Get gentle this summer with lauki, the naturally mild bottle gourd.
Summer's back and so is the ennui about what to cook: Ghiya, ghiya or ghiya. Calling it lauki, lau or doodhi doesn't help because by any other name, it's still, as my father loves to say, water in dirty form. And yet. Water in whatever form definitely makes for more “cooling” meals, and in the North, where seasons are distinct, the fact that onions, which are also “cooling”, are more freely and cheaply available in the hot months, most summer vegetables are cooked with onions. So unlike winter, in which a fresh crop of “garam” ginger arrives, by default summer food ends up being “cooling”. As long as we don't run out to the market which is full of cauliflower, broccoli and peas — frozen and fresh — all 12 months, and succumb to the temptation of buying unseasonal vegetables.
The gourd days
The other day I met my friend Priya's mother and she asked for lauki recipes that were different from the usual ones with onion and tomato. I understand her anguish because I've lived through it. When my children were small and innocent, before they learnt how to order in, drive out and eat pizza, shawarmas and kabab rolls morning noon and night, they quietly ate the dal-sabzi given to them. Perhaps not with excitement, just obediently. And in that age of innocence when they heard that there were lauki koftas for dinner, they leapt up, yelling with joy. And ate without fuss, hungrily. Today none of the standard lauki/ ghiya recipes is welcome. Particularly not the Punjabi favourite, ghiya cooked with chane ki dal. The fact that my daughter longs for them is a separate story, more to do with living away from home and missing hot, home-made Indian food. So over the years I've had to look for new ways and fresher flavours so that we can still eat Lagenaria siceraria or Lagenaria vulgaris and other seasonal vegetables in the right quantities.
In Bengal, the peel is used for “chutney” which is not spicy, but flavoured strongly with garlic, ghee, green chillies and coconut.
In my grandparents' home they cooked ghiya with milk to make a pale greenish white dish, soft, mild and buttery. The vegetable was peeled and chopped into small cubes, sautéed briefly, preferably in ghee (I prefer to do it in oil and add a tiny knob of butter at the end), then simmered with milk — about a large cup for a kilo of ghiya — until it was soft and the milk a thick coating. Salt at the end.
Lauki is such a mild vegetable that it takes well to gentle spicing and milk and cream. A side dish with Western meals, when “English” vegetables are out of season, is baked lauki. Peeled lauki is cut into discs, less than an inch thick, which can be halved or quartered, depending on size. These are steamed till tender but still firm, placed in a baking dish, slathered in white sauce, sprinkled with cheese and baked for five minutes.