Crossing Howrah Bridge was an everyday affair for many of us who commuted daily to Calcutta from the suburbs. The moment you came to the other side of river Ganges, (the place is called Burrabazar) which is the business hub of Calcutta, the whole scenario used to change. The traffic on Brabourne Road (the main road which runs through the area) was hellish but I used to always look outside from the bus window and be amazed with the place. You can literally look into the overcrowded streets and see history appearing and gradually fading at the same time.
During the eighteenth century this was the place where the Armenian, Jewish, Greek and Arab traders used to carry out their business. In every pocket of Brabourne road, you will find the remnants of the communities which made their way to the city via a different route, reason, and circumstance and integrated themselves and became a part of Calcutta.
Among the foreigners, the first were the Armenians who came from what was then Persia (now mostly Iran) and built themselves a wooden church (the city’s first) on Portuguese Church Street, currently known as Armenian Street. They predate British and were the first Christians to settle down in Calcutta. The wooden chapel was replaced by the Holy Church of Nazareth in 1722. In fact, there is still a functional ferry station known as Armenian Ghat close to the church. Like many Armenians, Arathoon Stephen was sent to Calcutta almost penny less but made his way to be one of the most successful hoteliers in the city. The Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand) was founded by Stephen on the site of the old Theatre Royal, and it remains a historic icon of the city, even if somewhat inaccessible to most of its residents.
On one hand, Armenians always maintained their identity but at the same time they have also managed to integrate with the Bengali culture. They celebrate their Christmas lunch on January 6th at Burra club (the Armenian Club on Park Street) with a mixed menu of cabbage dolma, fish kalia and cauliflower bhaji. During the old times, every Armenian family grew a grape vine in their house, not for the grapes themselves, but for harvesting the leaves to make dolmas (meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves). Later the grape leaves were substituted with the cabbage leaves, their staple sturgeon made way for Indian Hilsa and many of other traditional ingredients were replaced with available Indian equivalents. The Armenians being a hospitable community invited Bengalis for Christmas lunches and shared and exchanged recipes. Soon, the food-loving Bengalis started experimenting with Armenian recipes and came out with something which is a fusion between the two. Not to mention, potoler dolma is one of them. The Armenian dolma and the Jewish mahashas (stuffed vegetables) are the forerunners of the mach potoler dolma (pointed gourd stuffed with minced fish).
Potoler dolma recipe:
Potol/pointed gourd: 10-12 no.
Coconut: 1 cup
Shrimp: 10-12 medium. Coat them with salt and turmeric, lightly shallow fry them
Oil (mustard or any oil): 1 tbsp
Poppy seeds: 1 1/2 tbsp
Turmeric: 1/2 tsp
Whole dried red chili: 2 nos.
Green chili (the hotter the better): few
Salt to taste
- Soak the poppy seeds in luke warm water for 15-20 minutes and then grind it to a smooth paste with green chilis. The amount of green chilis will vary according to your taste. I like the dolma on the hotter side (hot crazy hot though), so I add generous amount of green chilies. Once the paste is made, add turmeric to it and mix well.
- Chop the shrimps and mix with the grated coconut.
- Scrape off the skin of the wax gourds. I have peeled them in an alternate fashion but the better way would be the scraping.
- Cut a small portion from the top and save the top and use it in a mixed vegetable curry.
- Scoop out the inside of the gourds with the back of a spoon. Be careful, you do not want to put too much pressure as they might break.
- If you are using big potols, you can use the inside flesh for stuffing. I had miniature ones and didn’t bother to save it. All I had was seeds and a little bit of soft flesh.
- Shallow fry the unstuffed potol…just a little bit. I haven’t done it before stuffing them and learnt my lessons. It was harder to shallow fry them later as the stuffing was coming out a little bit.
- In the same oil, add the coconut and the chopped shrimp mixture just enough to get rid of the raw coconut taste away. If you overcook them, they will be dry. I added a pinch of salt and turmeric to it. The shrimps are already cooked, so you don’t need to cook the stuffing for a long time.
- Once the potols are cool enough to handle, take a little bit of the stuffing and stuff them generously. Push the stuffing gently with your fingers to make them tight. If the stuffing is not well stuffed, it might come out while cooking.
- Add a little bit more oil and let it smoke.
- Add two-three dried red chili and let them turn to a darker shade.
- Add the stuffed potols and sauté them for a minute or two and then add the poppy seed paste.
- Coat the potols well with the poppy seed paste, add salt, mix once more and then cook them covered. Do not add a lot of salt. You can always add it later if needed.
- Turn the potols once half way while cooking and then cover and cook again until the potols are cooked.
- The poppy seed paste should coat the vegetables but should not have a runny gravy.
The recipe I have shared is not the traditional potoler dolma, which is stuffed mainly with fish or minced meat. However, as necessity is mother of invention, this version was made up with the available ingredients in my fridge, and although shrimp stuffed dolma is not very common, it came out quite nice.