years as the chef of a memsahib, the deputy commissioner’s wife, in Nainital, the summer resort favored by representatives of the Raj. She boiled them and served them with lemon. No dice. She made beet pie. Nothing doing. How could an English recipe, one from a language that did not have khoon-e-jigar in its lexicon, work for me? It was a losing battle right until she hit upon the recipe just under her nose, the one handed down from her Kashmiri ancestors.  

That recipe originated in Kashmir, the land of culinary excellence, as all blue-blooded Kashmiris avow. Yes, the same beautiful and disputed land up in the mountains that has been ravaged over the past seventy years. Over generations, carried to far corners as Kashmir bled and Kashmiris fled, the recipe has gathered nuances that have garnished the original—a testament that even grim tragedy cannot help but give birth to life in beautiful forms. What a success it turned out to be! And continues, with my children as well. And so simple. The trick lies in book-ending the vegetable with coriander (cilantro), a spice native to South Asia and now freely available most anywhere else. Dried roasted coriander, the globular seeds on one end, with fresh-chopped coriander leaves on the other. Coriander is a fragrant herb, so gentle and understated; the dry seeds have a lemony flavor when roasted and the leaves add that subtle fragrance that is indescribable.  

Here is the recipe to serve four—the president, his wife, and their two daughters:  

Remove the leaves from three medium-sized beets, discard the old and tough ones and the rubbery stalks and soak the young leaves in cold water. I can almost see Mrs. Obama doing this in her kitchen. Hey, it’s so easy even President Obama could do it. Put the leaves in a bowl and leave them in the top shelf of the refrigerator for ten minutes—they will acquire a springy crispness that almost talks to you. Then wash and peel off the outer skin off the tuber, grate the rest with a medium-sized grater or in a food processor and watch the juice ooze out evoking dard-e-jigar, the pain straddling ecstasy and despair that would be this color.

Heat up two tablespoons of oil and add one tablespoon of coarsely crushed dry coriander seeds. I crush them by rubbing between my palms as I saw my mother do for decades but you can use a grinder. Fry the seeds for a minute or till they are golden brown and then add the grated beets to the oil. Fry rapidly on high heat. Dry the soaked leaves with a paper towel, chop, and add to the dish. Add salt and paprika powder to taste. I usually fry dry red chilies with the dry coriander at the beginning to give the added zing of fried chilies. Do not stir the contents vigorously to prevent the vegetable breaking and turning to mush. This is the true test that any self-respecting young Kashmiri woman hopeful of entering the marriage market has to pass. If she can cook grated beets with the vegetable al dente or “standing,” retaining its shape without becoming mushy, she is home free. Future mothers-in-law, and thus fate, will smile on her.  

Now garnish with fresh chopped coriander leaves, about half a cupful, which have been soaked in cold water for thirty minutes. Make sure you chop a bit of the fresh coriander stem with the leaves. Cover for a minute so the coriander releases its fragrance into the dish. It’s a treat even to look at—so stunning a contrast of colors, just wait till you taste it. Serve with warm garlic bread and yogurt on the side. I tell you it is a dish fit for the president’s daughters. Maybe Michelle Obama will plant beets in her new garden.