Stuffed snake gourd or potlakai: Of “Snakes” and oil baths, Vit.D and childhood tortures

“Ooooooohh, snaaake, snaaake!” Three kids, oiled from top to toe waiting for the dreaded Sunday morning mandatory “oil baths”, decide to make the most of it by chasing each other round and round the garden clad in bare necessities and armed with long, green, snakelike gourds in their hands – potlakai, podalanga, parval, chichinda – the various names by which this vegetable is known in India are nowhere near as descriptive as it’s English title – the snake gourd. Being the youngest at about 5 or 6 years old, I half believed it was a snake !
That Sunday morning ritual was dreaded for many reasons. First the process of being oiled meant you got kneaded and pummelled and squashed and your nose got pulled – to make it longer – well going by the length it reached, the rest of my face caught up with it only in my 30s!!! I had one aunt whom i shall not name here but who i think used to pummel us more than the others – maybe the frustrations of her existence got too much for her by the weekend (!) and the oil massage used to be accompanied by a rising crescendo of howls of despair and many complaints to mom later!
The best part of it was when were let out – makes us sound like a pack of dogs, doesn’t it? – to run about and play in the sun for a while till the water was heated in an old copper boiler. What a deadly dose of Vit D we must have absorbed in the running around – whether we played “snake” or not. Then followed the agony of having your skin almost scraped off with “nalugu pindi” (a mixture of chickpea flour and turmeric): “GOOD FOR YOU”!
Your hair and very likely much of your head was nearly pulled out by the “sheekai” (soapnut powder), a brown and in my opinion “kaaram”(chilli-hot) substance which inevitably leaked into our eyes and made the howls even louder. And all this with boiling hot water from the “anda”!
It was some kind of torture system devised to take a perfectly happy, reasonably clean kid and designed to turn him/her inside out in the adult’s quest for that stray particle of dirt which might cause you to… what? Die? I never found out! End of process you came out smelling like a pakoda from all the flour and turmeric, eyes streaming and a feeling of deep gratitude that you did not have to face this again for another blessed 168 hours (7 * 24) and the incurable optimism of childhood that something, anything might happen to prevent the next one! Alas, that hope was very rarely realised…
And what happened to the snake which allayed the agony of Sunday baths? Many things were made out of it – in my memory it was either overcooked into a mush or under-cooked so that it tasted like a sharp-ish cucumber. Then I grew up and learnt how to actually cook it!
Here’s one which my family loves – stuffed potlakai – my way.
Stuffed potlakai
1 long, tender snake gourd -wash and cut into pieces about 2″ long With your pinkie or a narrow spoon, remove the insides – seeds and tissue. These are tender so easily removed.
Mix together:
Roasted and powdered sesame (til) seeds – 1 tbsp
Roasted chickpea flour(roasted besan) – 1/2 cup
Jeera powder – 1 tsp
Dhania powder – 1.5 tsp
Kasooti methi (dried fenugreek leaves) – 1 tsp
Coriander leaves – chopped – 2tbsp
Chili powder – 1 tsp
Turmeric – 1 large pinch.
Salt – about 3/4 tsp
Oil – 1 tbsp
Stuff the pieces with this masala powder. Heat oil in a large, flat pan and add the pieces. Cover and cook, turning over occasionally for abut 12-15 minutes till the vegetable is tender. Open and cook for a few minutes more.
Serve hot with rice. Don’t forget to have your oil bath before this otherwise how will you make FULL use of the potlakai – to scare the littlest kid with and to get your dose of Vit. D????
P.S: Wonder what they did with all the besan they washed us with?? Recycled as… no, no perish the thought. It’s too yucky!