Beginning in the 19th century, Montréal experienced great waves of immigration. All those people coming from elsewhere brought their culture with them, providing our city with a culinary heritage and with flavors for all of us to enjoy.
This summer the Useful Plants Garden at the Jardin botanique de Montréal is offering a world gastronomic tour by exploring eight thematic vegetable gardens (Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Greece, India, Italy, Latin America and the Maghreb). The goal is to acquaint people with what it’s possible to grow in Montréal despite the harsh climate and the short summer season, immigrants in particular.
I invite you to a continent poles apart from ours – here’s a brief overview of the African vegetable garden!
The peanut, Arachis hypogaea, whose flower once it’s pollinated is buried in the soil to produce its pod, is harvested in September-October, once the leaves have dried. In the same family, the black-eyed pea, Vigna unguiculata subsp. unguiculata, is an erect plant forming an elongated pod, the dried seeds of which are eaten.
Hot peppers, such as the Capsicum chinense ‘Bhut Jolokia’, and other species, are easy to grow, provided they’re started indoors with plenty of light and warmth. The same goes for the scarlet eggplant and the gboma eggplant, also in the Solanaceae family (in Latin, sol=sun), which are close relatives of the eggplant. The fruit of the scarlet eggplant, Solanum aethiopicum (Gilo gr.), is eaten green or orange at full maturity. At that point it’s more bitter and has no seeds. As for the gboma eggplant, Solanum macrocarpon, the young leaves and fruit are used to cook with.
Another plant, the okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, has a subtle flavor similar to the eggplant’s. Its gelatinous texture thickens sauces and soups. The fruit has to be picked when still small, unlike the magnificent calabash (gourd), Lagenaria siceraria, from which, once dried, containers and musical instruments are created. Late September, when they reach full maturity, is the time to harvest them.
Tossa jute (jute mallow, krinkrin, bush okra), Corchorus olitorius, is known above all for its textile properties. Sauces are also made with the leaves. Green amaranth (callaloo), Amaranthus viridis, very rich in vitamins and minerals, accompanies a number of traditional dishes. Finally, roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, is used in cooking for its leaves but especially its flowers, from which a refreshing red drink is made.
You’re of course familiar with the tubers of the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. An interesting fact: the leaves of the plant are also eaten in salads and as spinach.
Other things that can be grown are sorghum, Sorghum bicolor; African millet, Eleusine coracana; pearl millet, Cenchrus americanus; and teff grass, Eragrostis tef.
Of course, these seedlings have to be planted indoors to give them a head start and enable at least some of the plants to reach harvest maturity before autumn.
This overview demonstrates that an impressive food diversity is within our reach. Feel free to get off the beaten path by adding a touch of the exotic to your vegetable garden!