The Ayurveda of Ash Gourd Stew

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Ash gourd stew served over steaming rice

A few months ago I shared The Carrot Halwa Insight after a random mood to make the dessert to surprise the kids! My penchant for all things Mangalorean is still strong. Our dinner frequently includes coastal recipes and last evening was no different. We had a simple dinner of ash gourd stew with rice.

Firstly, I love ash gourd. I love it as a raw raita, or ash gourd juice, as Agra ka petha or with prawns. I just love the delicate flesh of the gourd that melts in the mouth and leaves you with the gentle and light taste of freshness. But beyond the taste, there are so many more reasons to love it.

Ash gourd also known as ash pumpkin or Winter melon is so called because of the ash-like waxy coating on it’s skin. It is easily digested, has a cooling effect on the body and hence great for acid reflux or other inflammatory GI conditions. It is used extensively in preparing various Ayurvedic remedies.

One of the coolest things (pun intended) is that it is one of the vegetables of highest prana (superfood for yogis!) and is a wonderful addition to those convalescing from illness.

Some folk tales often told of prana being offered to Brahmins in exchange for priestly work. Even today, you’ll see many temple offerings and sacrifices involve ash pumpkins. A side story involved Brahmins actually ensuring that this high prana (and high brain power inducing vegetable) came only to them (controversy alert!) Anyway, today, the ash gourd is available to all, at least in India. It is also a vegetable that can last for a very, very long time.

In winters, it is best consumed as stew as it balances Pitta but more importantly Vata (something we need in winters) and better had for dinner, being Pitta and later Vata times of the day.

Now, for my Mama’s stew recipe – it is super simple!

  • Cook diced ash gourd along with finely sliced onions in 2 cups of thin coconut milk.
  • Add some salt, stew mix (turmeric, Kashmir chili, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick, cloves, ginger, asafoetida all ground together).
  • When it is almost cooked, add 1 cup of thick coconut milk.
  • Temper with mustard seeds and curry leaves in coconut oil.
  • I sometimes stir in a little bit of kasuri methi.

The reason this stew is such awesome winter dish has got loads to do with the lovely blend of spices – the crown jewels of Ayurvedic cooking! The lightness and simplicity of the gourd along the grounding kapha nourishment of coconut milk and their combined effort to balance vata & pitta… omg! I think I feel some cravings rising already!

And when you use all your senses, a dish of that simple pale red/orange color starkly contrasting against the white steamed rice – the fragrance of the herbs and spices – your digestive agni is definitely stoked & ready to tuck into this wholesome loveliness!

To me, this stew is a reminder of home – of my mother and grandmother and their kitchen of nurturing warmth and nourishment. It makes me feel loved with their tenderness of serving with love and care. I connects me with my culture, the smell of earth and raw goodness. It tastes of love and reminds me of who I am and where I come from and that I belong.

The Carrot Halwa Insight

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As I was prepping to make a surprise carrot halwa for the kids this afternoon, I got into one of my spellbinding webs of thought. This time, I found myself getting immersed into the dish I was preparing. Mind you, I’m not an Earth Mother and I really do not enjoy standing and cooking for long hours although my efforts are always very kindly appreciated and enjoyed with much pleasure.

I have also of late revisited many of the traditional Mangalorean recipes that have been handed down from my great-grandmother and have enjoyed observing the way my children have enjoyed the goodness of wholesome flavours – all from clean ingredients and spices from our own surroundings. It’s been a beautiful experience… and yes, I digress…

So back to the carrot halwa.

This web that was drawing me in gradually into my usually simultaneously multi-faceted thinking pattern (I really don’t know how else to explain the way my aha moments appear!) As I pounded the green cardamom while the grated carrots slowly cooked in ghee, the gorgeous aroma of the seeds just lifted my senses up a notch. I looked around at the orange carrots looking so vivid and bright against the vessel and I was reminded of a class I often teach – Healing Through The Senses – a class that taught Ayurveda 101 and brought into consideration the various elements and principles of Ayurvedic biology and physiological influence.

My halwa recipe is entirely organic – in the sense that I wing it every time. There is not set ratio or proportion to the ingredients, instead, I go with what I sense is required on the day I make it. So it is a largely intuited one. However, the basic requirements are the staple carrots, ghee, milk, sweetener of choice (I don’t use refined sugar any more, so I replace it with jaggery powder) and powdered green cardamom. Add-ons by others include raisins, powdered pistachios, slivered almonds, silver foil, saffron strands, etc. My family is not that fond of dry fruits, so the basic ingredients suit our palate just fine. In an effort to bring in an Ayurvedic quality to milk, I try to bring in desi gir cow A2 milk when I can – and when it isn’t available (because it shouldn’t be made available beyond what little can be spared for human consumption), I make do with regular milk. I also used to make my own ghee, but now get some desi ghee from friends who source it from the farm.

Cooking halwa isn’t that hard – the only physical effort is the grating of the carrots. After that, preparing halwa is a labour of love and teaches us patience and perseverance – to keep an eye on the carrots so they don’t burn and the milk so it doesn’t stick to the pan as it evaporates. The mindfulness of being with the food as it cooked gently because you can’t rush it takes the experience to a whole new level along with the gradually deepening aromas emanating from the slow cooked dessert.

Now, to the Ayurvedic significance (because that’s what this post is all about!)

Carrots, root vegetables, are the fruits of the earth produced in the dark winters. Their nature is such that they store the energy within them while the world outside is moving to cooler temperatures and seasons. They are a storehouse of pitta and are ushna is potency which makes them ideal to warm the body during the damp and cold, kapha and vata of fall/autumn and the Indian monsoons. The idea of carrots in many winter vegetable stews is not a new one!

The grounding effect of the ghee, jaggery and milk also have a soothing, nurturing quality while the ghee also adds a good element of fluidity and unctuousness to the dish. The earthy jaggery was a rustic element of connection to prithvi and the cardamom was both heat and air of moving exhilaration and crisp lightness.

All in all, the appreciation of the wisdom of our food and the consideration that our traditional recipes carry simply astounded me. I was amazed at what I was able to understand when only I paused to listen to the wisdom and be receptive to how this artful, yet philosophical blend of ingredients created a symphony for the senses – a visual delight of vibrant colors, sensory orgasm of all the tastes of ayurveda. It has the balancing act for all the doshas and it has the fulfilling satiety that accompanies the experience of having explored all the six tastes of ayurveda in one dish itself!

Beat that!

Apart from breaking down the recipe for all the ayurvedic insights, I couldn’t help but be WOWed by the specificity of our ancestors in the foods they ate and served because of their primarily tendency to affect one’s psychology, mood and temperament. There was and still remains the effort to constantly bring our mind and body back to a state of balance and food was a tool to address that. The connection between what we ate and what we comprise of (annamaya kosha) and the effect of that layer on the deeper sheaths of our energy (pranamaya kosha) and mind (manomaya kosha) was significant in co-creating a structure of balance in society – in their citizens’ bodies and minds…

The responsibility of this structure was on everyone. The comparison to our responsibility to create a better society around us today in 2019 was not lost on me – the poignancy was deep.

Food unites people – within themselves and without, with others.

Union – yoga.

Food for thought this…. all because of carrot halwa that took a good 45 minutes to prepare and 5 minutes to be polished off by two very grateful and happy children.

This… this conversation with myself – on halwa… my thoughts for today.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Cook the grated carrots in ghee over medium heat till they are nice & soft. Be patient now & mindful enough to stir it often.
  • Lower the flame & pour in the milk, jaggery powder & green cardamom powder.¬†Allow it to cook. Keep stirring as the milk evaporates and the mixture thickens. Here’s where you remember why you love the one’s your making this for… especially if it is for yourself!! Perseverance. Stir often & mindfully so the halwa doesn’t stick tot he bottom of the pan.
  • Don’t over cook it or it may end up too dry and the carrots overcooked. I sometimes put in some ghee a little towards the end too…

Note: You may add those optional extras that I mentioned in the blog above… but it tastes delicious this way too!!

Last part of the recipe: Enjoy it… savor it… Smile..