Saijan, more commonly known as Drumsticks in English, is popular in Indian cookery, but not well-known in the West. It is well worth trying.
The curious looking vegetables shown in the picture are, for fairly obvious reasons, popularly known, in English, as drumsticks. I have seen many, many recipes using these over the years, but it took many years for me to try it because they have not yet gained much of a foothold in North America. As yet. If you are able to source these locally, it is well worth trying out this very interesting ingredient.
What are Drumsticks, or Saijan?
Drumsticks are the seedpod of a particular tree and are widely eaten in India as well as Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. The roots and leaves of the tree are also eaten and, in fact, the tree is sometime known as the ‘Horseradish tree’ because the roots are said to have a similar flavor.
The English name ‘drumstick’ seems to be quite widely used in India but, in Hindi, the name is ‘Saijan’ or ‘Sajan’. The vegetable is also called ‘Shinga’, ‘Sejanki ki phali’, or ‘Seeng’ and the botanical name for the tree is Moringa oleifera. Strictly speaking, these seedpods should more accurately be termed a fruit rather than a vegetable but like the tomato, it is used as a ‘vegetable’ and thus I have used that designation in this post.
As you can see, the interior of the pod contains a whitish pulp with little seeds. It may not be apparent in my photograph but the outer skin is very thick and fibrous and, for all intents and purposes, is completely inedible. One source, in fact, confidently stated that the skin is always too tough to consume no matter the age of the pods but I also came across one recipe using some (very long) juvenile ones that suggested otherwise. This has not been true with any I have cooked.
Occasionally, in some recipes, the pith is cut out and cooked as a sort of puree, but the primary method of cooking and eating them is to slice the pods into sections, cook them as desired, and then eat them by sucking out the tender pith and then discarding the fibrous skin.
What does Saijan (Drumsticks) Taste Like?
I actually tasted the pith and seeds whilst still raw and they were both very pleasant. The seeds were a little bit like fresh peas or the seeds inside string beans and did not have any of the bitter taste that they are reported to have as the pods age.
The pith was fairly firm and the texture was rather like a cross between a very immature banana and a nice firm cantaloupe, though without any of the succulence. It was somewhat sweet to the taste, in the way that peas in the pod are faintly sweet, and there was a definite taste of cucumber and melon rind. After a second or two in the mouth, a mild peppery heat also developed that was quite pleasant.
When cooked, the taste has been described by some to be reminiscent of Asparagus, but I have not found that myself. Really, the overall flavor was just a milder version of the raw, but absent the slight peppery heat. The texture is pleasant, although the sections of seed pod can be a bit fiddly to eat.
How is Saijan Used?
The various parts of the Moringa Tree are claimed to have some medicinal properties, but there are few clinical studies confirming this. The pods do have a good Vitamin C content, however, and the levels remain quite high even after cooking.
In Indian cookery, the pods are used in soups, especially varieties of Rasam, and also in many curried dishes, both dry, and more heavily sauced ‘wet’ ones. They are also pickled, usually in fairly heavily spiced preparations using oil. In illustration of a sample recipe, the Drumstick Potato Masala dish pictured above is a ‘dry curry’ preparation which is particularly tasty.