In some parts of rural Bengal, young women sometimes observe a curious vow called Nakhchuter Brata (which revolves around beautification). The rituals are accompanied by a rhyme that goes, “Hoy jaano mor potol chora chokh, paaner moto hoy jyano mor bodon khaani (May my eyes be like split pointed gourd, and like betel leaf my face).” It’s curious how eyes that resemble a spindle-shaped, green vegetable gravid with seeds, is considered a standard of beauty—but potol is no ordinary vegetable.
Potol, parwal in Hindi, Trichosanthes dioica, or pointed gourd, is an ancient vegetable indigenous to the subcontinent. Patola in Sanskrit, the cucurbit is mentioned even in Puranic texts. For instance, in the Garuda Purana, Dhanvantari, the divine physician, recommends Triphal, where patola is cooked into a decoction and drunk with sugar and yastimadhu (liquorice) as a remedy for fever, vomiting and acidity. It also appears many times in works of classical medicine like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. The Ayurvedic patoladya churna, recommended for treating abdominal diseases, is made by combining the extract of patola with a host of medicinal herbs and spices.
In Bengal, where summers are hot and sultry, potol is particularly extolled for its cooling properties. It is often the go-to antidote for the many afflictions that the fragile Bengali stomach suffers from. But it’s also ubiquitous in the region’s cultural expressions. The antiquity and importance of potol as a crop in Bengal is confirmed in Khanar Bochon, a collection of maxims attributed to a woman Khona. One such bochon, for instance, says, “Potol bunle phagune, phalan baade dwigune. (Should pointed gourd be sown in Phalgun, (February-March), the yield doubles).”
Bengali parents name their children after the innocuous Potol, often distorted to Potla in affectionate ridicule. Kolkata even has a neighbourhood called Potoldanga, immortalised in the pages of renowned Bengali author Narayan Bandopadhyay’s iconic Tenida series. A colloquial Bengali expression for dying is “potol tola” or “picking pointed gourd”. It perhaps stems from how when a pointed gourd vine dies all the gourds on it should be picked at once.
Growing up in Kolkata, summers meant a potol infestation. Sunday breakfasts of porota and panch-phoran-scented potol aloo chorchori, and during lunch limp potol, halved lengthwise floated languidly in watery jhol specifically constructed to cool the stomach and fortify the body against the summer heat. For dinner, there would be potoler dalna—barrel-shaped chunks of potol cooked with large cubes of potatoes in a ginger-scented curry finished with a smidgen of garam masala and ghee—a few too many times a week. It was only when our gasps of boredom turned into rumbles of protest, that some shrimp would be added to the curry.
On certain days when the women in the house observed a vow, they broke their fast with a comforting bowl of aromatic gobindo bhog rice, cooked to a mush along with chunks of potatoes, halved pointed gourd and slabs of sweet pumpkin. They mashed it up while still hot, and poured lashings of ghee and sandhak laban (sea salt). The potol also made its way into kumror chhawkka—a thick curry made with sweet pumpkin, potatoes and black gram, redolent with roasted cumin, sometimes finished with fresh grated coconut. It was a must in shukto, a summery stew made with a medley of veggies.
Potol has the range of a soprano. And Bengali kitchens turn out a mind-boggling assortment of dishes with it—from sick-bed stews to unctuous curries served at wedding feasts. There’s shorshe potol, plump potol are deep fried and simmered in a pungent mustard gravy quite like paves of fish, or potol cooked in a yoghurt-rich gravy and then there is potol cooked in milk. Or there’s potol posto made by cooking potol sliced into thin slivers with freshly ground poppy seeds.
Food writer Maumita Paul Ghosh adds tart raw mangoes to her version of the potol posto. “In our home, the dishes made with potol changed with the stages of ripening,” says Ghosh “For instance, the beginning-of-season, young, tender potol yet to develop seeds would be used to make dishes like the tel potol—the baby gourds lightly scraped and scored at both ends, would be cooked simply in mustard oil tempered with green chilies and nigella seeds, with nothing but turmeric and red chili powder, while the large, mature ones would be used to make dishes like potoler pur—scooped halves of the potol would be stuffed with a sharp paste of mustard and coconut and cooked on a griddle,” she adds. Ghosh also talks about a unique dish called dudher jhol—a soupy milk-based dish of potatoes, pointed gourd and bottle gourd leaves, suffused by the warmth of ginger, the smokiness of nigella and the citrus notes of coriander seeds, and finished with ghee. “My grandmother discovered the recipe in her neighbour’s grandmother’s diary from the 1930s,” says Ghosh.
A festive dish made with potol is the chaal potol—whole, mature potol deep fried and cooked with fragrant, short-grained gobindo bhog rice flavoured with aromatic spices, with a hint of ginger and ghee. The dish comes studded with golden fried cashew nuts and raisins. It is evocative of the muri ghonto—a similar dish made with deep fried fish head. It is possible that the dish was born as a vegetarian approximation of the piscine delicacy to cater to the Vaishnav insistence of vegetarianism widespread in West Bengal, or to add variety to the vegetarian kitchens of Bengali widows. In fact, mature pointed gourds, fleshy and malleable with thin but tough skin, yet capable of holding shape could easily qualify as a faux meat/fish candidate.
It is interesting to note potol’s importance in vegetarian Vaishnav cuisine of the region and how it often crops up in Vaishnav texts. In Krishnadas Kaviraj’s 16th-century text Chaitanya Charitamrita, for instance, the vegetable features in the elaborate meal Chaitanya’s mother cooks him. A verse in another 16th-century text Chaitanya Bhagavata, composed by Vrindavana Das Thakura, says, “Potol, bastuk, kala shak bhojone, janma janma biharoye Baishnaber Sane. (By eating pointed gourd, lamb quarters, and leaves of white jute, one enjoys the Vaishnava’s association birth after birth).” In his book Govinda Leelamrita or The Eternal Nectarian Pastimes of Sri Govinda, Krishnadas Kaviraj describes a meal prepared by Radha for Krishna. Among the numerous dishes that she makes are potol fried in ghee and a dish with its leaves.
No part of the potol is wasted. The skin of the potol, also a powerhouse of nutrients, is used to make a sharp chutney and the crunchy mature seeds of the potol are ground and fried as fritters. Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Pragya Sundari Devi’s celebrated recipe book Amish o Niramish Ahaar, published at the turn of the last century, features the curious potol beechir nona malpua— savoury fritters made with a batter of flour, rice flour and seeds of ripe pointed gourd, flavoured with minced ginger and green chilies, and fried in ghee.
It is the potol’s Indian roots that has sealed its spot in temple cuisines and ritualistic food, too. At the Jagannath temple in Puri, potol is an integral part of Chhappan Bhog. “At the Jagannatha temple in Puri, potol is added to preparations like besara—a dish made with a medley of vegetables like brinjal, raw bananas and gourd veggies cooked in a delicately spiced mustard gravy and bhaja besara, a drier version of the dish, as also the temple’s famed dalma, a dish of lentils cooked with a rainbow of seasonal vegetables,” says food researcher Swetak Abhishek Mohapatra, who has a keen interest in temple food and rituals.
No part of the potol is wasted. The skin of the potol, also a powerhouse of nutrients, is used to make a sharp chutney and the crunchy mature seeds of the potol are ground up and fried as fritters
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He adds, “Besides, at the bhoga mandap, devotees could order for potala rasa—whole potols deftly scored are cooked in spirited, cumin-scented gravy rich with coconut—as an offering to the deities even if the dish is not part of the Kotho Bhoga list of food items that are traditionally carried to the inner sanctum as bhog.” At the Ananta Vasudeva Temple in Bhubaneswar, on the other hand, sola potol or pointed gourd cooked with chickpeas is among the dishes offered as bhoga.
There are several other dishes made with potol in Odiya kitchens. “Potol is simply fried in mustard oil, or turned into crisp chips, or added to a soothing jhol or watery stew of sorts or a korma rich with slims and nuts,” says Sujata Dehury, a food writer. “But one of my favourite dishes is the potol poda, where the potol are roasted on an open flame until the skin chars and crinkles and mashed up with a host of ingredients,” says Dehury.
In Bihar, fire-roasted pointed gourds are used to make parwal ka chokha— mashed with garlic, chilies, mustard oil and sometimes roasted tomatoes, and served with ghee-laced litti. “Biharis love their parwal,” says chef Rachna Prasad who runs Ambrosia Kitchen. It’s cooked into curries, stir-fried with slivered potatoes with ground spices like coriander, chili and sometimes a dash of aamchur for a hint of tang and in rarer instances added to vegetarian biryanis, she says.
COME SUMMERS, INDIAN Muslim kitchens, where vegetables are rarely served on their own, cooling gourd vegetables, tinda, turai, lauki, are added to salans with beef, and in some cases mutton. In Muslim households in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh, a particularly favourite summer dish is the parwal gosht. Sometimes chunks of potatoes are also added to the dish.
But an ingenious parwal dish to come out of the region is the parwal ki mithai where the pointed gourds are stewed in sugar to make murabba and stuffed with cooked and sweetened khoya and chopped nuts and garnished with flecks of silver warq or slivers of candied cherries. In Bengal, a version of the dish is also made with a stuffing of chhana-based sandesh.
The spindle-shaped potol with its soft core that can easily be scraped out is a fantastic vehicle for stuffing, and communities across the country, especially in north India, have their version of bharwan parwal. In Gujarat, parwal is stir-fried with potatoes or added to the ceremonial patrali—a dish made with a cornucopia of seasonal greens, gourds and leafy vegetables—offered to Lord Krishna, the day after Janmashthami, that falls at the height of monsoon, when parwal is in season.
But a particularly special dish is the parwal ka ravaiya, that Sheetal Bhatt, a champion and chronicler of the cuisines of Gujarat, talks about. Ravaiya is the generic name for a genre of stuffed vegetables in Gujarat. For parwal ka ravaiya, the parwals are hollowed out and filled with a diverse combination of ingredients like roasted channa dal, ground sesame seeds, peanuts, spices and a hint of jaggery, or a wet masala of coconut and coriander, green chilies, garlic, ginger etc, and steamed. Finally, it’s tossed in hot oil tempered with mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds until it all comes together.
But when it comes to stuffed pointed gourd, potoler dolma, the crown jewel of Bengali cuisine, is the apogee. Large, mature pointed gourds are hollowed out and stuffed with fish, mince or lentils, fried and finally added to a gravy. Author Ananya Jahanara Kabir sees the potoler dolma as a fine specimen of Creolisation that entails “the creation of something new through exchange, negotiation, collaboration and compromise” that transpire when diverse groups mingle “in tightly demarcated spaces.” It is generally accepted that the Armenians brought the dolma— originally stuffed vine leaves or peppers—that they acquired through the Turks, to colonial Calcutta. The Jews of Calcutta also made stuffed vegetables of various kinds. The Bengali potoler dolma, as Kabir points out, was born through the proximity and exchange between these mercantile communities like the Jews and Armenians who coexisted and interacted with local populations within colonial Calcutta’s Chitpur.
In The Calcutta Cookbook, Minakshie Dasgupta shares a recipe for the ‘original’ Armenian-version of the potoler dolma, sourced from an Armenian resident who catered the lunch at the Burra Club on Park Street. This dolma comes with a stuffing of ground beef, tomatoes and raisins. In Hindu Bengali homes, the prohibited beef got replaced by minced fish or goat meat. Vegetarian versions that come with a stuffing of chhana (fresh cottage cheese) or ground lentils have also cropped up over time. The potoler dolma might be layered with diverse culinary influence and cultural memories, but there’s no denying that it is resolutely Indian.