Some of my happiest times over the years have involved being in nature. I spent much of my childhood outdoors around my grandmother’s house, which sat hidden away in a large area in the middle of a busy city. It was always a surprise to first-time visitors coming down the long, winding, unassuming private road to suddenly find themselves surrounded by what constituted almost a mini fruit plantation, a huge lawn and formal garden. There was also a big vegetable garden behind the house, near a separate set of buildings that included a kitchen, store rooms, etc., and in the middle of it sat a deep, dark ancient well.
While I was still a kid, our house was built next to my grandmother’s house in the same compound. So, soon I was able to spend time outdoors to my heart’s content. There were all kinds of trees – mango, guava, pomegranate, custard apple, jackfruit, olive, krishnachura (flame trees)… The guava trees had convenient low branches and I used to love climbing up those. My favorite was a guava tree that stood between the pantry at the back of the house and the enormous cooking kitchen in a separate building; the two were connected by a red-brick walkway that had a sloping red roof. The tree had a cluster of branches that I could comfortably stretch myself across, and I would sit there with a book for three to four hours and read. My family used to call me a bookworm; indeed it was hard to pry me away from books, I read voraciously all the time. So I would sit in the guava tree reading; but it was also a great spot to still be connected to everyone and see what was going on.
In the afternoons after lunch, which was when I took my spot in the tree, the household staff would gather nearby and chat. There was a little old lady who, even though she was tiny and gentle, was the leader that everyone listened to. We called her Boochi Bua and we all absolutely loved and adored her – she had accompanied my great-grandmother as a young girl when my great-grandma had been married, in order to keep her company in her new household. She herself got married later and had two grown-up sons by the time I was a child, one of whom worked at a distinguished old dining club in the city and was brought in to help whenever there were big parties in the house. He would come to visit Boochi Bua and my grandmother from time to time, wearing a pristine white jacket (I remember being very impressed by his jacket – none of the staff wore anything like that). Boochi Bua talked about her sons of course and I would sit in the guava tree and listen to her stories and enjoy the general chatter.
I also really loved the garden which sat in the front of the house. It had a big green lawn in the middle, with all kinds of flowering plants laid out in patterns in one section and all around the edges, which would flower over the various seasons. There were exotic tall South American canna lilies, simple white lilies, beautiful tiger lilies, leopard lilies, zinnias, dahlias, hibiscus, sweet smelling roses, jasmine and coral jasmine, and my favorites – a riotous magenta bougainvillea that hung in an explosion of color over a section of the big verandah (and hid a giant bee hive for some years), and beautiful orange flame vines that climbed all over the brick wall on one side of the garden and the iron railings on the other. There was a bird bath which I used to love replenishing with water and wait excitedly for the birds to come.
The garden, and the verandah opening onto it, was where the family spent hours in the evenings, sitting, chatting and drinking tea. I have so many memories there too. I remember my parents surprising me with my first toy tea set which was beautiful and delightful in my child’s eyes; I invited my best friend over and we had a formal tea party in the garden drinking proper grown-up tea with milk and sugar using the miniature tea set. When I was even younger, in the winters after being given our baths my sister and I would be rubbed with olive oil and put out in the garden to soak up the sun. The garden was also where various vendors would come to conduct business in the mornings – the laundryman would come back with piles of freshly laundered and starched bed linen, the cheese man would bring soft delicate little disks of cheese that he himself made (I’ve never found those cheeses anywhere again, no one else in Bangladesh made that type of cheese it seems). The gardener and my grandmother would walk around the garden looking at the plants and discussing their health, and I would follow them around enjoying learning about the plants.
As an adult now I find it strange and unsettling that I don’t have a garden. While my husband and I love living in Manhattan surrounded by culture, diversity, and a plethora of restaurants, living in apartments has also meant that I can’t have my own backyard or garden. This past year though I was very lucky to get my own little plot of land in a beautiful garden where I can grow anything. Since I have a key I can go in when I want – some days when I wake up super early I take my tea, sit in the garden, listen to the birds chatter, and watch bees and little white butterflies (and even monarch butterflies during migration season) flutter around the flowering plants. Lots of different kinds of birds live in the garden – sparrows, mourning doves, bluejays, cardinals, hummingbirds – and I’ve come to recognize which pairs live in which tree. I’ve even seen a bee go to sleep for the evening hugging a flowering stem. It’s a joy being in this little oasis of nature in the middle of crazy busy Manhattan.
In my little plot I’ve planted edible plants and herbs. Some of the herbs I planted are not easy to find fresh – these include zaatar, epazote, nasturtium, fennel, bay leaf, lemongrass. Others, like mint and basil, are easily available in stores but since I generally don’t use large quantities at a time, I feel guilty buying unnecessarily large bunches and having the rest spoil. This is my way of cutting down on food waste and using only what I need.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more conscious about living sustainably, about being a giver and not a taker or a thoughtless consumer. My little bit of gardening has allowed me to take a tiny step from an intellectual ideal to living it, experiencing practically what it takes to grow food. After spending time and effort helping little seedlings grow into plants, I’ve developed a bond with them and want to see them thrive and survive. So when I want to use some herbs and greens I am mindful of not indiscriminately taking from the plants, not taking so much that they get damaged and die – I take only what I need, and in a way that allows them to continue to live and grow. This is such a different experience from when we see bunches of vegetables arrayed on supermarket shelves, where it’s easier to needlessly buy large quantities of those and throw out without thinking through the environmental consequences of our waste.
It’s also been rewarding to be connected to the earth. Focusing on the details of gardening, paying attention to the ecosystem of the soil, worms, compost, water, sun… even becoming attuned to changes in the weather – it’s a practice in mindfulness. And that calming, nourishing effect on the soul has itself been a surprising gift.
And of course it’s joyful being able to make even the simplest dishes using what I’ve grown. I make salads that are a random mix of what’s ready to harvest from my plot, and sometimes I’ll combine them with greens I’ve bought from the farmers market. My harvest salad I am sharing here is not a “recipe”. It’s meant to be an inspiration for a salad of fresh seasonal herbs and greens. You don’t need specific ingredients. Take an assortment of fresh greens and herbs that you like, sprinkle with a little bit of lemon juice, mix with good quality olive oil and salt. Because this salad is really about freshness and taste of the greens, keep it simple, don’t overwhelm it with heavy dressings; you should be able to enjoy the taste of the different herbs and greens. Good quality olive oil is essential, as well as good flaky salt. It’s light, refreshing and healthy. If you’ve grown it, of course the salad tastes better because of the added pleasure of nourishing yourself with what you’ve sown and harvested.
Harvest Salad of Herbs, Micro Greens & Edible Flowers
- Micro Greens such as:
micro pea greens
micro broccoli greens
micro sunflower greens
micro purple radish
- Fresh Herbs such as leaves of:
- Edible Flowers such as:
nasturtium – use the small new flowers and tender baby leaves
- Olive oil – good quality, extra virgin, cold-pressed
- Salt – flaky salt is better for salads, adds a nice bite
- Lemon Juice – small amount, from a slice of freshly squeezed lemon (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- Gently rinse the herbs, greens and flowers in a colander under cold water. Drain and put on a paper towel to absorb excess water so they don’t get soggy.
- Transfer all the washed fresh ingredients to a serving plate or bowl. You can leave the flower(s) intact, or rip the petals into little pieces.
- Squeeze a slice of fresh lemon over the leaves; use only a tiny bit of juice.
- Lightly drizzle with good quality olive oil. Since this salad is extremely simple, the quality of the olive oil matters. Make sure the leaves are coated with the oil. Don’t be afraid of using your fingers to mix and coat (obviously wash your hands first!). Use enough oil to coat the leaves, but not have a pool of oil in your plate or bowl.
- Sprinkle with flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper. Leave this step till the last, you want the salt to have a bite and melt on your tongue, not in the dressing. Serve and enjoy the simplicity of the salad