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Panch Phoron and the East India Company

Last week while I was shopping at my Indian grocery store, they were cleaning their refrigerators. They had several long doodhi or lauki also known as bottle gourds that were getting brown at the edges and

asked me if I’d like them. What a treat to get a basket of veggies I thought and without any hesitation, I took them all.

As a child, I remember eating doodhi in various forms; a vegetable side, koftas and even as a dessert in the form of a halwa. But ever since my early failed attempts once I moved to the US, I stopped using them. I just couldn’t get it to have a cohesive texture. So I gave up on trying. 

But now, I had a moral responsibility towards this free basket of semi brown gourds. I decided to ditch trying the recipe I was used to as a child and start afresh. 

It was afterhours at the Verandah on a Sunday evening. The kitchen was clean, the staff was out of the door and I was in no rush to get home. Another compelling reason to cook it then was the new wok, Beijing wok, to be precise, that I had just bought a few hours ago from the big Asian mart across town. A visit to the Asian store calls for its separate post, for another time. So coming back to the gourds, I started with peeling them. Then I researched for a bit, and picked a recipe that didn’t have any grains or ghee, to keep it Vegan and unadulterated by allergens, in case I decided to serve it on the Verandah menu the upcoming week. 

It started with a blend of whole spices known as Panch Phoran, or five spices, consisting of saunf or fennel seeds, jeera or cumin seeds, kalonji or nigella seeds, methi dana or dried fenugreek seeds and sarson dana or black mustard seeds. I already knew this is going to be so aromatic. This blend is very similar to the spices we use to pickle our onions. I also learnt that this is mix commonly used in cooking in Orissa and Bengal.

The recipe I was following, specifically asked for using pressure cooker, but that would beat the purpose. I had to christen the wok so I went forward to take a cook’s equivalent of poetic liberties and proceeded with the wok. Another little addition I made was to crush the dry roasted Panch Phoron lightly in my spice grinder, before going ahead with the rest of the cooking. Then came in oil, tomato puree, ginger, chillies and some ground spices. As this was frying, and the kitchen perfumed by the fragrance of the spices, I had to try it, even without the gourds in it. 

One morsel in my mouth and I was transported to Bengal of 1700s, when the East India Company first set foothold to trade spices among other goods. Suddenly I felt an empathy for the Brits. Who could resist the magic of these spices? To come to think of it, these very spices that were merrily cooking in my wok, were collectively responsible for the British Raj in India and eventually the fate of modern India! Somehow it all made perfect sense and, even though just for a moment, I had made peace with the British rule in India. 

The sizzling of the contents in my wok, woke me out of my reverie, and I went on to add the lauki and watch it cook away. It did take a little longer as I took a detour by skipping the pressure cooker, but then it was all worth it. Gourds were utilized, wok was inaugurated and I did some time travelling. The delicious dish was the cherry on the pie. The final tasting, this time with the gourd in it, reminded me of some fabulous meals I had devoured in Kolkata, definitely because of the Black mustard seeds I deduced.

Recipe and Preparation Method:

As I made it, using the time tested method of "Calculated Guesstimation"


Panch Phoron Spices: Fennel Seeds, Black Mustard Seeds, Cumin seeds, Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds

(All of the above in equal proportions, about 1-1-1/2 teaspoons each)

Dried Red Chillies 2

Oil (I used Canola, after trying the final product, I gather Mustard oil would be fabulous)

Crushed Fresh Ginger (1 TBSish)

Green Chillies 3-4 (Slit lengthwise, I had serrano in the kitchen, Thai green chillies would kick it up several notches)

Tomoato puree (Made with 5 Plum tomatoes, running through a blender)

Salt to taste

Ground Spices in equal quantities, around 2 teaspoons each: Ground Coriander, ground Turmeric, Ground Red Chilli, Amchoor (Ground dry Mango)

Bottle Gourds (Peeled and cut in 1 inch cubes, I used around 3 quarts here. Once cut, submerge them in water to prevent oxidation)



Dry roast the the whole spices in a pan, over a medium low flame until they emit an aroma. Add the dried red chillies, dry roast for another minute.

Transfer to a mixing bowl, cool off a bit, crush them slightly using a rolling pin or spice grinder.

Heat the oil, add the above spice blend, cook for a minute. Add the crushed ginger, fry, add the tomato puree and ground spices. Fry for a bit.

Add about half a cup of water. Add the green chillies.

Cook until oil is released at the edges.

Add the cubed gourd and mix well. Add water as needed and cook until soft.

Garnish with fresh cut cilantro and ready to eat. Great with rice or Parathas!

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