A personal account of growing and cooking pumpkins
“ Its as easy as pie,” is a phrase often used to denote that something is easy to do. The month of October is that time of the year when baking enthusiasts in Europe and America would be baking pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and/or Halloween. But how easy is it really to bake a pumpkin pie, if you don’t have canned pumpkin puree?
Growing up as I did in the local Christian community of Mumbai, India’s largest city, the Halloween Triduum has some significance for us. But October 31st with its spooky smiley jack-o-lanterns, trick- o- treating children in fancy dress costumes, and adults in zombie outfits quaffing down lethal-looking mocktails is not really important for us. It’s attending church services on November 1st (All Saints Day- on which we venerate the saints) and November 2nd ( All Souls Day — on which we visit family graves and pray for the souls of deceased relatives) that’s more important, from a cultural standpoint. Even baking pumpkin pie was not a commonly done thing. Which is odd, considering that the traditional cuisine of our community is an Indo-Portuguese blend, and we are familiar with baking cakes and pastry. Pumpkin though used in the everyday cuisine of my community did not have any quasi-religious connotations at its Thanksgiving festival or at Halloween. So pumpkin pie, though it very much appealed to my young adult self then, seemed a difficult dish to execute, judging by the gorgeous pictures I’d seen in cookery sections of ‘Good Housekeeping’ and ‘ Better Homes and Gardens’ magazines.
However, soon after I got married I started living in a village not very far from Mumbai, where we manage our own organic farm. And in my very first year of being there, I was gifted a large round orange pumpkin, by a young neighbour who belongs to the indigenous Warli community. The pumpkin had been grown in the garden around her simple mud-walled and thatched-roof abode. It was one hundred percent organic, no doubt about that. And since it was close to Halloween I decided to bake my first ever pumpkin pie. Cutting the pumpkin did involve some initial ‘trickery’, it being about 3 kilos in weight. I was hesitant to use the large knife that I thought I would need, to pierce the thick rind of this generously proportioned rotund cucurbit which was not evenly flat and stable at the base. The closest first aid centre being 30 kilometres away, I did not want to risk cutting my hand my mistake! My neighbour who seemed just a teenager herself knew exactly what to do. First, with a damp kitchen towel, she quickly cleaned a part of the kitchen floor; then she asked for a small sharp knife and indented a line all around the pumpkin rind, demarcating it into two halves. Then she threw it onto the clean floor tiles! The pumpkin split effortlessly and without any damage to its ribbed outer surface, into two halves!! The only tedious thing after that was to hand grate the pumpkin flesh. When I think of it now, the process of baking a pumpkin pie was quite a treat in itself, not as difficult as I imagined it to be and …indeed … ‘as easy as pie’.
I have since, quite often baked pumpkin pie or ‘mandas’ a type of pumpkin cake to celebrate ‘Agera’ -our Harvest Thanksgiving Festival on the first Sunday of October or for Halloween. But mostly I bake them just because pumpkins are naturally available at this time of the year. Pumpkins in this area do grow naturally in the cool dry months after the monsoon season, from September to November. A small patch of green creeper leaves and vine tendrils and yellow flowers is a common sight in many of the village homesteads.
In December 2019 we planted a field of pumpkins for commercial sale and not just for our own personal consumption as we have previously done. Pumpkins in this area can be commercially grown from September to December and also from January to March. The drip-irrigated plantation was naturally pollinated by bees, the soil enriched by cow dung manure and weeded by hand. A field full of green leaves and vine tendrils creeping along the ground, interspersed at regular intervals with yellow flowers at first and then somewhat oval shape striated green fruit is an even more satisfying sight than a backyard pumpkin patch. And gazing out at this carpet of green, under a clear blue sky every day through January 2020 it was hard to believe that a deadly disease had broken out in one part of the world. No one in the vicinity had yet heard of the word novel coronavirus or Covid 19. Much less did we realize the havoc it would wreak all over the world.
A more immediate concern for us at that point was to keep pests like the ladybird beetles at bay. Ladybird beetles with their eyecatching bright red colour and black spots are in real life fascinating to a child's eye. The Ladybird beetle is an endearing logo printed on the corner of the books of a well-known children's book brand. My children now grown up, have several favourite ladybird storybooks still on their bookshelves. But don't be fooled by the seemingly innocuous appearance of ladybird beetles. They have voracious appetites. And if left unchecked, they can rapidly skeletonize the vine leaves. So to prevent this from happening we used an organic pesticide like neem spray.
By February 2020 days the pumpkins began to change colour from green to orange. It meant they were ready for harvest. Harvesting was done by hand. A portion of the harvested pumpkins was reserved as fodder for our desi Gir cows and bulls. We were fortunate to complete our harvesting before the stringent India-wide lockdown to quell the spread of the coronavirus was announced in the last week of March 2020.
The lockdown definitely affected the sale of our pumpkins. Being a staple vegetable in Indian cooking it would be considered as an essential food and therefore there were no official restrictions on its transportation. But vegetable vendors were hesitant to operate their transport vehicles and risk catching the coronavirus themselves. Also, many young men from rural areas who work in the transport sector had braved a punishing walk from Mumbai city back to the relative safety of their far-flung village homes, as train services had been abruptly stopped. So in fact these essential services of fruit and vegetable delivery were not running smoothly. And unlike in the charming and unforgettable scene in the Walt Disney animated movie of the fairy tale Cinderella, there was no fairy godmother to wave her wand and magically transform one of the pumpkins into a beautiful vintage horse-drawn carriage with liveried driver and footmen (as she did in the story) or ideally as we would have wished, a self-driven transport van!
Fortunately, pumpkins have a shelf life of 6 months. In fact, extended shelf life was a primary reason to grow pumpkins as we would not be dependent on the market for immediate sale. However, a shelf life of 6 months would be possible ideally in the cooler and not- so- harsh Indian winter months. What we had to contend with in addition to the sudden and stringently imposed lockdown was the routinely scorching Indian summer. So, when lockdown travel restrictions were partially lifted in June 2020 we were able to sell our pumpkins. However since some of the pumpkins had started to dehydrate and reduce in weight, we did incur some losses with this crop. We were not alone in this, as growers of other vegetables in the area also faced worse problems with more perishable vegetables.
Ironically the losses faced by organic vegetable growers were precisely at a time when because of the coronavirus there was also a growing demand from people for sustainably grown chemical-free foods in order to safeguard overall health.
Orange pumpkins either round or slightly oval in shape are called ‘kaddu’ or ‘bhopla’ in this part of India. They are traditionally used in a variety of regional everyday dishes across India, such as pumpkin soup, pumpkin salad(plain boiled pumpkin seasoned with salt and finely cut onion, fresh green coriander leaves and green chillies), pumpkin foogath (a lightly spiced pumpkin dish with a garnish of coconut, made by our community), bhoplyache bharit (steamed or roasted pumpkin mixed with grated coconut, peanut powder and curds, made by Maharashtrians), sambhar (a gravy of lentils, spices, pumpkin, and other vegetables, made by South Indians), chor churi (a mixed vegetable dish with pumpkin as one of its ingredients, made by Bengalis). Pumpkin seeds can be roasted and eaten as a healthy snack.
As to its use in festive cooking, for me personally, an orange pumpkin in October puts me in pumpkin pie and cake mood for Thanksgiving and Halloween. But all around me, October is also the time for the Hindu festival of Dussehra. The nine days and nights (Navratri) preceding Dussehra are an occasion for both fasting feasting, depending on your personal choice. Pumpkin is one of the vegetables that are permitted to be used during Navratri, for those wishing to observe Navratri fast. Orange pumpkin is a crucial ingredient in a mixed vegetable dish called Labra which is an important vegetable dish in the pujo bhog for Bengalis, during this festival. Kaddu ka halwa is a festive sweet made by stir cooking pumpkin with milk, ghee and sugar.
But like all good vegetables, the orange orb which lends itself so beautifully to different preparations is also viewed paradoxically as a boring vegetable and intensely disliked by many.
But pumpkin does have many health benefits. The orange colour of the pumpkin indicates the presence of beta carotene which is a source of vitamin A which is good for your eyes. It is rich in potassium, an essential body salt. It contains Vitamin C which is a natural immunity booster. It is a good source of dietary fibre, low in calories and almost fat-free. This makes it an ideal food in lockdown circumstances and the new normal of our lives which for more people than ever before involves long hours staring at computer screens and mobile phones as they work and study from home.
Pumpkin eaters in India would be happy to know that in 2018 according to statistics of The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations India was the second-largest producer of pumpkins (including squashes and gourds) worldwide. Will this statistic hold true after this pandemic subsides? Hard to say. And how much of the total pumpkin production is sustainably produced in India. That statistic was not so easy to find.
What we do know is that pumpkins belong to the Cucurbita family which include squashes and gourds. They are a cultivar of winter squash. They are grown all over the world. They come in all sizes-(small, medium, large and extra-large), in a variety of shapes -(round, oval, tall, and uneven) and in a range of colours (from orangey-red to golden orange to green to blue-green to grey to white). Having originated in North Eastern Mexico and the southern United States, pumpkins probably became known to Europeans, after the voyage of Christopher Columbus. But they were in existence long before that. Pumpkins are one of the oldest domesticated plants, with their domestication believed to have begun around 7500 B.C. That's something worth remembering every time you carve a jack-o-lantern or bake a pumpkin pie or stir-cook a pumpkin halwa.