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Nikita's Journal

Passport & Plate - Chutney from the Skin of a Bottle Gourd

India | Friday, 14 March 2014 | 5 photos

Calabash or Bottle gourd (doodhi) - One
Green chillies (hari mirch) - Seven
Sesame Seeds (til) - 1/4th of a small bowl
Cumin seeds (jeera) - by the pinch
Mustard seeds (mohri) - by the pinch
Asafoetida (hing) - by the pinch
Turmeric (haldi) - 1/4th of a teaspoon
Rice Bran Oil - 3 tablespoons
(Rice Bran Oil is a lighter, healthier alternative, although Indian cooking also employs Sunflower Oil)


How to prepare this recipe
Recipes from Maharashtra (the state in India I come from) are largely about what we like to call "Andaaj". An estimate. Most spices, herbs and vegetables are cooked by instinct and their quantities are determined by experience and rough estimates. So I was unsurprised when my grandmother repeated to me the following instructions:

Start by grating the skin of the Bottle Gourd finely. Maharashtrian cooking uses the Bottle Gourd in many recipes but the skin is always thrown away. Today, we use just that and ensure that no part of the vegetable is wasted.
Heat rice bran oil (about 3 tablespoons) in a wok (kadhai).
Test the heat of the oil by putting your hand a few feet above the wok. When you feel the heat reach your hand, you'll know the oil is warm enough.
Add two pinches of mustard seeds - wait for a few seconds till they crackle.
Add two pinches of cumin seeds. These will crackle instantly.
To this, add a pinch of powdered Asafoetida and a quarter of a teaspoon of powdered turmeric.
Break chillies into small pieces using your fingers and add them to the wok. These chillies change color upon making contact, giving you an instant hiss and crackle.
Add the grated skin of the bottle gourd. Toss it over with a spatula.
Turn it over, twice, then add sesame seeds.
Turn the contents of the wok over repeatedly until you feel an easy movement in the vessel. You will sense it has become lighter and easier to stir.
Add salt by the pinch.

Leave the wok uncovered and keep stirring it from time to time until your mixture turns a crispy dark brown.

Serve with with Indian butter (ghee) and steamed rice or chapattis.


The story behind this recipe
When I was in school, I'd come home running in the rain, bag moving from side to side under the weight of all my notebooks. I specifically remember 7th grade, its pages highlighted in neon markers in my memory because that was the year I was bullied. Aai (my grandmother), would be waiting at home and a combination of Scotch-Brite like hands and cotton sari would begin to wipe my face dry. If the day was bad, she'd be wiping the grime of recess tears.

Her hands smelled like a dozen things in those days. Mostly green chillies, broken by hand, like wishbones.

My grandmother was raised in Lahore. When India was partitioned after Independence, her city became a part of Pakistan. Overnight. The family had to flee, taking with them only the essentials. They lived in refugee camps, taking turns to find food locally, depending on the charity of those that had retained their lands.

When I fussed about food, I heard these stories all the time. With the underlined moral that I must eat what's put on my plate because not everybody gets to have a plate. "We wasted nothing," she told me in Marathi, "from the rinds of fruit to the peels of vegetables."

On my return from school, I ate strange things at lunch. Gruel made from stale bhakri, honey and milk. Last night's chapatis fried with curry leaves, lemon, garlic and onions. Sago cooked in milk and sugar to make a studded kheer pudding.

And then there was the chutney of cooked bottle gourd skins: hot and crunchy, with chilies and sesame seeds and magic spices from Aai’s spice box. Rolled into hot chapattis with butter, straight off the stove, it became potion for a heavy heart.

Now, I return from work to the comfort of salt and spice after bland days. I enjoy the chutney and its beautiful, cliched metaphor of how something so heartwarming could've been made from the remains of the day.

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