What Would Thoreau Eat? This Kale And Potato Subzi, Perhaps?

Walden Pond
Thoreau's cabin

Simplify, simplify!

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Desi and I were at a place as far removed as can be from the rapacious frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We were in Thoreau’s Walden, visiting the rich world of a visionary who lived nearly two centuries ago but whose ideas of simple living, self-sufficiency and coexistence with the non-human creatures of our planet are relevant as ever.

Thoreau needs no introduction– he is an inspiration to philosophers, environmentalists and simple living advocates the world over. Indians know him as the man whose essay on civil disobedience inspired Gandhi’s own movement of satyagraha, or peaceful resistance. With his two-year experiment of living in harmony with nature on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, chronicled in his masterpiece Walden, Thoreau showed the world how a frugal life pared down to the barest of essentials can be rich and rewarding– perhaps far more so than a life crammed with meaningless “stuff.”

Walden Lake

Walden Woods, now a state reservation, is an ethereal place. Even on a cool, gray November day dozens of chattering children,  tourists with cameras and swimmers in unitards converge on Walden Pond, a vast, beautiful expanse of still water that forms the centerpiece of these woods. Despite the hubub it is not hard to imagine a thoughtful, bearded Thoreau ranging through these woods, content in his solitude and pondering life as he looked across the pond. In a corner of the woods, a railroad thunders with a passing train– just like it did when Thoreau lived here, sometimes disturbing his thoughts.

Although the one-room cabin Thoreau built is long gone (taken down before its historical value became apparent), a replica sits close to the entrance to the park. It was easy to reproduce, a sign tells you, because of how thoroughly Thoreau described it in his writings. Inside the tiny room are a small bed, three wooden chairs (“One for solitude, two for company, three for society.”), a writing desk, and a fireplace to keep out the icy chill of the severe Massachusetts winter.

“Daddy, where did he go to the bathroom?” a little girl asks her father who’s signing the guest book in the cabin. The father looks around, shrugs, and spreads his hands to signal the woods around. “Anywhere he wanted to, I guess.” (Fortunately for the rest of us they do have eco-friendly restrooms at Walden now that use no water.)

It doesn’t take long to remember that outside this well-preserved microcosm, our times are vastly different. In our world, simplifying is not defined by paring down but by adding things that are supposed to make our lives simpler– smartphones with a million apps that can make calls, store music, tell you the time, what you should be doing, where you are or how you can get there. Humongous cars that thoughtlessly spew toxins into the atmosphere. Food processors that can chop, slice, dice, julienne and whip in seconds.

And to get these– as we’ve been finding out one Black Friday after another– we are willing to sacrifice our most meaningful holidays and time with those we love, wade into debt, trample on people, literally, and pepper-spray them too.

Thoreau's cabin in Walden

I am cognizant of the environment and the difference between wants and needs, but I am no Thoreauvian. I have a smartphone, many kitchen gadgets, and I cram in what’s going on with the world by letting the TV run in the background as I cook, clean or even write. I juggle a full-time job with a family and many other responsibilities and hobbies, including this blog, and I need all the help I can get to keep my time under control.

But  visiting Thoreau’s home, so long after I first read about it and was inspired by it, motivates me once again to keep taking those small steps toward the ideals of simplicity and self-sufficiency and toward the day when I can live unshackled by stuff. And — most importantly– it inspires me to stay on the vegan path that embraces at once Thoreau’s ideals of coexistence and preserving the planet for those who will follow us, human or not.

Some argue Thoreau was never a strict vegetarian, although accounts are that he was mostly vegetarian later in life. At Walden, he ate lots of rice,  beans which he grew himself, and produce like potatoes, peas, corn, and turnips. But vegetarian or not, his writings reflect a deep love for animals, and for the belief that it was mankind’s destiny to stop eating them. There are few quotes about vegetarianism as astute as these words from Thoreau:

“One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;” and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”

Walden woods


Kale and Potato subzi

So what would Thoreau eat, had he lived today? I like to think that it might have been something like this utterly simple and nutritious Kale and Potato Subzi.

Thoreau was an Indophile (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India”.) He described himself as a “Yogi,” and had studied Indian scriptures, including the Gita and the Upanishads. While I don’t know if he ever had a chance to taste Indian food in those times, there is no doubt he would have loved it if he had– especially something as simple and nutritious as this subzi.

Kale is a popular vegetable among vegans, and not surprisingly so because of its exceptional nutritional value. It is rich in calcium, vitamins A and C, fiber, and many more nutrients. Because it belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables, which includes cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts, it is said to have anti-cancer properties. Pretty much an all-round winner.

But when I order kale at vegan restaurants I am usually disappointed because most people tend to undercook it or even leave it raw. Kale is a tough vegetable (as opposed to tender leafies like spinach or lettuce which are delicious raw), and to my mind undercooked kale is almost impossible to love, or eat.

For this subzi, I force the kale into tenderness with half an hour on a stove, but this is not labor-intensive cooking. You can add a little water, slap on a lid, and let it steam away. You just need to check in occasionally to ensure the water has not evaporated. If it has, just add some more.

This is a dish Thoreau could have easily made in the single frying pan he kept in his homestead for cooking. All you need to prep is a knife and a chopping board. And it would go great with rice and beans.

Enjoy, all! And thanks to Desi, as always, for the lovely food pictures and the photographs of Walden Pond.

Kale and Potato subzi


What Would Thoreau Eat? This Kale And Potato Subzi, Perhaps?
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Kale and Potato Subzi
Recipe type: Side
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 6
  • 1 bunch kale (about 12-15 leaves). Wash the kale, then strip the leaves off the tough stems and chop them finely.
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed and chopped
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 medium potatoes, scrubbed clean and cut into a ½-inch dice
  • 1 tsp soy sauce (I know this is a weird ingredient here, but kale and soy sauce have great chemistry)
  • 1 tsp hot sauce like Sriracha (use chilli powder if you don't have this)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan or wok over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the mustard seeds and when they sputter, turn down the heat to medium and add the potatoes and garlic.
  3. Saute the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until they begin to take on a golden hue.
  4. Add the chopped kale, stir until it starts to wilt. Add the soy sauce and hot sauce, stir well, and add a couple of tablespoons of water. Slap on a tight-fitting lid and let the kale steam. If the water evaporates, add a couple more tablespoons and repeat until the kale is quite tender, about 30 minutes.
  5. Stir in the lemon juice and salt, if required. Turn off the heat and serve hot.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

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  1. says

    You have cracked the code on Kale. I always found Kale to be bitter. I will try cooking it this way next time. Loved the pictures; my introduction to Thoreau was through a picture book that my children just loved when they were young.

  2. says

    What an ideal way of getting away from the mad rush……..this time even I deleted The Black from my To do list & spent all the time with friends & family. Love your writeup Vaishali.

  3. says

    I love the way you have written this post, Vaishali. You are really a very good writer/narrator. I too used to live in Philly and didn’t know about this place.

    I have never cooked kale and I don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t after seeing this recipe. I’m definitely trying this and will let you know how much we liked it.

  4. says

    “I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race in its gradual development to leave off the eating of animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came into contact with the more civilized.”

    –Henry David Thoreau

    Similarly, during the Second World, when war rationing forced Englanders to do without meat, George Bernard Shaw, a man of letters, eloquently compared transitioning to vegetarianism to the Maoris giving up cannibalism!

    Henry David Thoreau’s practice of vegetarianism was spotty at best, but he recognized the virtues of vegetarianism, and can be counted on to say a few kind words about vegetarianism…

    I don’t know what Thoreau would have thought of veganism!

    As I told Miyun Park of Compassion Over Killing in 2004, when she was attending an animal rights conference at UC Berkeley:

    Gandhi said every day we hear about newer discoveries being made in the field of violence, but there are even greater discoveries to be made in the field of nonviolence.

    We can see this within the animal rights movement. When Peter Singer wrote Animal Liberation in 1975, he suggested that somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster is the place to draw the line between sentient and insentient life.

    By 1979, however, Dudley Giehl wrote in Vegetarianism: A Way of Life, that sea turtles are killed in Caribbean shrimp operations, so it makes sense instead to eat lower on the food chain. And plants are at the bottom of all food chains.

    Twenty years ago, most of the vegetarian societies and animal rights groups, like San Diego Animal Advocates, were lacto-ovo-vegetarian, with a few vegans.

    Now, the vegetarian societies emphasize veganism, nearly everyone in the animal rights movement is vegan, with a few brave souls experimenting with raw cuisine…

    …and the average American is still trying to understand:

    “Be Kind to Animals: Don’t Eat Them!”

    (If usually they’re hostile and antagonistic, why would they infiltrate a vegetarian movement in the first place… unless they want to learn about vegetarianism?)

    Bruce Friedrich of PETA says the animal rights movement is growing by leaps and bounds!

  5. says

    I immediately made this for dinner, and it was great! Thanks for the recipe. By the way, what is the best way to print your recipes from this blog??

  6. says

    Santosh, Tibik, Cumincoriandercardamom, thanks!

    Alpana, your Thanksgiving weekend sounds perfect. :)

    Madhuram, thanks for your kind words! I hope you will try this recipe.

    Vasu, thanks for your thoughts. There definitely is light at the end of the tunnel. And I think Thoreau would have endorsed and even adopted veganism, had the concept existed in his times. His diet was mostly vegan anyway.

    Priya, thanks!

    Ellen, Glad you tried the subzi, and thanks for the feedback! :) Thanks also for reminding me about the print function– I used to have a print button at the bottom of each post and I think I must have dropped it when I last redesigned the blog. I’ll try and add it back. It should allow you to print each post without having to print the entire blog page. Until I do that, you can click on the post title to go to that particular recipe page, and then select the portion you want to print.

  7. says

    I always tried to imagine how Thoreau’s cabin would have looked like. I guess now I know.
    Kale and potatoes are a staple of the German kitchen during winter. I need to try your Subzi!

  8. says

    LOVE this post. Walden was a FAVORITE in hight school…….LOVED the idea. And still, I always fluctuate between wanting 3 inch vegan heel thigh high boots AND wanting to have only one pair of overalls and live in the woods, because none of the other stuff is “real, real”. It is just a “fix”, a temporary make ya feel better in our daily “reality”. Did NOT know that he was into the Gita or Upanishads…..interesting. Just found out that Mark Twain’s author (well, can’t remember the real name this second) went to the Kumba Mehla once. LOVE this post and all the food to go along with it!!!!!! You need a restaurant, vegan, indian, with kirtans and cooking classes. Of course just open it and pay other people to run it so you still have a LIFE!!!! :)

  9. says

    You wrote such an interesting article. Thoreau is one of the most important eco-friendly philosophers I have heart about. I have to read some of his books. Also visiting his place seems like a great idea.

  10. says

    I didnt know that much about Thoreau – thanks for the write up. Walden looks gorgeous – must have been a good getaway!

    I havent eaten kale but i guess the recipe would work well with any greens!

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