Going back to my roots: The rare type of basil — Aajilo

There often comes a time when we stumble upon some herbs and plants and animals ourselves. That is how we’ve discovered most of the food we eat today. Something similar happened during one of our family visits to my maternal aunt’s place — a huge house in the middle of sugarcane fields in South Gujarat, India.

The house has a huge front porch, littered with a variety of colorful flowers, which my cousin brother loves to look after. They have a large garden area in the backyard, which stretches out and meets the sugarcane fields at some place far away from the home, the line between the two drawn by huge coconut trees as well as an array of trees and smaller plants — flowering and non-flowering, some giving us fruits, and some filling us with a pleasant smell.

The front of one of our homes in the village.

Monsoons are the time when the garden area goes wild. Many wild varieties of grass and weed make their way into the garden, and try to grab more area than the actual plants that we have grown back there.

During one such family vacation that I was enjoying at my aunt’s place, she showed me a new herb that had grown amidst this wilderness. The sun was out that day, and as we trudged through the mud, I could see a basil-like plant that she was pointing at.

Rice fields on our way to aunt’s place.

Only, it was not basil.

Most families in India are more than familiar with the basil plant. Many households across the country have a small basil plant at home, whether it is in a small pot in their kitchen, or a vast spread in their garden or front yard. Basil is considered to be a sacred plant in Hindu belief.

But wait, why am I talking about religion suddenly? This post is about food. And food knows no religion. Anyway, the Holy basil is different from the regular basil used in cooking — what we smear as pesto on bread, the leaves we love to put on a pizza, the oil we drizzle on a salad, or drink in tea.

Okay, I have veered away from the actual topic. But talking about aajilo is incomplete without building a background of basil, as the latter is popular in the culinary world.

My aunt, mother and I went close to the plant. My aunt plucked a bunch of leaves and handed some to mum and me. I rubbed a leaf between my fingers and smelled it. It smelled pretty much like basil, but stronger. I put a leaf in my mouth and my eyes shut tight as the taste hit my tongue. It tasted a savory like basil (not sweet basil), but it was also a little spicy and bitter at the same time. It made my tongue tingle.

Aa emaj ugi gayu chhe aiya. Aajilo kehvaye aane. Jungli vanaspati chhe aa, varsaad ma aakhu felayi jaaye fatafat,” she informed us — “This plant grew on its own. It’s called aajilo. It’s a wild herb and it grows quickly like wild grass in this season.”

She plucked a big bunch of the aajilo leaves, enough to fill a large cooker, and we walked back inside. I was curious to see how she was going to incorporate the newly discovered herb in her cooking. But my aunt, being an expert of flavors discovered in the wild, she immediately sat down to remove the stems and put the leaves aside. She then beat the leaves in a stone mortar and pestle. She tasted it, looked at me, and smiled.

To enhance the taste of what she had just had, she added a pinch of salt to the chutney. The leaves immediately oozed out some water, making a nice paste of the leaves. Then, much to my surprise, she added a dash of red chili powder. She kept rubbing the paste on the mortar until she got a fine pasty texture out of it.

I got up and walked towards her, too curious about this basil-like herb tasted like once it was grounded with spices and made fit to eat. I took a bit of it on my finger and tasted it. It tasted better than any chutney I had ever had in my life — it was salty, spicy, and had a nice hit to it! I loved it immediately. Mum and aunt saw my expression of joy on this incredible discovery of taste I had just made, and smiled again. She asked me to wait.

Aunt walked to her stove, pulled out some rice flour, put water to boil, added a tiny pinch of salt to the flour, and poured the boiling hot water into it. That’s not it. She then put her hand in it, flinched a little when she would have felt the heat on the skin of her hand, and went on patting the flour, and mixing it gently with the water to make a semi-solid paste-like batter. She put a clay tawa on the stove and slathered a bit of the rice dough on it. She rolled it out on the tawa with her bare hands (yeah, I was amazed at how her hand hadn’t burned yet) and made us a chokha no rotlo (rice flatbread, image at the end), to eat with the chutney.

I swear that was the simplest, yet the most amazing traditional meal I had had in months. This was a few years ago. But I remember that first taste of aajilo chutney to this day. She gave us a few seeds when we were leaving the village to go back to our city life and jobs. The first weekend I got, I planted those seeds. But unsuccessfully. The wild herb seemed to hate me. Mum planted some leftover seeds again in the backyard. But we failed to grow a plant of our own.

So the only aajilo solace I got was when I visited her home in the village again during my next vacation. She had already prepared a bowl of chutney for me, this time grinding fresh green chili with the leaves instead of red chili powder. It tasted grand! I licked off the last watery bit from the bowl, and sat down in contentment on the steps by the large garden, looking at the faraway bush of aajilo and wondering how to grow it in my dry, hot weather back home.

She gave us more seeds when we left for home. Mum planted it, but it was pointless to hope for it to grow, as it was peak summer and I had given up all hope for the herb to make its way out of the soil in this heat.

Few months passed. A plant did grow in my front yard. I only occasionally indulge in gardening — mostly during my summer vacations, when I take out all the tools and spend hours cleaning the garden and watering it. I did not pay too much attention to it, it was too small anyway. In my mind, I passed it off as yet another Holy basil plant my mum had sowed (yeah, we have too many all around the house).

Then came the rain. And before I knew it, the tiny plant had grown to cover an area enough for 4–5 plants. Basically, it had gone wild. Mum and I went out to cut a bit of this wild plant in order to tame it, when she said to me, “Ano, do you know what this is?”

I stared at her with a blank expression. Then I stared at the plant. I plucked a leaf and chewed it. If I recall correctly, I did a wild dance then and there. With full speed, I plucked off most of the leaves from the plant (chill, it grows back quickly) and went back in to make my favorite chutney. The excitement was visible on my mum and my faces.

A couple of years later, my BFF gifted me a puppy on my return from Bangalore. I was fighting depression, and I had been quite vocal about wanting to adopt a dog. A few days later, he walked in with the cutest little labrador I had seen in my life.

We named her Iris. I had been scared of dogs most of my life, but her arrival changed me completely. I struggled to take care of her well, and my family saw me struggling day in and day out. I lost a lot of sleep (the primary reason why I had moved back home, but it got worse), because Iris would wake me up every few minutes and wanted me to put her back to sleep. I wasn’t complaining. But I had started looking hideous.

Iris, aka, Aaru

Iris stayed with us for 12 days (only, I returned her to my friend, and she died soon later). We still have a thousand stories of Aaru, as my mum used to fondly call her, that we keep repeating to our friends and family. Perhaps the fondest memory of her is the first time she tasted aajilo leaves.

We were sitting outside in my front yard-cum-garden. Iris was running around in havoc. That was also the first day she climbed to the higher level (where we had the plant) without our support, and went about exploring this new region by herself. I watched her from the distance, amazed at how she first ran to the plant. She nibbled at the leaves of aajilo, and then spat them out immediately and came running back to me, as if she’d eaten something unholy! We could not stop laughing at her reaction! She looked at all of laughing, went back to the plant, ate a leaf, spat it out again, and jumped back to us in joy. It would have become a fun game for her, had she not detested the taste so much!

It’s been 2 years since we had Aaru. Even now, when we go back home and step out to pluck a few leaves from the aajilo plant, we talk about the day she amused us with her antics. We try to imagine how she must have felt about the taste. We still remember her laughing with us.

I was home a few months ago, and mum-dad had just returned from our village home. I was sitting on the kitchen platform after having prepared the aajilo chutney for lunch, when mum got out her rice flour, put a big tawa on the stove, and started dishing out chokha na rotlas for us to eat with the chutney. I was transported back to the time when I had this combination for the first time at my aunt’s place.

Yeah, I live in nostalgia. And trust me when I say it, this is a rare herb (or maybe just not discovered by enough people yet). But if you ever lay your hands on aajilo (looks awfully similar to the Holy basil plant), make a chutney and remember me.

Eternal escapist, in love with books, football, and long drives. Follow me on IG @ komorebi5