“Indian cooking is about the right balance of salt and chilli. There’s not much else to it,” remarked my husband when encountering yet another subtly salted and chilli-less dish. I had been cooking for the children and for us all together, in one big pot, for months. That meant no chillies – no cayenne pepper powder, no red chilli powder, no green chillies, not even a stray dried red chilli in the tempering. One never knew when Agastya, who regularly consumes plenty of spicy bhujia, would declare the food “too spicy.” My eighteen month-old had also learnt the word “picy” along with “ot.” About salt, now I had to confess that I liked tasting the food first and then salt. If salt was the first taste that hit my mouth when I tasted something, I would declare it too salty and continue to eat it very reluctantly. Most of my cooking, therefore, tasted, somewhat bland despite a careful adding of all the myriad other spices that were called for in Indian cooking.
After my mother-in-law’s visit, I have new respect for this whole deal about chilli and salt. The reason being that some of my mother-in-law’s tastiest cooking uses only salt and red chilli powder for seasoning. Take her aloo fry for instance, which is a simple saute of potatoes. The potatoes are peeled, diced into quarter-inch cubes and then sauteed in oil until they are well done. Salt, a generous sprinkle of chilli powder, a good stir and to the table. The potatoes are simply irresistible.
I feel the same way about her dondakaya, which is a stir fry of Indian ivy gourd, also known as tindora or kundru. I love sinking my teeth into thin, tender strips of her well seasoned dondakaya, and could probably eat a whole bowl of these on my own. This vegetable sold year round in Indian grocery stores is a smooth vibrant green gourd, about two inches long, that looks somewhat like a cornichon without the puckered flesh. I don’t remember eating kundru too many times while growing up in Calcutta, but it appears to be a beloved vegetable in Andhra cooking.
For 4 people, start with about 2 lbs of dondkaya. My mother-in-law recommends splitting each dondakaya into 4 halves, lengthwise. Heat 2 tbsps of oil in a big, non-stick pan, and add the chopped vegetable. Cook uncovered on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetable turns soft and starts looking golden and reddish-brown, and loses its bright green color. At this point, check for tenderness. If the vegetable is still a little tough, add about a quarter or half cup of water, add salt, cover and cook until the water is absorbed. Then uncover, and continue to cook until the oil is released, and the vegetable glistens. Add chilli powder at this time, to taste. Serve immediately.