REIMAGINED: Pumpkins and gourds!

Eating is Fun / Eating is Yuck! – A variety food column

By Tara Narayan

OR RATHER, bring back the pumpkin to your table. What do you know about the lovely orange-coloured pumpkin, evoked so gloriously in the West as also in our very own Konkan states, including West Bengal, where the humble “kaddu” takes pride of place on the dining-table. In Bengali homes they temper a pumpkin vegetable with the aromatic panch poran spice mix and I must say this is my favourite pumpkin sabzi…such a flavourful sabzi tempered with panch poran in a tablespoon of traditionally cold-pressed pure mustard/sarson oil can make either rice, roti or an austere kichuri come alive and sing in divine notes!

Funny, most folk don’t like pumpkin because it translates to “kaddu” in Hindi and one often hears the word in derogatory terms vis-à-vis folk on the plump side. Actually, it’s not kaddu which makes one fat though meanness can make one lean and vinegary in temperament or so I like to think. But to stay with the pumpkin, I used to buy it once upon a time till I realized I was the only one eating it today, tomorrow and nine days old in the fridge — then I stopped buying it. Though in the Panaji market come the chovoth or Ganesh Chaturthi season one may see various pumpkin and gourd varieties (pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers, courgettes…they’re all members of the Cucurbitaceae family of veggies) strung up in the matoli chaddar of fruit, veggies and herbs gifted by Mother Earth… I can forget to look at the idol of Lord Ganesh seated below in my anxiety to check out the matoli festooned above… but the matoli is another story.

Pumpkin always features in the Konkan matoli as well in dishes prepared during the chovoth days — ask your grandmother for pumpkin recipes! In the old days the waxy-skinned green or orange pumpkins were always cherished to be stored away in the pre-monsoon store room. The hefty or small pumpkin is one veggie one may hoard for lean days where there are no vegetables to be purchased for love or money in the marketplace (although of course these days money can buy anything because it comes from around the world, mercifully we’re not consuming pumpkins from the US of A and paying `500 per medium-sized pumpkin). At one time not too long ago I used to pay `10 for a wedge of pumpkin in the Panaji market (that’s one-seventh or one-eighth of the whole pumpkin) but today the same wedge is `20 and I look for the rarer find — thin green-skinned pumpkin with exquisite creamy lemony flesh.

I always say cook your pumpkin with the skin on but very few of us do and slice off chunks of thick-skinned pumpkin to chuck and use only the tangerine flesh, cubed, tempered and seasoned into a sabzi of one’s favoured recipe. Pumpkin soups are prized abroad in the counties of the West but  here in India I think we think of pumpkin as poor people’s cheap food and behave snobbishly! Correct if I am wrong, one friend tells me, “F…k, I grew up eating kaddu at home and in boarding collage in Bangalore, it won’t go past my throat now!” Well, there you are, how often do we reject things in later adulthood if we’ve had it rammed down our throat in childhood growing up….

Most of us are familiar only with the orange buff-skinned pumpkin and this is the most common. Don’t go looking for more glamorous versions and don’t confuse pumpkins with gourds although all pumpkins and gourds belong to the family of cucubits. The common pumpkin is Cucurbita moschata and it’s really too good to be ignored.

Indulge me and don’t be put off the pumpkin just because I’m going to list all the nutritious goodness of the pumpkin here (in case you belong to that section of upper crust society which looks down or sneers at the fatso curves of the pumpkin). The pumpkin is extremely rich in vitamin A and that’s one of the ACE vitamins so good for your eyes. I have it on good account that an organically cultivated pumpkin (and most of them are still organically cultivated through default), has something like 77 times more vitamin A than say pears or cauliflower (see table reproduced below)…and 100 g of pumpkin contains almost five times more vitamin C than in a pear (almost equivalent to that found in an orange). I’d say don’t cook pumpkin, juice it in a cocktail to be sipped on the icy rocks with maybe cucumber and lemon juice enhancing its palatability. Experiment and find your favourite pumpkin cocktail!

COOK pumpkin as minimally or as palatably as you wish. Pumpkin come naturally sweetish so make soups or sabzi. Out in Malaysia they even make cakes out of pumpkin puree. In India down south a sambar comes enriched with chunks of pumpkin. I like to add it last because pumpkin cooks quick and can virtually melt!

In Gujarati cuisine there is a koru-gavar (pumpkin-cluster beans) combo sabzi which is popular for a Sunday khichdi-kadi lunch…use equal quantities of pumpkin and cluster beans. Temper cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, chopped garlic, a pinch of hing (asafetida), curry leaf sprig in oil. Add the two chopped veggies and stir-fry, adding a little water…season with haldi-dhania-jeera powder, add rock salt last of all. Cover and cook, stir gently once or twice. Garnish with green coriander leaves and serve with any roti, rice or khichdi. Khichdi is usually a mix of rice and moong (skinned or unskinned), or a rice-yellow lentils (tuver) combo; we also have a repertoire of millet khichdi but that’s for another time.

TO stay with our precious pumpkin, I try to buy a pumpkin wedge which is loaded with plump seeds! Rinse them out, dry in mild sunshine, then crack and eat the seeds, they’re full of essential fatty acids (on par with expensive sunflower seeds). No pumpkin seed should be thrown away. If they’re very tender, keep them in your recipe and chew them up as invaluable soluble fibre. Most of us have no idea how much fibre contributes to the good digestion story. We mod con people of today consume so much industrial, refined, sanitized food that even the friendly bugs in our gut don’t feel life is worth living!

And now to tell you why I’m waxing lyrical over pumpkin.. Kalakriti is organizing its fifth Goa Environmental Festival at the Kala Academy Foyer in Panaji from Sept 8 to 10 and it promises to turn us into healthier human beings by teaching us to express our love and affection for Mother Earth. This dynamic group have lined up all kinds of events to drive home the fact the earth is our first, primary home, and we must not poison it with our smart, yet callous, insensitive civilization.

Panel discussions and talks to wake you up from Rip Van Winkle slumber, waste treatment ideas (WOW is all about turning waste into wealth), photo exhibitions, a session with snakes, biodiversity walks, films, competitions…lots more — and yes, one session I’m looking forward to is a culinary session featuring the Konkan “dudhi” (pumpkin) and tisreo (seafood, clams). Come and see in how many ways one may cook the glorious, grand pumpkin. I say let’s bring back the pumpkin in our kitchen and dining-table. Don’t miss this exciting festival. Pumpkin is “Konkan dudhi” in Konkani as distinct from the “dudhi” we also know as long tender green bottle gourd and which we love to turn into a popular dudhi halva. Gourds are very many and need to be praised separately.

INTERESTINGLY, my sister in the USA calls pumpkin “squash” or “marrow,” and buys or grows “summer squashes” and “winter squashes.” Google and you’ll see “patty pan squash,” “scallop squash”, “butternut squash” (presumably our familiar orange or lemon kaddu) and I’m fascinated by the “spaghetti squash” which falls apart like spaghetti! Out there they soup, bake, steam, fry and make pumpkin cakes, says the sis, “and make pumpkin lamps for Halloween. We even eat the pretty squash flowers!  I turn them into Japanese-style tempura which are like light-hearted fritters, pakora to you in India. Come and taste my squash tempura!”

(Sigh) She’s somewhere near Chicago, perhaps one of these days I’ll take her up on the invitation. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a thought. Who’d think that all our pumpkins, gourds — cucurbits — are fruit of the slender vine? You may trail them on your roof, up and down some fencing, or a tree in private or public garden…wherever! Why not, public garden? We can put our public gardens to so much good use but alas, they continue to be dull places even in Panaji! Panaji is actually the garden town of Goa but go check them out and see the deadly foliage which is planted there!

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