I do not shy away from hard work. I know and understand that there are certain things that take time to prepare and cook. However, after sitting for more than two hours cutting, peeling, shredding a katahar’s pulp and shelling its seeds and then waiting for more than an hour for it to finish cooking, I was no longer feeling the love. But I think that it’s okay to feel that way, after all, love is also about patience and about putting us to the test. The making up is sweet and so it was is in this case also as I sat down to eat my katahar curry and rice along with a heaping tablespoon of hot mango achar and a smile to melt winter’s snow.
Breadnut (Katahar in Guyana, Chataigne in Trinidad and Tobago) is not to be confused with breadfruit or jackfruit. While all three belong to the Moraceae family, they are different in appearance and taste. The breadfruit is seedless and its flesh is starchy and used very much the way that a potato is used. Breadfruit can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes. Though the outer skin of a jackfruit and its interior resembles that of a katahar (breadnut), it grows much larger and can weigh anywhere from 10 to 80 pounds. Once cut opened, the fruit is said to smell like that of pineapple and banana. Katahar (breadnut) on the other hand is almost odourless and is grown primarily for its seeds that are high in protein and low in fat. The outer skin is spiny, and when green, the flesh is shredded and cooked as a vegetable. The seeds of a ripe katahar (breadnut) are usually boiled and roasted and eaten as a snack or as the protein in a vegetarian dish. The ripe boiled seed we called breadnut and the young vegetable curried, we’d call katahar.
I was introduced to katahar as a child. I fell in love with the nuts immediately. In a curry, the katahar nuts were like little chunks of meat, I’d pick them all out and set them aside on my plate to eat after I’d finish eating everything else on my plate. It was like having a prize at the end.
Later, my cousins introduced me to eating the nuts of the ripe katahar (previously the only way I had eaten katahar was as a vegetable, curried). They’d boil the brown nuts in a saucepan of salted water. When it was cool enough to handle, they’d drain the water and pour the nuts into a bowl and we’d all gather around, take our individual handfuls and sit in various parts of the yard eating the breadnut. I remember sucking on the seeds first and tasting the saltiness of the water it was cooked in, then I’d peel the outer shell first – that was a breeze and then finally, there was a papery covering that had to be removed before eating the nut itself. That papery covering was always frustrating, sometimes it would come off easily and sometimes not; I’d grow impatient and just pop the entire thing into my mouth! There never seemed to be enough breadnut to go around between my brother and sister and my cousins. Each time mommy or my aunt would go to the market we’d tell them to look out for breadnut and to buy some if they found any.
One time I went to the market and saw breadnut and excitedly came home to cook it. Mommy saw the breadnuts and immediately said, “Do not waste my gas boiling that thing. Borrow your aunt’s old kerosene stove and boil it on that.” What?! The exchange then went something like this:
Me: Mommy, I am not going to waste the gas; the thing will finish cooking in no time.
Mommy: Have you boiled breadnut before?
Me: No, but all I have to do is put it in the pot with water and salt and let it boil
Mommy: For how long?
Me: I don’t know. Not long. Just until it cooks
Mommy (with a stern look on her face): Listen to me, breadnut takes more than an hour to cook and you are not wasting my gas to cook that nonsense!
So off I went in search of Auntie Betty’s old kerosene stove. I was so vexed. Further more, I had no idea how to use a kerosene stove! Those things are dangerous. Auntie Betty took pity on me (bless her!) and she took out the kerosene stove and boiled the breadnut seeds for me. It took forever to cook; no wonder mommy reacted that way about using the gas.
Fast forward to 2008, one Saturday at Cheapside Market in Bridgetown, there on Eureka’s and Dazzle’s stall (I introduced you to them in last week’s column) I saw bags of breadnut! I had not eaten katahar in years much less eaten breadnut. I quickly picked up all four bags and then I asked Dazzle if she ever sells the green breadnut, she said no with a look of surprise on her face. Dazzle was unfamiliar with the use of the breadnut flesh as a vegetable. I told her that I’d like to buy the green one if she ever had any. Unfortunately she said she had no one to climb the tree to pick them. Still, I was very happy with my breadnuts that would recreate a taste of home. I hugged my parcels of breadnut to my chest as I left the market. My mother’s words echoed loud in my ears so instead of boiling them, I cooked the breadnuts in the pressure cooker and they were done in half an hour.
When I visited Eureka for last week’s column about her herb garden, I could not help but bring up the issue of the green katahar and I encouraged her to let Dazzle find a way of picking the green ones to sell as I know that a lot of Guyanese and Trinidadians who live in Barbados would buy them. As luck would have it, the tree was actually in bloom and there were green katahar on Dazzle’s tree. Eureka promised to get me one. She got me two!
The following day, I set about cutting the katahar, peeling the skin, shredding the pulp and then peeling the seeds. Oh-my-gosh! I thought that I’d never finish. Because there are so many seeds, it takes a lot of time to peel their outer shell and then remove the skin on the nuts. Like I said at the beginning, when I was done, I was so not feeling the love. Cooking it took more than an hour also, the pulp was fine but the seeds though young took a while to cook. I was hungry and angry and swore that there would not be a next time. Hah! A few days later, I cooked the other katahar, remember I told you that Eureka gave me two? While I dreaded the peeling and shelling, I made fast work of cooking it in the pressure cooker.
Those who don’t like katahar say it tastes like, “old cloth” but don’t listen to them. Given that the vegetable itself is bland, the taste really comes from the curry spices and coconut milk it is cooked with. The texture of the pulp becomes soft, creamy at times and melds with the rice it is eaten with. The young cooked seeds stand up to the long cooking and retain their form with a slight bite to them.
Katahar curry is a favourite in many Indo-Caribbean homes and when available in season, it is cooked and served at religious functions as one of the many dishes prepared for the event. Given that it is a seasonal vegetable, it is highly prized, however, as one longingly looks at it and think of the work involved in preparing it to cook, you tend to back away. But there’s hope, these days (at least in Guyana), some vendors are willing to cut and peel it for you. I even saw it being sold already shredded and shelled. Or, if you’re really lucky, sometimes you have family and friends who adore you and are willing to spoil you, they peel, cut, and shred the katahar for you. Thanks Auntie Betty! Thanks Roseanna!