If the Trumps are the world’s most hated family right now, the Gourds, who had that throne forever, would have only recently slipped to a close second. And that is not a gross exaggeration. Ask anybody in any part of this country which vegetables they dislike, lauki-kaddu-karela-tendli-parwal will appear on every list. Mine too. But, what’s with the hate?
The lauki, or bottle gourd, and close cousins, are arguably one of the oldest vegetables consumed by humankind. The first traces date back to 13,000 BCE, with two varieties popping up in southern Africa and south-east Asia. The Asian variety is often argued to be older. Gourds are the first plant species to be domesticated by humans —the tenacity of gourd vines, low-maintenance growth, and voluminous sizes of the fruit, definitely made it a juicy contender.
Today, varieties of gourds form the vegetable’s portfolio in this country, covering three taste profiles — bitter, sweet, and bland.
The bitter is led by the bitter gourd and spiny gourd, called karela and kikoda by Hindi speakers, respectively. As is with Asian medicinal logic, bitters have cleansing properties for the body and are, therefore, extensively consumed across India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand and other parts of south-east Asia. Recipes tend to either stir fry the gourd with onions — the fat and the caramelised onions lend a greasy sweetness which balances the bitter — or cook with dried fish or shrimp, or stuff with spiced gram flour, or — as in Pakistan — beef fillings. The kikoda is a rounder fruit, darker green in colour, bitter-sweet in taste, with soft thorn-like spines covering the rind. Bengalis tend to either dry fry roundels of kakrol, as they call it, and serve with salt and ghee as the first course for a summer lunch, or deep fry it to accompany a dal.
The sweet options of the gourd family are pumpkins, squashes, ash gourds, and bottle gourds. Native to the Americas, pumpkins have travelled the world for its fibrous and sweet properties. While the West is obsessed with using it as a dessert component, pumpkins land up in almost every curry in Asian countries. Similarly, batter-fried squash flowers are common around the world – only the batter changes, and stuffings might be added. Pumpkins might just be the only vegetable I can tolerate in a sambar. Bengalis make an oily Chokka, or scramble, with sweet red pumpkins, potatoes, and peanuts, braised with the five spice. I personally love deep fried pumpkins as the fruit caramelises beautifully, due to the high sugar content. Another favourite that depends on the natural sweetness of the fruit is a simple boiled pumpkin-potato mash with some salt and smashed green chillies. The gourd I might actually like is the ash or wax gourd. Referred to as chal or chhanchi kumro, this white fruit (with a waxy rind) is popularly cooked into a simple stir fry during summers by Bengalis, served with freshly dessicated coconut. The sweet, juicy succulence of the gourd, along with the bite from the coconut, pair like magic with hot rice. I haven’t come across too many distinctive ash gourd dishes in the country (other than the Petha, which is one of the first examples of indigenous candy in the country), although it is said to have originated from Sri Lanka. In Japan, the ash gourd is often cooked with crabs and seafood meatballs, which make for a wholesome hearty bowl, with some glass noodles, and Wasabi. The bottle gourd, or the much-hated lauki, is barely treated with any respect and is shoved into mixed vegetable curries and dals. The lauki-chana dal is a common Maharashtrian addition, while it is diced and stir fried around the country. A more recent attempt is the Lauki Kofta, but I feel some mother came up with this fancy rendition just to make her kids eat this common and cheap vegetable. Because of its lack of personality and slight sweetness, it pairs well with shrimps. The only time the lauki becomes indispensable in a dish is in the Lauki/Dudhi Ka Halwa. A softer, mushier version of the Gajar Ka Halwa, the Dudhi Halwa is delightfully juicy and creamy, and makes for a great rich-but-light dessert. Using gourds for desserts could be traced back to Shah Jahan’s kitchens, given the man’s obsession with fruits, and eagerness to play with sweet and savoury.
The bland and boring off-shoot of the gourd family might be the most disliked but most popular. From the varieties of the ivy and pointed gourd (tendli, parwal, potol), to snake gourds and ridge gourds, the blander cousins are some of the most commonly cooked vegetables in Indian kitchens. I was introduced to the ivy gourd, or tendli, in Maharashtra, and along the Western ghats. I am still to be introduced to someone who actually likes the damned vegetable. Tendlis have no flavour, but the slightly chewy texture with a bite makes it an easy contender for any stir fry. Tendlis are pickled too. Bengalis, Odiyas, and Biharis are obsessed with the pointed gourd. After the potato, the potol might be the most cooked vegetable. The potol is almost always paired with aloo, either as a dry rustic stir fry or the rich Aloo-Potoler Daalna (spicy thick curry). Baby potols (that sounds funny) are often deep fried whole (the seeds are soft then and can be easily chewed), dusted with salt and served with luchi. When the gourd is at its longest, the royal Potoler Dolma is prepared. This involves hollowing out the gourd, stuffing it with a spiced fish or lentil mix, and deep frying it. The lentil version (well, to spruce it up further) is then curried. Preparing the Dolma is an arduous process, but the final result (I am talking about the fish version, of course) is absolutely divine. On the other hand, snake gourds and ridge gourds are callously chopped up into mixed dry fries and curries, or are cooked with shrimps. The famous Aloo Posto also has a ridge gourd version.
If you think about it, the gourd family’s lack of personality and individuality is what has helped the vegetable endure civilizations and centuries. It is a big, cheap, filling fruit, that don’t need too much attention, or specific directions for cooking. Although a good source of easy carbs, because of their water and fibre content, mothers — and health nuts — feign their love for the gourds.
P.S: Pumpkins and bottle gourds pre-date clay, wood, and metal utensils. The fruits were dried and carved into bowls and glasses by many civilisations, especially in Native America, South America and India. The chambers of the sitar are crafted from bottle gourds. Bengalis literally refer to them as the sitar’s Lau — the Bengali word for the bottle gourd.