Saturday, March 28, 2009

The lau of Bengali food

They came, they wrote, they vanished. That is the story of many a blogger. Understandably so, as most of us don't blog for a living, but do it as a creative outlet during our spare time. In my case too, as other things took over, the blog had to take a back seat, putting me dangerously into that vanishing zone, even though I have thought about hauling myself back several times.

Recently, a blogger who often writes lovely comments here said that the squash with Bengali seasoning is now her most favorite way to cook butternut squash, and that she particularly loves the flavor of kalonji. That reminded me of this bottle gourd sabji I make, which has kalonji (also called Nigella) as the predominant flavor.

The other ingredient that is predominant here is mustard oil, which is an essential flavor of several Indian regional cuisines. Although it is not one I grew up with, I have taken to it over the last few years, and really enjoy it in some dishes. Mustard oil is not a wimpy sort of oil and holds its own particularly well. Naturally, it has no substitutes. I even know of mustard oil devotees who can compare and discuss brands, types, and their qualities in great depth. I usually use half mustard and half light olive oil in this dish, but feel free to use all mustard oil.

Bottle gourd is called dudhi in Marathi, lauki in Hindi, and lau in Bengali, which explains the cheesy post title. I find it in my local farmers' markets from spring through late summer, but I have seen it in Indian grocery stores almost all year round. This recipe comes via a full Bengali friend, and I am transcribing it here with his permission. I prefer to have it with soft rotis but it is equally wonderful with plain rice and dal. It also fits into my on going theme of favoring dishes that use only a few ingredients, and in this case they all just pull together, almost unexpectedly. For lack of a better title, I am calling it "Bengali Lau".

Lauki/Bottle Gourd with kalonji (Nigella)

Bengali Lau


1 medium sized bottle-gourd, usually 400-500gm
2 Tablespoons mustard oil (or a mix of mustard and olive oil)
1 teaspoon kalonji (nigella)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1-2 small green chilies, chopped fine
salt to taste
a small handful of grated fresh coconut
a few sprigs of cilantro, chopped fine


Peel and de-seed the bottle gourd, and chop it into thin strips about an inch long, roughly like short and thick matchsticks.

In a large kadhai or wok, heat the oil, and add the kalonji. Unlike mustard or cumin seeds, these do not pop, but they release a wonderful aroma when heated, usually in a few seconds. As soon as that happens, add the chopped bottle gourd, turmeric, and green chili. Saute everything quickly, then turn down the heat. Add a little salt, and let the bottle gourd cook until tender, on medium high heat. Place a lid on the pan if required. This usually takes me 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the slices, and total quantity. When done, the gourd should be fully cooked, and there will be some oil at the bottom of the pan as a result of the released moisture.

Add a little salt at the end, the coconut, and chopped cilantro, and stir once together.

Lauki/Bottle Gourd with kalonji, rotis
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