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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Stir fried carrot or shredded carrot salad?

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The food found in any Indian kitchen used to vary according to the season. All through summer we ate endless dishes made with potol (pointed gourd) and right when we got sick of them the fresh creamy white cauliflowers appeared. But then, these in turn overstayed their welcome. As the market got saturated with cauliflowers, I remember the vegetable vendors throwing them away or giving them away for free at the end of the day. BUT…we liked it that way. We had sudden cravings for something in one season but had to wait for months to get it (because it only grew in another season), but when it came, it was worth the wait, because Nature cannot be messed with. The only analogy I can think of is a fine wine in your cellar that you know will improve with aging in the bottle, so you just bite your teeth and drink a beer till the craving goes away. My Maa didn’t dump a handful of dhonepata (cilantro) in almost everything as we do in the US, simply because it wasn’t available all year long. The wonders of Nature made even the summer heat almost tolerable, as we knew that juicy, ripe mangoes would soon show up in the grocery bags. Eating plump, juicy komla lebu (tangerines/clementines) while soaking up the winter sunshine on our terrace was a ritual by itself. Like most other vegetables, carrots were seasonal as well. However, carrots never really found widespread acceptance in the kitchens of Bengal. The only thing my mother used them for was a winter salad prepared with finely chopped carrots, beets, cucumbers and onions. This tasted so refreshing and appetizing that even my father, who never entered the kitchen otherwise, would volunteer to chop the vegetables whenever he knew it was going to be made. Later my Maa started adding carrots to pnach mishali torkari (Bengali-style mixed vegetables) or daliar khichuri (cracked wheat porridge).

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The times they are a’ changin, and you can now find most vegetables throughout the year if you live in a city or even in a prosperous small town. They don’t taste as good, but at least your menu no longer need be restricted just because it is summer and you are craving for fulkopir dalna (cauliflower curry).

I love vegetables and am looking around for interesting vegetarian recipes. I’m learning how to cook vegetables I never grew up eating. Some of them I’ve never even seen before. Everything is on your finger tips now, just type in the name on Google, hit Enter and recipes with mouthwatering pictures will compete for your attention. A few years ago, one fine morning I was Googling something when I came across Harini’s blog. It’s a beautiful blog with vegan recipes and wonderful stories. She was hosting a monthly mingle for Meeta of What’s for lunch Honey, and the topic was “vegetarian soups”. I was very interested in participating but wasn’t sure if I could because I wasn’t a blogger back then. I wrote to Harini and she sent me a warm welcoming reply accepting my request. I got some appreciation for both the picture and the soup I had made and readers of Harini’s blog suggested that I should start my own. It took me three years to convince myself that I could do this, but now I’m enjoying it enormously.

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The reason I mentioned Harini’s name is because this carrot recipe is from her blog. It looked so refreshing and easy that I couldn’t stop myself from cooking it. This is one from a long list of things I want to cook from other people’s blogs. Hope to try many more in the future and share the results with you.

I am re-writing her recipe in terms of text but not content. You can see her post here and read the original recipe.

Ingredients:

Split, husked, mung beans (Mung daal): 1/4 cup, soaked for at least an hour, and drained
Carrots (Gaajar), fresh, plump and juicy: 6 large ones, grated in medium sized grater
Green chilies, slit vertically – 2, or more, if you like some heat **( I have added few more green chilis and it tasted really good. The sweetness of the carrot and the slight heat from the green chili married together nicely)
Coconut, freshly grated: 1/4 cup
Lemon, ripe, medium sized: 1, juiced (About a tbsp.)
Salt to taste

Seasoning (Tadka/baghar)

Mustard oil/any oil: 1 tsp.
Mustard seeds: 1 tsp.
Husked, black gram daal (urad daal): 1 tsp.
Curry leaves: 1 sprig
Sesame seeds, white: 1 tsp.

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Soaked mung daal in the front

Method:

  • Scrub lightly, wash and dry carrots.
  • Do not peel. Maximum sweetness in carrots is right under the skin and when you peel you discard the best portion.
  • Grate and set aside. Do not use a fine grater or cheese grater. We need the final dish to have a “bite” to it so use a medium sized grater.
  • Heat oil. When hot enough, add mustard seeds and black gram daal.
  • When the seeds splutter and daal turns pink add the curry leaves and slit green chilies.
  • As soon as the curry leaves are crisp, add the carrots. Stir fry to mix well.
  • Cover and cook for 4-8 minutes depending on how you like your carrots – 4 minutes for very crunchy).
  • Add the mung beans, sprinkle sesame seeds, and coconut and stir fry on low heat till mixed well. Take off the fire. Squeeze the lemon and stir to let the juice distribute.

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