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.

 

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Tok daal/Mango and lentil soup

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Every year I miss Poila Boishakh, the festival of the New Year according to the Bengali lunar calendar. Poila Boishakh is the first day of the month Boishakh (approximately in the first week of April), but the summer is already scorching hot during the day. If you were lucky, there might be a slight breeze in the evening, cooling you down just a bit so you could wear your new clothes. A charming custom was that if you were a regular customer at any local store, on this day the shopkeeper would invite you to stop by and have a small snack (more here). In this way, the relationship was elevated above the purely commercial level in a way my local Wal-Mart manager would probably not understand.

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Every year during my childhood, I went to various places from a shoe store to the grocer to the jewelry store with Baba. The icing on the cake was if any of the shopkeepers gave me a Maaza (a very popular mango juice drink in India) or a glass of raw mango sherbet/Aam panna. We invariably came back home with boxes of sweetmeats and Bengali calendars given by the stores (usually with a Hindu god or goddess on them). The moment we got back home, I’ll literally jump on those boxes and sort through the sweets I wanted to eat. I didn’t give anyone any choice. I would choose mine and then Baba and Maa would have theirs. The story became slightly different when my brother started voicing his opinions though. We would keep the boxes in the refrigerator and eat one or two every day. I would unroll each and every calendar and sort through them as well (I really liked the ones with a glossy finish). If a calendar happened to be in English, I would save it for my room. The glossy ones were usually given by the bigger stores and to the chosen customers. There would be goddess Durga on one with a different weapon in each of her ten arms, while Lakshmi would be showering her blessings on another. The “modern” stores were more secular and would sometimes put the Eiffel tower or the Taj Mahal on their calendars. On Poila Boisakh, we always took down the calendars from previous years and put the new ones on the wall. One went in the bedroom, one in the living room, one in my room and one with a God or Goddess went to my Maa’s prayer room. The rest were distributed.

Tokdaal

As Poila Boishakh was a day off for all of us, we used to have lunch at home. We ate simple things because it was hard to digest an elaborate or super spicy, greasy meal when the temperature outside was close to 40C. Among other things on the menu, tok daal (sour lentil soup) was a must. Green mangoes were abundant in the market during that time, and as Ayurveda holds that they have a cooling effect on the stomach, the tok daal with green mango slices was a regular in our house throughout summer. Making tok daal either on the Sankranti (the last day of the year) or on the New Year day is a tradition from my Dida’s (maternal grandma) time. When I called my Maa a couple of days ago and said we will have a small get together at my place and I will cook daal, Maa said “ki daal banabi, tok daal?” (What are you making, the sour lentil soup?). After that, there was no going back: I had to cook it right away.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Musur daal/Red lentils: ½ cup

Green mango (has to be very sour): ½ of a big one or one small (depending on how sour you want it and how sour the mango is), chopped into ½ inch pieces.

Water: 3 cups

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Mustard oil(any other oil will do too but not optimum): ½ tbsp.

Sugar: one pinch

Black mustard seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chilies: 3-4

Salt to taste

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  • Start boiling the water in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water comes to a full boil, add the daal (rinsed of course)
  • Let the daal come to a boil too.
  • Once it starts boiling, reduce the flame to medium.
  • Remove the scum from the top periodically.
  • Once there is no more scum forming, add the turmeric. Give it a mix.
  • Let it boil for several more minutes until almost cooked.
  • Whisk it very nicely to make a homogenous soup. Do not whisk it to so much that the daal loses all it’s texture.
  • Add the chopped mangoes and let the daal boil for several more minutes or until ta mangoes are completely cooked.
  • Mash one or two pieces to add the sour flavor to the daal. Add salt and sugar and mix everything well.
  • In a separate small pot heat up ½ tablespoon of mustard oil (any other oil if you do not have mustard oil) on medium heat. Add the black mustard seeds.
  • In a few minutes, the seeds will splutter and start dancing around. Add the dry red chilies and let them go a shade darker. You will get a nice aroma.
  • Add this seasoning/tadka to the boiling daal and immediately cover the pot. Switch off the flame too.
  • Let the pot covered for 5 minutes and then uncover and mix the tadka with the daal.
  • Serve it with plain white rice.

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Optional: Add few curry leaves once the mustard seeds start dancing followed by the dry chilies. Or, follow this seasoning.

Mug-mushurer daal/Mixed lentil soup with butternut squash

DSC_0293In between sessions of intense research, my nerdy husband often takes a break (from the experiments, not from the nerdiness) and Googles random stuff. Some of these things are so random that he comes up with results even more inconclusive than his scientific data. For example, he knew the words Sagina Mahato but had no clue about what they might mean (it’s a Bengali movie made in the 70s). Then he realized that he knows the word khagina but again had no clue about it. Isn’t it random? He will always say “Google is your friend” or sometimes if I ask him something and he is not in a mood to answer, he’ll say “GIYF”, which infuriates me. Anyway, from “sagina” his neurotic brain went to “khagina”, which he Googled and for a change came up with something beautiful, which was a recipe for anda/egg-bhurji aka khagina on Shayma Saadat’s blog spicespoon.com. He liked the recipe (and was blown away by the looks of the blogger) and sent the link to me.

DSC_0299It was love at first sight. I loved her blog and after reading couple of her stories and recipes, I loved it even more. A very funny thing happened when I saw the khagina recipe on her blog. A few months ago I had almost nothing at home to eat, only leftover daal in the fridge. Usually I fry an egg to eat with the daal, but this time I made a bhurji instead, and threw in a few random things to mix with the egg. To my surprise, it was almost the exact same recipe written on her blog. How could it be possible? I didn’t even know the name khagina, never Googled it and nor had I seen the egg-bhurji recipe on the internet. I am very surprised and have no clue how to explain it. Maybe it’s a true coincidence. The day I made the bhurji, my husband liked it very much and found it very unusual. I never made it again and had no plan to make it in near future. It was a makeshift recipe for no-food-in-the-fridge days. I didn’t anticipate that my husband’s random Google searches would link me to back to my haphazardly constructed anda-bhurji in this strange way. Life is full of surprises.

DSC_0311I was browsing around trying to find something easy and quick to try from her blog. Finally I found this daal and decided to try it. I love daal and try to cook it every possible way. I liked the recipe soon after I read it. I liked the story behind it even more. It’s beautiful and I can literally visualize the story. If you read the recipe, please read the story….it will make the daal taste even better.

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Recipe: (adapted from Shayma Saadat of Spicespoon and my mother’s recipe)

I have used both cumin and Bengali five spice as seasoning and both of them taste equally good. So, feel free to use any of them.

Ingredients:

Mushur daal/masoor daal//red lentils: ½ cup

Mug daal/yellow lentils: ½ cup

Onion:  2 tbsp. finely chopped

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Garlic: 2 cloves

Tomato: One medium, ripe and juicy, finely chopped

Cilantro: a handful, finely chopped

Jeera/whole cumin seeds/panchphoron/Bengali five spice: 11/2 tsp.

Butternut squash/pumpkin: 8-10 nos. cut into ¾-1 inch cubes (optional)

Green chilis: 2-3 nos., slit length wise (optional)

Dried red chilies: 2 nos.

Mustard or any other oil: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then drain.
  • Start boiling enough water to cook the lentils in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water starts boiling, add the lentils. Let the whole thing come to a boil again.
  • Turn the heat to medium.
  • While boiling the daal, spoon off any scum arising on the top of the lentils.
  • Add turmeric and let the lentils get almost cooked.
  • Mix the lentils with a whisk until they form a uniform consistency.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes. Let the tomatoes get cooked.
  • Add the butternut squash (if using) and boil for several more minutes until the squash is completely cooked and the soup reaches its desired consistency. Add water if the soup looks too thick by now. Add the green chillies too.
  • Add salt and mix well.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil. Once hot, turn the heat to low and add the garlic. Let the garlic infuse the oil.
  • Turn the heat to medium and then add the jeera/cumin/Bengali five spice next and let them sizzle a bit.
  • Follow with the dried chilies and let it go one shade darker.
  • Add the chopped onion and sauté it for few minutes. Once you get a nice aroma of all the sautéed spices, add the whole thing to the boiling daal.
  • Quickly cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Let it be like this for 5-10 more minutes.
  • Add lots of chopped cilantro and serve with plain rice.
  • Definitely sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice while eating.
  • Goes well with a side salad.

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Split pea lentil soup with turnip/radish (mulo diye motor daal)

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Daal-roti or daal-bhaat (lentils and rice/bread) are to Indians as meat and potatoes are for an American from the Midwest. Every household has a recipe for daal and it can be cooked in several different ways, the basic one being boiling it with turmeric and salt and then adding the tadka/chhownk/baghaar (tempered seasoning) to it. During the early days of the British Raj, when our erstwhile rulers took thousands of Indian people, mostly from South and some from the North and East as cheap labor to their Caribbean colonies, the migrants took whatever they could with them to survive in a foreign land. Being a staple in their native land, lentils were among the first things they packed. However, after their stocks were exhausted, they found that food items from India were very expensive to buy in their new land. Only the rich could afford them. Gradually they started modifying their recipes to cook with whatever was available locally. After several generations of these migrant workers had lived and cooked in their new land, their dishes gradually became foreign cousins of their Indian versions.

Among the lentils, motor daal (split pea lentils) were widely available in both Africa and the Caribbean. You will find many recipes there which are very similar to Indian daal. In Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia and Burma, motor daal is cooked in a similar manner to sambar in India. In Malaysia yellow split pea sambar is made with vegetables and then enriched with ground nuts. In Burma the same daal is  given a different twist with  tomatoes and okra. In South Africa they add yogurt and butter to it but tastes like a rich sambar which is again made from yellow split peas.

Motor daal/yellow split peas

Motor daal/yellow split peas

Motor daal is not very common in Bengali cuisine. It is cooked less often than moong daal (yellow lentil) or musur daal (red lentil). When it was cooked at all, it often had seasonal vegetables added (as I’ve described before, Indian cuisine used to be very seasonally oriented and you added things according to what was growing in its natural season). The recipe is my mother’s and was mainly made in winter, when  crisp white mulo (radish) and dhonepata (cilantro) are at their best. Eaten quite simply with rice and a pickle, it tastes just divine .

Recipe:

Motor daal: 1 cup

Mulo/radish or turnip:1/1/2 cup cubed

Jeera/cumin seeds: 1 tsp

Bay leaf: 2 nos.

Dhonepata/cilantro: a handful

Turmeric: ½ tsp

Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Dry red chili: 2 nos.

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the daal with several changes of water and then boil with enough water with the turmeric.
  • Chop the turnip or the radish into ¾” sized cubes and cook it in the microwave for 8-10 minutes and then drain the water.
  • Add the radishes to daal when the daal is ¾ done.
  • Add the green chilies as well.
  • Add salt to taste. Boil until the daal is cooked. Check the salt and adjust it accordingly.
  • The daal should not be a mush or retain the structure completely. It should be sort of half and half. Half broken you can say.
  • Heat up the oil and add the cumin seeds to it. Once they darken a little bit, add the bay leaves and the dried red chilies.
  • Once all of them darken, add the seasoning to the daal and immediately cover the pot to retain the flavor.
  • Add freshly chopped cilantro before you serve (it’s a must).

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PS: You can add a pinch of sugar if you want. I don’t but some people like a hint of sweetness in their daal.

Last time when I went to the Asian supermarket, I saw something very strange. It looked like turnip but not the usual turnip I am used to. I brought it home and ate a slice of it to get the taste. It’s tasted very mulo-like and added it to the daal. Traditionally it is made with the regular radish. The only difference I found that the turnip I bought was less stinky than the mulo which might be a bonus for many people.

Turnip

Turnip

You can eat it with either roti (Indian flat bread) or rice. I had it with sun dried tomato focaccia and it tasted wonderful.