I’m not sure why the first book I pulled from my cookbook shelf was Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji. I was looking for ideas for the second half of a pumpkin for Elise’s Great Pumpkin Carve Up Cook Off (the first half was used in pumpkin baked with onions, tomato and tomatillo-chipotle salsa). The book has very few recipes, with the bulk of it being a detailed, impressionistic description of how culture, weather and geography have influenced the cuisine of the Bengal region. It includes only about 20 recipes, and fortunately for this project, one of them features pumpkin.
Banerji writes that the pumpkin is such a common vegetable during the rainy season that many Bengalis consider it an indigenous vegetable. Although some gourds are endemic to South Asia, this is not the case for the pumpkin (member of the Cucurbitaceae family), which is indigenous to the Americas. It was probably introduced to Bengal by Portuguese traders in the 17th century. Other gourds, however, have been in India for so long that “…many carry Sanskrit names of considerable antiquity, which is probably explained, not necessarily by human intervention, but by the ability of these dried gourds to float across the seas from continent to continent without losing seed viability.” [quote from A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, by K.T. Achaya]
If you have a food processor to grate the pumpkin and a good source for high quality coconut (or the patience to peel and grate it yourself), the recipe is quite easy to prepare. As food from the Indian subcontinent goes, this dish is mild and subtle. It goes nicely with plain rice and something with a lot more spice and heat.
Pumpkin and Coconut with Spices
- 2 pounds pumpkin
- 1 1/2 cups grated coconut high quality fresh or frozen
- 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed
- 1 tsp ground cumin seed
- 1 tsp ground red pepper
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 2 tsp salt
- Peel the pumpkin, then grate it (a food processor is nearly essential here).
- Mix the coriander, cumin, red pepper, bay leaves and sugar with the milk. Set aside.
Heat oil in a large skillet or wok at medium-high heat, then add the pumpkin. Cook, stirring often, until the pumpkin is half-cooked, then add the coconut.
When the coconut and pumpkin turn a few shades darker (light brown for the coconut, bits of brown on the pumpkin), reduce the heat to medium.
Add the milk mixture. Stir until the liquid is absorbed or evaporates.
Stir in the garam masala and salt (start with 2 tsp, use more or less to taste).
Adapted from Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji