Agar firdaus bar ru-e zamin ast
Hami ast o-hami ast o-hami ast…If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this…goes this famous Persian couplet
describing Kashmir, not the humble ghia (doodhi, bottle gourd) of course, or al (pronounced ‘ul’ as in ultra) in Kashmiri.
Let’s go back to Kashmir for a bit, away from the hot sultry environs of stuffy (at the moment) Delhi. While half the country is drowning in floods, there has been hardly any rain here in Delhi. The clouds come raising our hopes and then the winds just blow them away.
And the bottle gourd is the kind of mellow vegetable that sits well in this weather. Nature knows how to balance cravings with abundance. There is plenty of good gourd in the market. Cooked in a light sauce, not greasy, not spicy. Perfect with steamed rice. And I have been craving rice.
The other day my cousin’s wife was shocked that we, in this house, cook roti for both meals. Actually, I think she felt a little sorry for me…The only roti Kashmiris traditionally had was the breads from the friendly neighbourhood naanwai (baker). It is not that rice is not important in Maharashtrian cuisine. It is. In fact, in most homes, it is served as the first (with dal) and last course (with dahi) at all meals. But, as in my family here, roti is still the main course.
Kashmiri cuisine makes room for roti and breads only at breakfast and afternoon tea. And these are never made in the house. Rice is the main staple as it is in Southern India where all the dosas and idlis, so popular even in the North, are served only as tiffin, as ‘minor’ meals.
So, with all the roti around me at all meal-times, there are times when I need to get back in touch with my Kashmiri side. There is a deep satiation that can only be brought about by a meal of rice and curry. With nothing coming between you and your rice – mixing in bits of chunky vegetables or meat into the rice using your fingers and taking it from hand to mouth in a loving graceful move. It is an almost complete sensual involvement – the visual, the smell, the taste, and the touch.
The use of saunf (fennel) as an integral spice in Kashmiri cooking separates it completely from the other cuisines of North India. In fact, coriander, the most common of Indian spices, is not much used. And the coriander leaf (cilantro), never. I think the fennel is a Persian legacy, as are all the breads from the naanwai. The Mughals were in love with Kashmir as is obvious from the Persian couplet quoted at the beginning, and must have cooked up quite a Wazwan with their spices which, over time, got assimilated into the local cuisine.
Yakhni is the common name for all yoghurt based sauces. I don’t use the word ‘curry’ here because there is no such term in Kashmiri cuisine. This recipe for the bottle gourd is subtly spiced with fennel and dry ginger powder. It is mildly spicy without much heat since cayenne is not used (surprise, surprise). I do, however, like to add some green chillies (surprise, surprise!) which impart another degree of subtleness to the dish. Other vegetables that may be prepared in a similar way are the lotus stem (kamal kakdi – Hindi, nadur – Kashmiri) and karela (bitter gourd). The meat based yakni is different and uses additional spices.
Al Yakhni (Bottle Gourd in a Yoghurt Sauce)
750 gms Bottle Gourd, peeled, and cut into 1/3 inch rounds
1 1/2-2 T mustard oil
1 cup dahi (yoghurt)
3 t saunf (fennel) powder
1/2 t saunth (dry ginger) powder
1/4 t shah jeera (caraway)
1/4 t cumin
3 green chillies, snapped into two (optional)
Beat the yoghurt and mix in the saunf and saunth powders. Add a cup of water to this yoghurt mix. Shallow fry the gourd in hot mustard oil till golden brown on either side. Remove and keep aside. To the last bit of oil remaining (about a teaspoon should suffice) add the caraway and cumin. Now lower the heat and pour in the yoghurt mix. Slip in the fried gourd slices. Add salt and the green chillies. Add more water, if needed, to cover the slices. Cover and simmer till done. Serve warm with rice.
Simmering Al Yakhni
- If cooking a large batch (for a big dinner) deep frying will be a faster option. Since the gourd doesn’t soak up oil you needn’t worry about the dish being too greasy. Just that you will have left-over oil.
- Also, to speed up the cooking, I zap the gourd slices (after frying) in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
- To keep the yoghurt from splitting, make sure it is at room temperature.