Amrapali Saha eats pumpkin cooked two ways, in two very different kitchens across the Atlantic.
Six o’clock: the smell of cooking from other people’s kitchens. On a chilly November evening, my husband and I are walking through the lanes outside the staff living quarters on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. As the street lamps, like jack o’ lanterns, cast a mantle of orange light on us, we long for the smell of cooking from our own mothers’ kitchens – in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and Kolkata, India, our homes respectively. Home to us means family, our mothers calling us before we arrive to make a list of the things that we would like to eat, sitting down at the table together to share a meal, and of course, basking in the therapeutic warmth of love and laughter that always accompanies a meal.
Every year, the fourth Thursday of November is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the United States. And as with most holidays, food is fundamental to such celebrations. In that respect, there are some foods which are totemic in their significance. Consider then the pumpkin, which for my husband and I, is emblematic of an ecosystem of memories. My mother-in-law, whom I call Mom, still had a tall order of tasks to go through when I spoke to her a day before Thanksgiving last year. But her pumpkin pies were ready. Most closely associated with the quintessentially American celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink calls the pumpkin pie ‘a singular American dish’. If one were to imagine a relay race of pies, the pumpkin pie then takes over the torch from the beloved apple pie as the American favourite during the holiday season.
Although the pumpkin pie is very much an American invention and tradition, the importance of a pumpkin spans continents. The pumpkin, or kumro, as it is referred to in Bengali, has also found a loving home in Bengali cuisine as kumror chakka. It is a dish that can be made all the year round, and Ma always makes it when I go home to Kolkata for the winter holidays. Mothers have a way of making simple things special, and whether as pumpkin pie or as kumror chakka, the pumpkin is a song sung in two languages, meaning home to both my husband and I.
Pumpkin: A History
Gail Damerow in her book, The Perfect Pumpkin: Growing/Cooking/Carving, traces the etymological origin of the word pumpkin to ‘pompion’ or ‘pumpion’, which appears in early English or North American texts. Both the names can be traced to the Greek ‘pepon’ meaning ‘large melon’ or ‘ripened in the sun’. In the late 17th century, the diminutive suffix ‘–kin’ was attached, naming the ‘pumpkin’ as we know it. The pumpkin, that Damerow calls ‘the autumn symbol of abundant harvest’, was unique to the Americas and unknown to Europe before the time of Columbus. For instance, as Damerow points out, the remains of pumpkin seeds, dating as far back as 7,000 to 5,000 BCE, were found in burial caves among the Tamaulipas Mountains in Mexico. It was the Native North Americans who introduced the early European settlers to the wonders of the pumpkin.
Although commonly referred to as a vegetable, the pumpkin is a species of fruit, which develops from a single pistil of flower, without a stone like that in a peach, or a core as in an apple. Belonging to the same Cucurbitaceous family as cucumbers, melons, squash, and gourds, some varieties of the pumpkin are believed to have travelled all the way to India thousands of years ago. In her book, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, food historian Colleen Taylor Sen suggests that although less likely, the pumpkin may have reached Indian shores in the form of seeds floating across the Pacific Ocean. However, as Sen clarifies, a more likely story is that the pumpkin arrived in India through maritime trade and commerce with Europe. Grown in a number of states across India, including West Bengal, the pumpkin occupies pride of place due to its high productivity, nutritive value, durability, long seasonality, ease of transport, and extensive cultivation. Unlike in the US, where the consumption of pumpkin is limited to a particular season, signifying the brilliant oranges and reds and yellows of fall – a Starbucks latte, a traditional Thanksgiving feast, and the imminence of winter – in India, the pumpkin is available throughout the year and made use of accordingly. The bright orange flesh of the pumpkin is fried, stewed, boiled, baked, used in preparing sweets or candy, or fermented into beverages, and even its young leaves, tender shoots, and flowers are heartily consumed.
Ma tells me over the phone that the kumro, not ‘pumpkin’, performs a versatile role in the Bengali kitchen. As a Bangal, those who crossed over to the Indian side from erstwhile East Pakistan, my grandfather, rendered penniless, brought nothing with him but lots of family stories and culinary traditions. One of these culinary traditions is an unusual recipe of cooking the hilsa fish, Bengal’s piscine darling, with kumro. In my grandfather’s village in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, the hilsa would be cooked with diced pumpkin, hence kumro diye ilish machher jhol. Then there are pumpkin flowers, which are a lovely orange-yellow in colour, like sunny blooms of warmth. When dipped in a batter of gram flour (besan) and rice flour, and then fried in hot oil, the pumpkin flowers blossom into a dish that is another family favourite, the crispy kumro phool bhaja. The kumro makha though, or mashed pumpkin, was my grandfather’s most favoured dish. Ma believes that the kumro makha is a decidedly Bangal predilection. The kumro is boiled along with rice in the pressure cooker, mashed and mixed with mustard oil, salt, and fresh green chillies (another Bangal proclivity), and then consumed with steamed rice.
As for me, I prefer the subtle flavours of a kumror chakka. The dish brings together the delicate sweetness of pumpkin flesh, the aromatic flavouring of spices, and kalo chana, or brown chickpeas, which add texture to every bite. Like pasta, the kumro in the kumror chakka is preferred ‘al dente’, or at least with a slight firmness to the bite. Loosely translated, ‘kumror chakka’ is best described as pumpkin curry. And like most things lost in translation, I cannot describe the redolence of the dish, the loving way in which Ma prepares it for me, and exactly why I love it so much. Presently, the kumror chakka has become metonymic of the experience of homecoming: the arrival of winter holidays, going home in December, sitting down at the dining table in my mother’s kitchen, and expectantly watching the steam rise from the little banquet that she always prepares for me. The taste of that first meal upon coming home after a long time is unrivalled, as is that of the much anticipated kumror chakka. The traditional recipe of a kumror chakka calls for an ensemble cast of pumpkin and potato, though the pumpkin is surprisingly expected to play the role of the protagonist. In Bengali cuisine, the pumpkin often ends up playing second fiddle to other vegetables in most recipes. Hence, I like my kumror chakka without potatoes, letting the kumro shine in its eponymous dish. A dish that is easy to cook with very few ingredients, and unlike most Indian preparations a modest play of spices, the kumror chakka is homely and utterly delicious.
Ma’s Kumror Chakka Recipe
I must add here that the following recipe does contain potatoes, for the purposes of appealing to a wider palate than just mine alone.
500 grams kumro (diced into small squares)
2 large potatoes (diced as above)
50 grams kalo chana (brown chickpeas, to be soaked in water overnight)
2 tablespoon oil (rice bran will do)
1-2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon paanch phoron (5-spice mix of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, fennel, and radhuni, black mustard seeds)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1-2 dry red chillies
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
2 fresh green chillies
Coriander leaves, chopped for garnish
1 teaspoon bhaja masala (cumin, coriander powder, aniseed, 2 dry red chillies, 2-3 bay leaves, and 3-4 whole green cardamoms; dry roast all the spices in a kadai and then blend in a mixer)
Heat the oil in a kadai.
Add bay leaves, the paanch phoron mixture, and one dry red chili. Lightly fry the spice mixture.
Add the potatoes, if you must.
After 3-4 minutes, add the diced kumro.
Once the kumro and potatoes take on a golden colour, add the kalo chana.
Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder for colour, and add salt to taste and the ginger paste.
Add two green chillies, or more, according to your tolerance level on the Scoville scale.
Mix well, put the lid on the kadai and allow to cook for five minutes.
Remove the lid, increase the flame, and let the excess water evaporate. It should have a light coat of gravy.
Add 1 teaspoon of sugar now. Then add the bhaja masala and the chopped coriander leaves, mix them with in the rest and take it off the heat after a minute.
Served hot, with steamed rice or fluffy rotis.
Having the same status as an American cultural icon, the pumpkin is a protean creature with an almost infinite capacity for transformation. Cooked, carved, brewed, baked, from the culinary to the decorative, the pumpkin has many uses in the US. Though the pumpkin traditionally takes precedence at the Thanksgiving table, it was not always so. There are conflicting reports of when the tradition of eating pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving actually began. Uma Aggarwal, in her compendium of America’s favourite recipes, writes that there was no modern day pie—pumpkin, pecan, or otherwise—at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Instead, the Pilgrims brought English-style, meat-based recipes with them to the colonies. On the contrary, Gail Damerow provides a different account, citing that the pumpkin was in fact featured as part of the feast. “It was probably boiled, although before long the settlers learned to make a simple pumpkin ‘pie’ by removing the top, scooping out seeds and fibers, filling the cavity with milk, and roasting the pumpkin whole until the milk was absorbed,” writes Damerow. The pumpkin pie’s disputed origins notwithstanding, it was in 1929 with the appearance of the Chicago-based company Libby’s canned pumpkin on grocers’ shelves that the tradition received a modern impetus. In the 21st century, the state of Illinois holds first place for producing the most pumpkins for processed pie fillings. In her book Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, Cindy Ott thus justifiably interprets the pumpkin as being dually symbolic of modernization and capitalist expansion in America, as well as its legendary agrarian value system.
Over Skype, Mom tells me that the Thanksgiving tradition from her childhood consisted of a store-bought readymade pie. Mom’s children, and her family by extension, are perhaps more fortunate to sample Mom’s handmade pumpkin pie at every Thanksgiving. “During my first year of teaching, I worked with a woman who was a wonderful baker and she gave me the recipe, and then I started making my own pumpkin pie,” she says. In the US, the consumption of pumpkin related food and beverages, such as pumpkin pie, bread, latte, or even beer, is a uniquely autumnal custom, not made at any other time of the year. Mom bakes her pumpkin pies at least a day or two before Thanksgiving, as there is too much to do on the day of the holiday with the whole family (at least fifteen to twenty people) coming to dinner. The process she tells me is simple, and the pie wholesome. She buys Libby’s canned plain, unsweetened pumpkin, which comes strained and smoothened, and to that she adds her own special mix of spices, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Not including the time spent in preparing the dough, Mom’s pumpkin pie takes about fifty minutes to bake, then a good hour and a half in the refrigerator to cool, and finally, served cold with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
The pie has a distinctive taste, which both Mom and my husband were hard put to describe to me as I have never tasted it. Just like my regard for the kumror chakka, I am led to conjecture that my husband probably likes the pumpkin pie because of its delicate balance of flavours, as we are often enough two peas in a pod in terms of our tastes and preferences. Mom will make it once more towards the end of the year for her Christmas dinner. But it is at Thanksgiving that her pumpkin pie, in spite of the rather limelight-hogging turkey, is the cynosure of all eyes.
Mom’s Pumpkin Pie Recipe
Ingredients for Pie Crust
(Makes 2 double 9 inch pie shells)
4 cups flour
1 3/4 cups shortening (butter/margarine mixture is best)
1 tbsp vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Fork mix the flour, shortening, sugar, and salt.
In a small bowl beat 1/2 cup water, egg, and vinegar, and then add it to the first mixture, blend with fork until moist. Mould dough with hands. Chill for 15 minutes before rolling.The dough can be stored for 3 days in the refrigerator
Ingredients for pie filling
1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3 slightly beaten eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1 6 ounce can evaporated milk
1 - 9 inch unbaked pie shell
Combine the first seven ingredients.
Blend in eggs, milk, and evaporated milk to the mixture until it turns smooth.
Gently pour out the mixture into the pie crust.
Bake for 50 minutes in an oven at a temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or until knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Refrigerate for one and a half hours. Served cold, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top.
The Last Bite
On Thanksgiving Day, morning in Ma’s kitchen had begun as usual with the invocatory crisp crackle of the paanch phoron hitting the hot oil in the kadai. While across the Atlantic Ocean, in Mom’s kitchen, the turkey was roasting in the oven, and the pumpkin pies were quietly biding their time until the call for dessert. It should be noted that the Bengali kumro is much smaller than the giant American pumpkin. Nevertheless, food, in spite of the astonishing diversity of culinary traditions across the world, manages to bring people together. The pumpkin therefore, whether it is during fall in the US, when its Cinderella moment lasts until Christmas, or in India, where its ubiquity does not make it any less endearing, is indeed something to be thankful for.
Amrapali Saha is a PhD student at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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