Padma Rajagopal Tribute
Padma's Writing: Various
Human beings and pumpkins go back a long way together. Pumpkins feature in our folk stories and lore in just about every culture in the world. In the West, there are the spooky lanterns carved from hardened pumpkin rinds used for Halloween, or All Saintís Eve on 31st October. Then there is the story of Cinderella, whose Fairy Godmother magically turned a pumpkin into a grand coach to take the heroine to the great ball where she would catch the heroís eye for good and all. In more modern times, Charles Shultzís cartoon character Linus, the philosopher of the Peanuts gang, is a believer in "The Great Pumpkin", who will rise from the most "sincere" pumpkin patch of them all on Halloween, and fly through the air to bring good cheer and hope to believers everywhere...
Many Indian states have a folk tale of a man who rested under a huge ficus tree and wondered why such a majestic tree had such tiny insignificant fruits, while the stem of the pumpkin plant, producing such huge and wonderful fruits, was a thin flexible vine that crawled upon the ground. He got his answer when a fig fell on his head, then he knew that nature had its reasons for every mysterious plan. "If a pumpkin were to fall on our heads from so high, that would be the end of us", he pondered. "Hence pumpkins grow on vines that crawl upon the ground, where they can do nobody any harm."
My grandmother told me a Malayalam story about a very simple man, who went to a celebrated yogi, famous for his powers, and asked for a mantra he could use to meditate upon. The irritated yogi turned the simpleton away with a muttered "Viddi kooshmandam", which translates as "Stupid pumpkin". The simpleton accepted this phrase, with all respect, as his personal mantra, and went away satisfied. In time, meditating and chanting this mantra regularly, he earned great merit and became a powerful yogi in his turn, greater even than his unsuspecting "mentor". Years later, the two met, and the simple one fell at his gurujiís feet and hailed him as his teacher. Not recognizing him, the latter asked for details, when his "student" whispered into his ear the mantra, which was the secret of his success. So has the humble pumpkin been immortalised, just as simple and profound as the protagonist of this storyÖ
Pumpkins are so easy to grow that they are rarely mentioned in gardening books. Gardening lore in Kerala, according to my mother, says that the best pumpkin vines grow from seeds that were never planted, but come up on their own from rubbish heaps. This makes a lot of sense, since the vines would have plenty of compost to feed on, much more than a seed planted with just a handful or two of manure. My husband, who hails from a Naga tribe in Manipur, adds some lore from his peopleís experiences with pumpkins: "they are very shy plants, and you must never point at a pumpkin fruit that is forming on the vine, otherwise it will wither". I donít question folk-lore, and I am careful not to point at them, and our pumpkins do well. And yes, indeed, the best ones do come up on self-seeded vines.
The pumpkin vine is an attractive plant, with its beautifully shaped leaves, delicately patterned with silvery veins on their lush green background, textured too, with tiny, delicate hairs all over them. They are an artistís delight! The extravagantly formed fruits, with their lush curves and cleavages, are a wonder too, and have inspired a host of potters to make faceted pots with lids attached to a stalk-like handle. My friend Priya, a potter in Bangalore and a devoted organic farmer as well, is going through a phase of making the most charming pumpkin pots in terracotta and unglazed stoneware, their delicate mottled surfaces patterned by fire to resemble the originals growing in her garden.
Pumpkins are a cookís delight as well. You can eat the leaves, the flowers, and of course the fruits. The mature seeds, too, can be roasted and eaten. Every part of it is delicious, prepared skilfully. And my friend Indu, an M..D. and gourmet, whose well rounded features call to mind this noble fruit, assures me that pumpkins are wonderfully nutritious, full of betacarotene and all kinds of mineral salts, especially phosphates. You canít go wrong eating plenty of pumpkins.
Here are some of my favourite recipes:
Use tender or mature pumpkin. Remove seeds and seed pulp, and cut the flesh of the pumpkin into thin slices. Cook it with salt and slit green chillies, with very little water. Season with coconut oil and curry leaves.
Naga pumpkin and rice gruel:
Chop up pumpkin, as well as tender pumpkin leaves. Add to broken rice and cook with enough water and salt. Eat this with a really hot chutney, made by crushing lots of dry red chillies with some onion, dry fish and salt. This is a great dish for a damp, rainy day, the sort they have a lot of in Manipur and Nagaland.
And here is one I plan to try some day when Iíve figured out how to manage my time better:
American honey and pumpkin pie:
Ingredients for crust: 8 oz. Flour; 2 level tsp. Baking powder; a pinch of salt; 1 tbsp.Sugar; 4oz. Butter; 2 tbsp. Water.
Method: Sieve flour and baking powder together with salt into a mixing bowl. Rub in the butter till you get a bread-crumbs consistency. Add water gradually, using a palette knife. You should be able to gather the mixture into a ball, leaving the bowl clean. Donít use hard pressure. Put the pastry dough onto a lightly floured board and roll to required shape with a lightly floured rolling pin. Put into a pie plate and neaten the edges. To prevent the filling from making the bottom of the pastry soggy, shake a little flour or cornflour over the bottom pastry, then add a sprinkling of sugar. Keep some pastry rolled out for the pie-crust on top.
Ingredients for filling: 1 cup Honey; 2 cups Pumpkin puree; Ĺ tsp. Salt; Ĺ tsp. Ginger, freshly ground; Ĺ tsp. Cinnamon powder; 1 cup milk; 3 eggs; Ĺ cup cream.
Method: Combine pumpkin puree, honey, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Beat eggs lightly and add, then milk and cream, and blend well toll smooth. Pour into pastry crust and bake in a very hot oven for ten minutes, then reduce temperature and bake for half an hour or until set. Remove and slice into triangular wedges. Serve hot, with whipped cream.