Cooking with one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables: Lau-Tetor Daal/ Moong Lentils cooked with Bottle Gourd and Bitter Gourd

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I had very little hope when I started my Google search for “bottle gourd” and didn’t expect very many things written about this C-list celebrity vegetable. But I was pleasantly surprised and learned quite a few things about it.

Bottle gourd (also called lauki, lau or ghiya in India) is one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables and sits right next to dogs in terms of two of the most ancient domesticated species. A native plant of Africa, it migrated first to Asia and then to the Americas, most likely through ocean currents. The wild variety of bottle gourd was not initially used as a food source. The dried skin was instead used as containers and like a ladle to scoop out things long before our ancestors invented pottery. The hollow fruits were also used as musical instruments (indeed, I own two of these myself).

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Bottle gourd from my garden

Domestication usually takes a long time, sometimes hundreds of years (ask Dr. Sen, he has a violent opinion on this). It can inadvertently alter the species, both genetically and morphologically. The geographical location, the sheltered existence, the controlled temperature, the lack of environmental competition, are a few of the zillion reasons which can alter the species being domesticated. Among many other things, the wild variety of bottle gourd had a much thinner skin compared to the current domesticated edible variety. Like many other vegetables, these gourds also traveled hundreds of miles across the ocean and reached a different country (or sometimes continent), and upon finding land again, the thin skin/rind made the dispersion of seeds easier. But once humans started domesticating the gourds, the need for natural seed dispersion disappeared and the rind gradually grew thicker to adapt to the domesticated environment. Over centuries, it grew so thick that the modern day Bengalis decided to make use of that outcome and a wonderful delicacy showed up on the Bengali vegetarian menu, i.e lau-er khosha bhaja (stir fried bottle gourd rind).

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Bitter gourd from my garden as well

An easily digestible vegetable, bottle gourd is eaten almost all over India. But as is their wont, Bengalis decided to go beyond the usual norm and eat almost all parts of the fruit and the plant itself. It will take several blog posts for me to cover the entire gamut of recipes Bengalis use to cook this humble and rather neutral vegetable. They stir fry the rind with whole poppy seeds, cook the leaves and stems with other vegetables and fish heads, wrap spice-coated fish or shrimp in the tender leaves and steam them or add the chopped fruit to lentils. Think I’m done? No way at all. We also make a bitter curry by combining bottle gourds with bitter gourds (karela), a “West Bengal special” by adding poppy seed paste, mix it up with sun-dried lentil dumplings, tiny shrimp or fried fish heads or make a dry-ish curry with mung lentils. The list is literally endless but all of them are equally delicious. While I cook all of these, a few are my personal favorites and the bottle gourd cooked with mung lentils (lau-muger daal) is one of them. Like most Bengali standards, it can be cooked in different ways; I cook it like my Maa does, which is what you’ll find here. I’ll try to post a few other recipes before the summer is gone (and with it, my treasured supply of home-grown laukis).

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The recipe below is an approximation and can be altered. Also, the photos of the daal were taken hastily and I promise I’ll post some nice ones later.

Ingredients:

Mung lentils: 2/3 cup

Bottle gourd: 8-10 cubes (peeled and cut approximately into 2” pieces)

Bitter gourd/Karela: One medium (4-5 inches long), cut into thin slices. It’s hard to quantify the karela here because it will depend on the bitterness of the karela or how bitter you like your daal to be. So adjust accordingly.

Radhuni/Pnach phoron/methi: 1 tsp. (I use radhuni but it’s hard to find it in the US. My next preferred spices is methi for this daal and in absolute pinch, add pnach phoron)

Ginger: one inch piece, ground into a paste

Dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf/Tej patta: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric (optional): 1 tsp. (in some household the daal is cooked without turmeric in it but I prefer my daal to have some color)

Green chilies: few

Mustard oil: couple tablespoons

Salt to taste

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  • Dry roast the daal very lightly, taking care of not to over-roast or burn them. You can skip this step as some people prefer to cook it with unroasted daal.
  • Start boiling some water in a deep bottom pan.
  • Wash the daal with couple changes of water and add them to the boiling water. Add turmeric powder if using.
  • Once the daal is half-cooked, stir it with a whisk or traditional daaler kata. Do not make daal mushy.
  • Add the lauki pieces to the daal. Let the laukis and the daal get completely cooked. Do not overcook either of them.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil to a smoking point but don’t burn it. Add the karela slices and shallow fry them. Drain the oil and add them to the daal.
  • Add salt to taste and boil the daal for couple more minutes to incorporate the flavors.
  • Add the ginger paste and keep the flame on medium for the daal to have a gentle boil. Do not boil the daal for a long time after adding the ginger paste. You want the fresh ginger taste to be there.
  • Reheat the leftover mustard oil and add the radhuni/methi/pnach phoron, red chilies and bay leaves to it in the mentioned order. Once the spices are well roasted and you can smell a nice aroma, add the spices with the oil in the daal.
  • Immediately cover the daal to trap the aroma.
  • You can also add the daal to the oil (my Maa does it this way).
  • Serve the daal with fried eggplants (begun bhaja) and plain white rice.

PS: If you do not like the bitter taste in your daal, you can skip the karela and cook the daal like I mentioned above. Use jeera as a tempering spice in that case.

 

Uchche chachchori/Bitter gourd with mustard paste

Bitter the better, no one said ever, except the Bengalis. Traditionally in a Bengali household, food will be served in separate bowls with five different types of food (pancha vyanjana) in them. The rice was placed on the metal platter (thala) and the bowls were arranged anticlockwise around the platter in the order the food was to be eaten. It started with something bitter, maybe uchhe bhaja (fried bitter gourds), neem-begun (neem leaves fried with eggplant) or some kind of bitter leafy vegetable. Then followed a daal (lentil soup), bhaja (fried vegetable like potato, ash gourd, eggplant etc.), vegetables in gravy, ghanto (a vegetable mishmash with or without fish), fish or meat and the last course was always a sweet or tangy chutney (made from either tomato, green mango, papaya or jolpai (Indian olives)). Separately, sweets were a must after every meal, be it mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or something made either at home or bought from the local moira (sweetmeat maker).

It’s very normal for children to hate anything bitter. But, I was a strange kid; I didn’t like fish or most of the vegetables but always liked bitter foods. Uchche (karela/bittergourd) was always my favorite, be it fried crisp, chachchori cooked with potato and mustard paste or just boiled and then mixed with boiled potatoes, mashed with green chilis, salt and mustard oil.

The bitter taste is an acquired taste, if you like it, you like it a lot but if you don’t, you’ll hate it…not many people fall in the middle category I assume. The bitterness is supposed to clear your palate (probably the reason behind serving it first during the meal) and has medicinal properties too. During old times, the kabiraj (ayurvedic doctor) would often prescribe bitter tasting food to cure many diseases. In fact Bengalis still eat neem-begun at the onset of boshonto (spring) as a preventative measure of chicken pox. One way or another, the Bengalis’ love for the bitter has never faded.

The recipe below is my mother’s and I love it. It’s very simple and needless to say that it’s tasty (at least to the bitter-loving people). I haven’t altered anything from her recipe including grinding the mustard-poppy seed on my shil-nora (traditional Bengali grinding stone).

Ingredients:

Bitter gourd: 3 med.

Potato: 2 med.

Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Dry red chili: 2 nos.

Pnach phoron: 1/2 tsp.

Mustard whole: 2 tbsp

Poppy seed: 1tsp (optional)

Salt to taste

Mustard oil/vegetable oil: 1 tbsp.

Water: 1/2 cup. or more if needed.

How to cook:

  • Soak the whole mustard and poppy seeds with water for 30 minutes.
  • Grind it to a fine/smooth paste with 2-3 green chilis.
  • Wash and cut the bitter gourds in 1 1/2” pieces. Do the same for the potatoes. I prefer not to peel potatoes for most of the times as I do not want the nutrition in the peel to go waste. If you like it, go ahead and peel them.
  • Heat up the oil (if you are using mustard oil, heat it up to smoking hot, reduce the temperature and then add the phoron. The mustard oil does add flavor to the dish but you can always use something else), add pnach phoron and two dry red chilis. Sauté them until they release a nice aroma.
  • Add the potato, sauté them for 5 minutes. They should be very lightly fried, not deeply fried.
  • Follows the bitter gourd. Add turmeric powder and sauté for another 5-8 minutes.
  • Add water and cover the pot with a lid.
  • Once the vegetables are halfway cooked, add salt and let them cook uncovered.
  • Add the mustard-poppy seed paste when the vegetable are cooked. Give them a good stir and turn off the heat.
  • Let the flavor intermix a little bit and then serve with plain rice.
  • Try not to overcook the vegetables. I cut the potatoes a little bigger than usual (for no reason), but it’s better if you can cut them a little smaller than mine. Mine worked fine but to me it looked like the potatoes were predominating the dish.