Thought for Food Food

Sweet red ghoul: The virtues of pumpkin

Pumpkin makes for scary jack-o’-lanterns and yummy dishes

As a child, I was intrigued by the concept of Halloween. You wore a sheet, scared your neighbours and were rewarded with sweets. What could be better? The American comics I read had some interesting images of Halloween: apart from the bag of treats that children went home with, I was particularly taken by the carved-out pumpkins, the jack-o’-lanterns.

Golden veggie

That was something new, for the pumpkin, back home in western Uttar Pradesh, was a dish that appeared every time a meal was organised for some special occasion — death, birth or festivals. It was cooked simply (with some jaggery, fennel, fenugreek and whole red chillies), but even now, decades later, I fondly remember its mildly sweet taste.

Halloween reminds me of the pumpkin, called kaddu in Hindi (a word often used disparagingly to denote a fathead). The squash has got some bad press, but it is actually a versatile vegetable and can be used for any course, from soups, starters, entrées to desserts.

Food historian K.T. Achaya writes that pumpkins are a part of our food from ancient times, and were grown on the banks of rivers in village outskirts.

Chinese traveller Xuan Zang, who visited 110 of the 138 kingdoms in every part of India between 629 and 645 AD, mentioned pumpkin, ginger, mustard and melon. Ibn Battuta noticed that only pumpkins grew in the dry river beds in some tracks adjacent to the Sindh desert.

“Long before the intervention of man, the ability of gourds to float in sea water while retaining seed viability must have carried them across the seas from continent to continent. The so-called winter squash or red pumpkin of America is called urubuka in Sanskrit; today it goes by such names as lal kumra, kaddhu or kumbalakayi,” he writes in Indian food: A Historical Companion.

The importance of the vegetable and its flower can be gauged from the fact that there is a book called Pumpkin Flower Fritters. Originally written in Bengali, it comprises recipes collected by the author, Renuka Devi Choudhurani, from friends, relatives and cooks. The book has just been lent to me by a foodie/ book-loving friend, and I have been flipping through the pages and getting the aroma of food in the air.

The author mentions a dish of red pumpkin cooked with bottle gourd shoots and potatoes and tempered with cumin seeds, bay leaves and asafoetida. Another dish is pumpkin cooked with coconut and gram.

Leg piece

For this, cut a pumpkin into strips. Heat oil in a kadhai, add bay leaves and five spices (panch phoron — a mix of cumin seeds, onion seeds, fenugreek, fennel and mustard seeds).

Add the pumpkin, sprinkle a bit of water and sauté. Add turmeric paste, red chilli paste, slit green chillies, salt and sauté some more. Add soaked gram, scraped coconut and sugar.

Pumpkin, which leads to delightful cakes, is an excellent ingredient for soups. “It looks beautiful and really warms you up,” chef Ritu Dalmia writes in Italian Khana. “This majestic, golden vegetable is so versatile I use it as a filling for crêpes, ravioli and sauces.”

But let me end with a story from the 30s that Choudhurani narrates in her book. Her husband was in Delhi as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly. He had invited Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu for dinner.

But there was a problem: Nehru was still mourning his father’s death and wanted only vegetarian food while Naidu wanted a good fish-laden non-vegetarian Bengali meal. His cook Rudrathakur needed help, so the Bengali community of Delhi all pitched in, sending in a spread of delicious dishes. Nehru and Naidu, she writes, were served 64 dishes.

The cook, elated at serving the exalted guests, was ‘happy’ in more ways than one. After the dinner, he burst into the room, held Nehru by his leg, and said, “Sir, I want to give myself to your leg.”

He meant feet, but Rudrathakur, in his broken English, said ‘leg’ instead. The guests were taken aback, but reassured when they were told that the cook merely wanted to serve the nation.

I loved the story, even though it didn’t say if pumpkin figured among the 64 dishes. But I thought it goes rather well with the spirit of Halloween.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 10:17:14 PM |

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