I had a chance encounter, at the Indian grocery store last night, with a fine specimen of ridge gourd. Absence had made my heart grow fonder, so I popped it into my basket with more enthusiasm than it should have warranted. After all, I recall the disdainful reception it received around the dinner table way back then in Kolkata, when familiarity bred contempt and we craved “English” vegetables with the contrariness of human nature.
Ridge gourd is the fruit of Luffa acutangula, a relative of the Cucumber family and the very same genus that gives us the Loofah or bath sponge! This marvelous creation not only scrubs our back but warms our stomachs…how wonderful is this? Ridge gourd is also known as Chinese okra, which I find perplexing in that it is not even slightly similar to okra (“bhindi” or lady’s finger). I even came across a confusing image that implied that young okra mature into ridge gourd (take it from an erstwhile botanist, that is patently false). No need to be lost without Luffa, feel free to substitute it with another squash, such as zucchini.
To prepare ridge gourd, use a peeler to remove only the spiny ridges leaving bright green stripes of tender skin.
For a simple and satisfying Sunday lunch, I cooked it into a protein rich dal paired with steamed jasmine rice. The Kannada word for ridge gourd is heerakayi, and that for dal is tove, so here is a simple recipe to make a warming heerakayi tove:
1. Precook 1 cup dal by boiling in water, or more effectively using a pressure cooker. It only takes a few minutes in the pressure cooker and if you’ve never used one, this is a fun way to impress and frighten your friends. I used toor dal, but any mild and small lentil variety would work.
2. Chop the de-ridged gourd into cubes. Finely mince half of a small onion, and half an inch of ginger. If you like your food fiery, find a green chili or two (leave them whole so they are readily identified and avoided by the wimps in your family).
3. Begin by stir-frying the minced onion and ginger in 1 tbs oil, add the chopped gourd and optional green chili and continue cooking in medium heat. Add salt to taste and a pinch of cancer-fighting-curcumin-loaded-brilliantly-hued turmeric powder.
4. When the gourd is softened (it cooks quickly, like zucchini), add the cooked dal or lentil. The mixture should have a thick soup like consistency, so adjust by adding water if needed.
5. Add a tablespoon of grated fresh coconut. This can be purchased pre-grated and frozen from any Indian store. Rather than break off chunks which can be messy, I re-freeze in individual ice cube trays so I have perfect aliquots ready to go! Also add a bunch of chopped coriander leaves (cilantro) at this point. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice just before turning off the heat.
6. The last step is to “temper” the dish. This is an essential step in southern Indian cooking. To a scant tsp of oil in a small, thick bottomed pan (we actually used large iron ladles for this), add a tsp of white urad dal, a tsp of black mustard seeds, one dry red chili broken into large bits and a sprinkling of asafoetida.
To an American consumer of Indian food, this is as exotic as it gets. You will never find this in those boring Indian strip mall restaurants, because this is the real thing. When heated, the mustard seeds will turn gray and pop explosively, so you will need to find a handy lid or be prepared to redecorate your cook top (or face) with tiny round cannon balls. The white urad dal turns reddish brown and acquires a delicious nutty flavor. The dry red chilli darkens and turns smoky. The asafoetida or “hing”…well, in all honesty it will stink up your kitchen.
I will admit that asafoetida-the gum like exudate from the root of a leek-like herb – is truly an acquired taste! Southern Indians, particularly vegetarian Brahmins, use it as a substitute for garlic, which is regarded as evilly married to meat for some obscure reason which was never satisfactorily explained to me. In fact, I never even tasted garlic until I married into a garlic-eating family (gasp!). After nearly throwing up a few times (I do not exaggerate), I eventually embraced the smelly goodness of garlic cloves and now use them alternately (and somewhat sparingly!) with the more ecclesiastical relative, asafoetida.
Watch the spice mixture carefully so it does not burn. When it attains the epitome of flavor, toss this “augarene” into the dal for a satisfying sizzle. Stir in…so every luscious bite of creamy dal has a crunch of nutty urad or smoky mustard seeds. The contrast in texture is perfection!
Enjoy with steamed rice and a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) melting on top. If over 50 or on Lipitor, then it may be prudent to skip the ghee.