Monday, October 24, 2011

Thought of Food 6: October Fest with Kumro (pumpkin) and Kulmi (water spinach) Shaak

October in Pune is usually one of the warmer months. This year, because of the global warming, or Anna Hazare Movement,or whatever,and in the midst of the Occupy-Wall-Street Movement, and the hunting down and execution of another "dreaded" Arab terrorist that only the kick-sand-in-your-face bullies can justify doing, the southwest monsoon rains had delayed its departure until it was pushed out with parting thunderclaps and heavy showers by the untimely north-easternly winds.

The long sentence above was only to sey that Pune was unusually green even in October and green creepers were all over your garden. The markets were full of greens and the most excited of these were the Bengalis in the Pashan Market, picking up the seasonal pumpkin flowers, and stems and leaves of pumpkin creepers (kumro shaak) and pui (Malabar spinach or basella alba) shaak and kulmi shaak (water spinach). The advantage with kumro shaak that I rememebr my mother making, is that the stems are hollow and if a proper fluid-gravy can get into the stem with just the right kind of spice, then sucking on the stem and then chewing on it can lead effectively to a pleasurable heights of gastronomic ecstasy just as a very few other ecstasies can do for you. It is much more than what a non-vegeteranian fells after sucking on a bone marrow., because bones dont have juicy flowers and leaves.

The kumro shaak I found in the Pashan market two sundays ago was particularly interesting (see picture to the left below, click to enlarge) as there was a fairly large baby pumpkin and fe other pumpkin flowers attached to almost embryonic little pumpkins. This is a very rare privilege even in the month of October. I imagined how the baby pumpkin would cook and so I went ahead and bought the pumpkin stem and leaves. The lady selling the greens by weight was happy since the wreight of pumpkin effectively doubled the price she would have got.

Preparing the kumro shaak is another matter altogether since there is considerable cleaning and picking to be done. When the greens are not really fresh and tender, the stems can be rather hard and fibrous which is not always acceptable. So one has to remove the fibrous part of the skin of the stem delicately without breaking the stem since the stem has to be intact. So one does that over a half-hour period, if you are a novice and do not have very dexterous hands. Part of what one throws out is on the right of the picture above. I split the flowers along with the attache embryonic pumpkin in half, the leave were cut roughly as one inch strips if they did not look tender enough, the baby pumpkin was amazing to cut (I had not done it in my seventy earlier years!). It looked like a giant tender zucchini after cutting. I cut it into roughly one inch quasi-cubes, keeping the skin of the pumpkin (Fig above middle).

I kept the cut vegetables under (left of figure below) turmeric powder and granular sea-salt (rare getting it nowadays thanks to the ridiculous gimmick of iodized salts and the fear of goitre religiously advertised into your head from people with nano-sense). Like a good Bengali I fried "panch phoron" ( half a tea-spoon of cummin, fennel, black-mustard, fenugreek, and what we call as onion seed or kalonji seed or Nigella sativa). The kalonji seed cures everything it seems including cacer, so muh so that the word panacea which means in old latin a 'cure-all' is actually the name given to kalonji in the Western world (see my blog "Thought of Food 4: Steamed Wild Rice and Watermelon").

The paanch phoron was fried in mustard oil (one table spoon) in a thick (concession to my Iyer wife) wok (what else?) with five longitudinally split green chillies, till the seeds started popping. I think traditionally one uses dried red chillies. I had to grind coriander powder if I remembered the flavour right. I would have liked to grind it on a stone but my wife carefully kept it far away in our home-on-a-hill as she is always afraid that I will dirty the kitchen. I ground the coriander seed (two table spoon) in a coffee-seed grinder (picture above middle). I allowed the greens to stir fry along with paanch phoron for about three minutes on a high flame. I then reduced the flame, added the coriander powder and one table sppon of powdered jaggery. I added about two table spoons of water, covered the wok and lt it simmer for about five minutes. Put off the gas and let it cool under cover.

The final product looked (picture above, right) okay. The cut pieces of the baby pumpkin turned out exctly the way I thought it would, The hollows in the stem had (I imagined) the taste that I remembered. Like a good Bengali we had it with steamed rice of the white nutrition-less kind. No regrets about the rice that I used because the flavour of the kumro shaak came out much stronger.

Kulmi shaak
As I wrote in the beginning, I bought the kulmi shaak (water spinach) just because the Bengalis were buying the stuff very enthusiastically. I had no idea how to cook t after I brought it home. So I rang up my sisters. The one in Allahabad had heard of the kulmi shaak but had never cooked it. She said that she had eaten it somewhere, She remembers simply that it was stir-fried in "paanch phoron". The other sister had not heard of kulmi shaak. She guessed that one could probably cook it like any other shaak. She kept insisting that one has to blanch it (that was something new for me, it mean one had to dip it in boiling water for a second or so, to get rid of bacteria and insects and their eggs, I guess). Then she suggested that one puts brinjals, and onion and garlic and potatoes. It reminded me of Chitrita Banerjee's mother's recipe that I had looked up at After 33 years of marriage to an orthodox Iyer, I did not like garlic in my fresh vegetables. My Patna sister's house-help had however heard of the kulmi shaak. She recommended just stir-fryng in paanch phoron the way the chinese cook them (see

I had my doubts about how much of the stem I could use. The stems were hollow but they did not look too tender. Moreover the kulmi shaak that I got from the market would not have been kept very hygienically. Both my sisters had no idea how to handle the hollow stems. I just felt with my fingers what I thought would cook soft (middle of above figure) and not too chewy and threw away the rest (right of above figure). I cut them up a bit .
I cooked it almost the same way as I did the kumro shaak. Instead of coriander seeds for the flavoring, I used dried mango powder, a wonderful invention. As an inspiration of the day I used a raw green bannana (kaanch kola to the bengalis) which is very different from the unripened green bananas that make good fruits. The Chinese and the Indonesians and the Filipinos ad dried prw, or crab meat or pork slices, bengalis add pieces from the head of their favorite hilsa fish. I took kaanch kola in thin slices along with the skin.

So, i fried the paanch phoron with five longitudinally split green chillies, added the thinly sliced kaanch kola and sauteed for a little while (picture above) after which I threw in a tea-spoon or so of dried mango powder and the cut kulmi shaak. It was stir-fried on a high flame for a few minutes and was ready for serving. It looked nice. So nice that we sat for lunch immediately and consumed it before I could take a photograph for the blog!. That's how nice it was!
PS. The kaanch kola should have been a little more deeply fried.
PPS. This blog was posted on Diwali day. It added to the October Fest.

Happy Diwali