The history of stuffing vegetables is old, and not limited to the Indian sub-continent. From cabbage to artichokes, peppers to gourds, vegetables that can be scooped and carved, can be stuffed with some sort of filling, which has a wide spectrum of choices. From vegetarian to meat, from simple combination of spices to meticulous makings, the fillings for stuffed vegetables are numerous as the vegetables themselves, or perhaps more.
The vegetable itself, the shell that holds the filling, can be cooked and then stuffed or can be stuffed and cooked later. There's no rule of thumb here. Different recipes call for distinct ways of creating stuffed vegetables based on regional, cultural and lifestyle variations.
In the face of all variability, one thing remains common—stuffing vegetables or even meat is labour-intensive. Think prepping banana flowers or taking peas out of their pods. For me, this usually calls for ample time at hand in the morning or leisurely afternoons, and some good company, no? And, several nibbles and favourite drinks on the side with music of some form playing in the background. Cool sherbets in summer (if it's my husband then it will be bottles of kombucha!) and many cups of chai in winter, what say? At the heart of it, preparing such dishes has an undertone of a joint undertaking with an opportunity to nourish friendships and mend broken bonds.
At home, mom prepared stuffed vegetables from A to Z, but I or my sisters or my father were never her sous chefs, especially me who was usually an onlooker, her silent company by the table finishing that last bit of homework and dreaming of that delicious stuffed vegetable dish I'd get to eat later. She sometimes had some company in such work from the house helps. When we lived in small towns, there were aunties in the neighbourhood who would join her with their bags of vegetables which needed long-drawn-out prep.
When my cooking journey burgeoned at Auntie A's house, I got to play the role of a sous chef. Now that I was leaning to make decent meals for myself, and for auntie and me on days when her senile self needed to take a break from the kitchen, I was getting into more demanding endeavors in the kitchen. I mention in my previous post on bitter gourd,
We both shared our love for bitter gourd. I have spent many Sunday mornings stuffing spicy onion fillings inside baby bitter gourds while I listened to her stories or one of the many Mohammad Rafi songs on her age-old radio. Bombay summers are brutally sticky, and the only respite while working in the humid kitchen were endless glasses of aam panna (drink made with raw mango) and Auntie's rib-ticklers.
Mom made stuffed karela too, a much different version than Auntie's. I make both, and then a third version that's my own, a discovery, or rather a hankering to make the process of making stuffed karela faster and yet tasty.
Mom's stuffed bitter gourds
Stuffed bitter gourds weren't a thing at either of my grandmothers' home because Odias tend to make bitter gourds as sautéed rings, kalara bhaja or chopped fine and cooked with potatoes with or without hints of mustard, kalara chadchadi more. Sure we make a typical Odia style mustard based filling too.
But my mother is someone who always tries out recipes from other cultures, adopting methods of cooking food across the board while adding her personal touch.
She makes two kinds of fillings for bitter gourd:
Odia style recipe calls for a paste made of mustard, garlic, cumin and chilies along with salt.
Sweet potatoes boiled and mashed to a paste, cooked in oil tempered with mustard cumin and asafoetida, then flavoured with good amount of red chili, cumin, coriander and turmeric powders, and finished with freshly crushed peppercorns, nutmeg and cinnamon. A squeeze of lime and salt to balance everything.
Telugu style recipe of stir frying equal quantities of Bengal gram and Urad dal, more coriander and less cumin seeds, sesame seeds, curry leaves, dry red chillies, dry grated coconut (or desiccated) and a ball of tamarind, and then cooling and grinding with jaggery powder to make a paste has also been constant in my house.
Auntie A's stuffed bitter gourds
What Auntie A did to make stuffed bitter gourds was completely new to me. My mother never peeled a bitter gourd or scale its skin. Auntie on the other hand would peel it, and then stuff the gourd with its own peels along with caramelized onions and some spices.
This style of making bitter gourds goes back in the culinary history of undivided Punjab, a time when districts in the Punjab area were named after the rivers which encompassed them, auntie had described.
Satluj, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum flow through Punjab, forming a major part of the left-bank tributaries of the Indus river. The area between Satluj and Beas was called Bist Doab, Beas and Ravi was called Bari Doab, between Ravi and Chenab was called Rechna Doab, between Chenab and Jhelum was called Jech Doab, and between Jhelum and Indus was called Sind Sagar Doab, where do means two and ab means water in Punjabi. As there weren't bridges then, people usually did not cross the rivers, and the land was divided in this manner for administration. An interesting thread on an internet forum throws more light into this.
Present day Punjab in India, which is largely the former East Punjab, is divided into Majha (part of the old Bari and Rechna Doab) where majha in Punjabi means middle, and as this region was in the center of erstwhile Punjab, Doaba (Bist Doab) and Malwa (south of Satluj) regions while Jech Doab, Sind Sagar Doab and parts of Rechna Doab and Bari Doab are now in Pakistan and comprise West Punjab.
An understanding of this geography helps in comprehending the cultural foundations in Punjabi cuisine. Punjab has been a fertile and prosperous land, and homestyle Punjabi cooking is rich in fresh seasonal produce with no wastage of any part of the vegetables and greens and an emphasis on dairy like milk, curd and ghee. I talk more about this in my post on Saag Chole and my introduction into Punjabi home cooking through Auntie A.
Auntie A made a typical filling for bitter gourds:
Peels of the bitter gourd were sautéed in oil before finely chopped onions were added and caramelized to lend sweetness. The dry masalas comprising of coriander, fennel, turmeric and red chilli were added along with ginger and garlic paste and cooked to a paste like consistency. Amchur, dry mango powder, is a must to lend sourness along with salt to balance all the flavours.
Peeling bitter gourds and giving them a salt rub helps bring down their bitterness. However, peels have all the good nutrients! When cooked with onions and spices, and stuffed inside the gourds, the peels' bitterness is not dominant but spurts between the sweet caramelized onions and sour amchur and the spicy masalas.
After filling the bitter gourds with the stuffing, auntie tied them with threads to close them and prevent the masala from oozing out.
A hankering for a facile process
I'm all in for slow cooking, and love to get lost in the magic of the process and ingredients. But, there are days when things have to be sorted out quickly in the kitchen. I love all stuffed vegetables, especially bitter gourds. So for days that demand whistle-stop cooking, I had to find a median between mom's and auntie's fillings.
For this quick-fix filling:
I borrow mom's Telugu inspired tamarind and jaggery combination for that sweet and sour punch, auntie's bitter gourd peels for the texture and bitter flavour with lots of coriander and fennel for citrusy notes and heavenly fragrance, and add a nutty flavour from roasted and powdered peanuts or sesame seeds, or roasted besan (chickpea flour).
The powdered nuts or the chickpea flour also help bind the spices with the peels and create a fillable texture for the stuffing.
No matter which way you choose to make your filling, give your bitter gourds some time to sit with salted rubbed onto their skin. People who are usually not fond of the bitterness get thrown off with that first bite. So, definitely do the salt rub!
You may or may not peel the bitter gourd, or peel it just slightly. It depends on how fond you are of the bitter flavour. If you peel them, use the peels for the stuffing—I can't recommend this enough!
I don't cook bitter gourds first. I prepare the filling, stuff the gourds and then stir fry them. You may stir fry your gourds while your filling is getting ready on the side. You can then stuff the filling and cover and cook the stuffed gourds for a few minutes to ensure doneness.
5-7 small bitter gourds or 4-5 medium sized ones
1 tbsp oil to try
1-2 tsp salt for rubbing
For the Odia style filling: 4 tbsp mustard seeds (black or yellow, black mustard is more pungent) 6-7 cloves of garlic 1 tbsp cumin 3-4 dry red chilies or 2-3 fresh green chilies 1 tsp salt, or to taste
For the sweet potato filling: 1-2 small slender sweet potatoes, boiled and mashed (about 1/2 cup) 1 tbsp oil 1/2 tsp cumin + 1/2 tsp mustard 1/4 tsp asafoetida 1 tsp each of red chili, cumin, coriander and turmeric powders 1 tsp freshly crushed peppercorns and cinnamon + gated nutmeg 1/2 a lime 1 tsp salt, or to taste
For Telugu style coconut filling: 1 tbsp oil 1 and 1/2 tbsp chana dal 1 and 1/2 tbsp urad dal 1/2 tsp cumin seeds 1 and 1/2 tsp coriander seeds 1 tbsp sesame seeds 10-15 curry leaves 1/2 tsp turmeric 1-inch tamarind ball soaked and water extracted 6-8 dry whole red chilies 1/4 cup grated or desiccated coconut 1-2 tsp jaggery powder or grated jaggery 1-2 tsp salt, or to taste
For Punjabi style onion and bitter peels filling: 1 tbsp oil peels of the bitter gourd 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste 1/4 tsp asafoetida 1/2 tsp cumin seeds 2 tsp coriander powder 1 tsp fennel seed powder (optional) 1/2 tsp turmeric powder 1/2 tsp red chili powder 1 tsp amchur or dry mango powder 1-2 tsp salt, or to taste
For no onion-garlic filling: 1 tbsp oil peels of the bitter gourd (if choosing to peel bitter gourd) 1/2 tsp cumin seeds 1/4 tsp asafoetida 2 tsp coriander powder 1 tsp fennel seed powder (optional) 1/2 tsp turmeric powder 1/2 tsp red chili powder 4-5 tbsp (or more depending on how much filling you need and how much binding is required) roasted peanut or sesame seed powder or roasted gram flour (besan) 1-inch tamarind ball soaked and water extracted 1-2 tsp jaggery powder or grated jaggery 1 tsp salt, or to taste
Wash the bitter gourds. Roughly peel them, clear the pith, rub salt both inside and outside, and keep them aside.
Prepare the filling.
For the Odia style filling: Soak mustard seeds, garlic, cumin and chilies in lukewarm water for at least an hour. Drain the water and then grind into a fine paste along with salt and by adding water as required. Make sure to not add too much water which will result in a runny paste. Add water in small quantities and grind, and then add more if required.
For sweet potato filling: Heat oil in a pan, and add cumin + mustard seeds. Once they pop, add asafoetida. Now add the mashed sweet potatoes, and sauté for a few seconds. Next add turmeric, red chili, cumin and coriander powders and sauté till the spices are cooked. Add salt and mix. Top the mixture with crushed peppercorns and cinnamon and grated nutmeg and stir to combine. Squeeze a lime and take off heat.
For Telugu style coconut filling: Heat oil in a pan on low flame, then add chana dal and fry till it changes colour. Then add urad dal and fry for 1-2 minutes until urad dal also changes colour. Next add cumin, coriander and sesame seeds and fry them until aromatic taking care nothing burns. Add curry leaves and sauté followed by dry red chilies and turmeric that you must stir until chilies puff up. Add coconut, stir and turn off heat before coconut changes colour. Add tamarind and jaggery and mix. Allow to cool and then grind to make a paste.
For Punjabi style onion and bitter peels filling: Heat oil in a pan, add cumin seeds, asafoetida and then add the peels. Fry them for 3-4 minutes, and then add onions. Fry the onions until pink, and then add rest of the spices except amchur. Keep stirring and mixing until onions turn brown and caramelize, roughly 20 minutes. Add salt and amchur and mix again. Turn off heat and keep aside.
For no-onion-garlic filling: Heat oil in a pan, and add cumin seeds followed by asafoetida. Add all the spices and sauté with splashes of water if required. Once spices are cooked, keep the heat low and the roasted and powdered peanuts and sesame seeds and/or roasted gram flour. Mix so that everything combines well and then add jaggery. Add spoons of tamarind water so that the mixture becomes sticky but not watery. Add salt, mix and turn off heat. Keep aside.
Squeeze the salt-rubbed bitter gourds to discard any water. With a spoon, stuff the hollow gourds with the fillings. Pack them well and tie a string if needed to prevent the stuffing from falling out.
Stir fry the stuffed bitter gourds in a pan heated with oil. Add any remaining filling to the pan as well and mix. Cover and cook at medium heat to ensure cooking is thorough. Open in between and turn the gourds. Check doneness, and turn off the heat.