The Good Old Pumpkin

Remember the pumpkin coach built by Cinderella’s fairy godmother so that she could attend the ball? And, which had turned back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, to be trampled by the palace horses?

Like many little girls of my time, Cinderella used to be my favourite childhood fairy tale. It was her glass shoes and the pumpkin coach that fascinated me. There was another favourite too, Rapunzel. Her long tresses allured me, and I would dream of having the same long golden plait. That was probably because my thick glossy jet-black hair was trimmed to the shortest, so that it could be easily managed. I can clearly remember the glossy feel of the pages of those childhood books. I have no idea if children today are still fascinated by these fairy tales. I only hear of Doraemon, Shizuka, Nobita, Elsa, Barbie, and so on. These characters never existed during our childhood.

My childhood memories of Cindrella’s carriage was rekindled by a pumpkin – a very special pumpkin. Not the orange-red Cinderella pumpkin but the green one with scattered spots of yellow.

We have a small little kitchen garden in our Shillong home. It’s an extended part of my father’s garden that he tended with a lot of love and care. The kitchen garden boasts of a variety of produce. Some of these are chayotes, beans, colocasia, chilies, lemons, tree tomatoes, corns, and the good old pumpkin. The pumpkin vine happened to be his eternal favourite and he nurtured a special attachment to it. His bias towards the vine and the pumpkins would sometimes reach unreasonable heights. The full-grown pumpkins would never be allowed an immediate entry into the kitchen. They would be safely kept, carefully guarded and shielded on the terrace. They would often be smeared with a dash of lime. Probably to ward off insect attacks – I really don’t know. Never asked him. The pumpkins would grace the kitchen only on special occasions.

When I came home in August, I did notice the yellow flowers of the pumpkin vine. It’s quite a common site during this time of the year and I didn’t pay much attention. One day I spotted a tiny little round ball popping out of a flower. It was way too adorable and impossible to ignore. There on, I would take stock of it every single day and watching it grow was sheer delight. In the meanwhile, several other tiny green rounded baby pumpkins made their appearance, but my eyes remain glued to the first one. I was partial in my love and adulation. And, I think I now understand my father’s over-protective attitude towards his pumpkins.

It does surprise me significantly to think that the pumpkin vine was always there, but I never ever bothered to take a close look. The garden was my father’s arena. I loved the greenery all around and admired his passion but never really participated alongside him. My father is surely smiling watching his pumpkins grow.

Now for some Google-gyan, attributed to my new-found pumpkin interest. Pumpkins or Cucurbita, as they are known scientifically, have originated from Central America over 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. Green pumpkins come in two varieties – Japanese pumpkin or ‘Kabocha’ and Italian pumpkin or ‘Marina di Chioggia’. It’s the sweet-tasting Asian pumpkin that grows in our kitchen garden. The Italian counterpart is small, dark green with a very warty outer rind. There’s also a pear-shaped variety, known as Lakota squash. Pumpkins possess abundant vitamins and nutrients besides being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifungal. Pumpkins are high in protein and fiber. They are an excellent source of iron and vitamin A.

Pumpkins are extraordinarily versatile when it comes to cooking. They can be cooked in a variety of ways on their own and also in combination with other vegetables. Pumpkins make great combination with fresh-water fish and dry fish too. Pumpkins make for great desserts too!

Here are two simple pumpkin recipes from my mother’s kitchen.

Tales of Pithe-Puli

Fast Disappearing Exotic and Traditional Home-made Bengali Sweetmeat

A pan filled with oil simmered over a low flame as Ma peered onto it maneuvering a shining steel spatula with her spectacles daintily perched at the edge of her nose. Driven by curiosity, I take a closer look to discover the diamond-shaped flattened cubes seething in the hot foaming oil. Tossing and turning the cubes, she patiently waits for them to turn a reddish brown.

It was a Sunday afternoon and ‘Chana Daal Pithe’ was underway at my Bangalore home. Yes, it was that time of the year when my parents were visiting me.

Anybody who understands Pithe, knows the amount of labour that goes into its making. And Ma managed all of that single-handedly and more so after she had prepared breakfast, cooked lunch, even got me a bowl of fruits sometime in between, and doing a dozen other chores around the house. As I watched her with awe yet again, the same old thought crept into my mind – “Why don’t I have half the energy she has and how does she manage time to get so much done!” All mothers have superpowers, I swear!

Chana Daal Pithe is an irresistible mouth-watering authentic Bengali sweetmeat. It is made by mixing boiled and mashed bengal gram, sweetened coconut shreds, khoya (milk thickened and solidified by heating in an open pan), and refined flour. The diamond-shaped flattened cubes are crafted out of the mixture and deep fried in vegetable oil. They are then dipped in sugar syrup, which is spiced up with cardamom. It’s often served by garnishing with a layer of kheer over it. (Kheer is milk with sugar, thickened to a certain consistency by boiling over low flame). Chana Daal Pithe is one of those special dishes that comes from Ma’s kitchen and like many other things is on the brink of extinction. I don’t know how many of us have the time and energy to prepare pithes even though we love to eat them……..I for one wouldn’t have the patience, I know that for sure! Grate the coconut, boil the gram, mix with flour, sugar and kheer in perfect proportions, and the right proportion happens to be really important, fry them over low flame while you prepare the sugar syrup separately…………PHEW!

At the same time it upsets me to think that the future generations may never know what pithes are and how they taste. After all, you don’t get to buy pithes off the shelf. Though, I did see a few during Poush Sankranti in a sweet shop in Kolkata a few years back but definitely those wouldn’t taste like the home-made ones. A business opportunity hidden there? Hmm…..

Pithes are indigenous home-made Bengali sweets that are traditionally prepared during Poush Sankranti (Makar Sankranti) in the month of January. Pithes can be of various types. There are those that are common across all sections of Bengalis, then there are those that are indigenous to certain regions of Bengal. Again, some pithes are made from refined flour, while others require rice flour; some should be sweetened with jaggery while sugar suffices in others; in some potatoes are a must while some cannot be imagined without bananas, again others require jackfruit or dates; there are those that are deep fried and those that are steamed or boiled – the combinations are endless.

Pithes are not any random dish and are not a part of our usual menu. It’s definitely not what fish is to us. Pithes are distinctive and special. It has to be a Poush Sankranti or a special occasion for pithes to make their appearance.

Besides Bengal, pithes are also popular in the states of Orissa and Assam. However, each state has their own set of unique and distinctive pithes. 

Pithes have also been associated with a special kind of love, affection, and indulgence. Many of us associate our grandparents with pithes. I remember demanding pithes from my Thamma (paternal grandmother), who would not only be delighted but would do anything under the sun to fulfill our wishes. And Thamma’s pithes belonged to a different genre altogether, the range of pithes was way broader and the taste couldn’t be reproduced by anyone in the family.

Today, pithe is ritualistic each time we visit home or parents come over. A visit to my Pishi (aunt – dad’s sister) in Guwahati is also ritualistic each time I go home, and she will invariably have some pithes in store for me. Some of which would be prepared in a special manner for a longer shelf-life so that I can bring them back to Bangalore to savor at leisure.

Back in Bangalore, it was Chana Daal Pithe that Sunday afternoon and it didn’t stop at that. Puli Pithe, Lobongo Lotika, and Sureshkhowa happened on the following days. All of that prompted me to write about pithes, as I know for sure that pithes will soon become a thing of the past. Even now, the world swears by roshogollas as Bengali sweets, not many know about our exotic pithes.

I’ve already described Chana Daal Pithe, here are few more pithes that are popular at my home:

Patisapta: White elongated rolled pancakes made with milk, refined flour, and semolina, stuffed with coconut or khoya or both; often served by dipping in kheer.

Lobongo lotika: Dipped in sugar syrup, stuffed with khoya or sweetened coconut shreds, the square-shaped parcels are created by neatly folding flaps of kneaded and rolled out flour, the ends of which are secured with a clove; and the clove in turn brings in a sudden pungent and spicy burst of flavor that sharply contrasts the sweet taste.

Puli Pithe: Semilunar flour parcels, folded with a definitive pattern at the edges, stuffed with kheer or sweetened coconut or both; optionally dipped in sugar syrup.

Malpoa: Round flat, fried pancake dipped in sugar syrup, Fluffy inside with crisp edges made from khoya, flour, fennel seeds; often served by dipping in kheer.

Aloo Pithe: Perfectly rounded reddish brown balls can be easily mistaken for gulab jamun; made by mixing boiled potatoes, kheer, refined flour and immersed in sugar syrup.

Dudh Puli: Rice flour dumplings with a stuffing of coconut and date palm jaggery boiled in thick milk, which is again flavored with date palm jaggery

SureshSureshkhowa: Small oval balls made by mixing flour, semolina, coconut, with an optional sugar syrup coating; this can be stored for a longer duration

 

 

 

For the Love of ‘Shidol’

Loved by a few, loathed by many…

The pungent smell filled up the air as I sniffed the familiar mouthwatering aroma. Shidol Chutney it was! You don’t need a sharp nose for a smell as strong as that. I ventured to the kitchen for a quick glance to make sure I was right. And, Oh yes I was! Lunch time was a good two hours away and I wondered how to divert my attention and control my already salivating tongue till then.

chutney
Pic 1: The spicy and pungent Shidol Chutney

It was that time of the year when my parents were visiting my home in Bangalore. Food is always a top priority during their stay here. Going with the firm notion of their daughter being deprived of all the good food life has to offer, every day during their stay is nothing but a feast. Their misbelief, fueled by parental love and affection, is true to a certain extent especially considering the authentic, indigenous food that only moms and aunts can cook. And in my case, Shidol Chutney (also known as Shidol Bhorta) is definitely one of them.

Shidol Chutney is a heavenly mishmash of Shidol, onions, and garlic spiced up with a generous dose of red chilli powder.

Savored with white rice, this and its variant Shidol Bora fall in the category of most eagerly looked forward to dishes from Ma’s kitchen.  Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North East India. It is nothing but the freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore, and the common English name is Pool Barb.

shidol
Pic 2: Fermented Puntius ready to be cleaned and cooked

I never bothered before, but just learnt from Google that Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight to provide the anaerobic conditions for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Bamboos are also used sometimes instead of earthen pots. Pretty interesting, isn’t it!

I am not a foodie, but when it comes to Shidol, it’s a different story altogether. My Shidol affiliation has to be attributed to my lineage – the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Sylheti Bengalis are tad touchy about their Shidol and I am no different. In fact, without my love affair with Shidol, I may lose my credibility of being a true Sylheti*!

Many Sylhetis lovingly call it ‘Hidol’. Shidol is our pride and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Shidol Chutney and Shidol Bora have evolved to become a cultural identity for us.

*Sylhetis are an ethno-cultural group of Bengalis, who speak the Bengali dialect Sylheti. Native to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and Barak Valley in Assam, they have a significant presence in Meghalaya and Tripura.

Bora 1
Pic 3: Shidol Bora with white rice

And, being a Sylheti with roots in Shillong, my craving for this dish can only be understood by fellow Sylheti Shillongites. Shillong supposedly has the best quality Shidol in the country (maybe world, for all you know). And with an epidemic of Chayote (called squash locally) plants all over, the popularity of Shidol becomes even more pertinent. After all, the leaves of Chayote plants are considered the best for preparing Shidol Bora. Pumpkin leaves (Kumro pata) are otherwise used.

Shidol is also popular amongst the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis, and Manipuris, in North East India. I am not quite sure how they cook their Shidol though.

Back home, the pungent appetizing aroma was only growing stronger as Ma had closed all the doors and windows to prevent our neighbours from having to put up with something they may find rather repulsive. During the process of cooking, Shidol emanates a rather obnoxious smell. And that smell is definitely not for the faint-hearted! It’s strange to think that a delicacy for one becomes nauseous for another. The pungency of onions and garlic balances out the smell in the cooked dish.

Finally, the much awaited lunch time arrived and I gorged on a sumptuous meal of white rice and hot and spicy Shidol Chutney even as tears streamed down my face and my nose ran. Only a Shidol-lover will understand the utter joy of my gastronomical delight. My mouth waters even as I write this. Can’t wait to have it again, which can happen only when I go home or Ma comes here. I haven’t tried my hand in preparing it yet….  Too used to the taste of Ma’s hands. The dish has to be prepared well in order to taste well and not everyone prepares it well. Hopefully, it’s in my genes and I’ll do good!

loitta
Pic 4: Loitta or Bombay Duck

Besides Shidol, something else that truly delights a Sylheti is Loitta or Lotka (dried Bombay Duck). Shidol and Loitta, collectively known as Shutki mach can be prepared in various other ways – combined with brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), or with a variety of vegetables, or simply with potatoes. While my Shidol favorite is the chutney and the bora, my Loitta favorite is the roasted dry fish mashed with onions, mustard oil, salt and chilli powder…………….slrupppp!

Here’s Ma’s recipe for the adventurous you:

Shutki process

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