There comes a time in every cook’s gustatory development when they have to reckon with their own past limitations. Tastes change, palates change and all you can do is leave yourself open to the inexplicable currents of how those changes come and go.
This may sound hopelessly philosophical, but all I’m really trying to convey is how irritated I am that it took me so long to come around on dondakayi, one of the great treasures of the Indian vegetable pantry which, until just a couple of years ago, I very determinedly hated.
Dondakayi, like all vegetables with a pan-Indian appeal, goes by a variety of names. In Kannada it’s called tondekayi, in Hindi it’s tindora. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where this recipe is from, it’s called Dondakayi. Most online discussion of these little gourds refers to them in English as ivy gourds .My mother called them gherkins when I was young, a habit born no doubt from the vegetable’s resemblance to cucumbers (which, fair warning: they do not taste like at all).
I can’t really explain what it is that I hated about dondakayi. All the things that I once found so loathsome about it are now the things that draw me to it the most. The cooked vegetable has a mineral, metallic taste and a resilient crunch even when thoroughly cooked. The seediness of the interior used to be the very definition of my childhood horror of “texture” in food. Now I go into ecstasies just thinking about it.
Whether you’ll like dondakayi or not is anyone’s guess, but what I can guarantee is that it will make an impression. It cooks quickly (if you were looking for practical reasons to justify your love for it), and is packed full of iron, vitamin B, fiber, and calcium (if you were looking to feel virtuous about eating it). But none of these things are as convincing as the fact that it tastes utterly, unabashedly, of itself. It has a flavor and texture quite unlike anything else that I, belatedly to my chagrin, have come to love.
This recipe for dondayaki vepudu was given to me by a woman named Amrita who works as a cook at a small hospital in the countryside outside Warangal in Telangana. It mimics a lot of quick Indian vegetable dishes in the spices that it uses but the addition of crushed peanuts at the end adds a special something to the dish.
A note on shopping for ivy gourd: Dondakayi is easy enough to find in most well-stocked Indian grocery stores where it is usually sold as tindora. If you aren’t close to an Indian grocery store and have no hope of finding dondakayi, don’t fret. Though it won’t be quite the same, the same recipe made with young summer squash would be quite delicious.
Serves 3–4 as a side dish
2 tbsp peanut oil or other vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
Leaves from two sprigs of curry patha
1 lb dondakayi, ends trimmed, cut into quarters lengthwise
2 tsp red chilli powder (or to taste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp toasted peanuts coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle
Salt to taste
In a large skillet heat the peanut oil till it begins to shimmer.
Add the black mustard seeds and cumin seeds to the pan and let them sputter in the hot oil.
When the mustard seeds begin to pop and have turned grey, add the curry leaves and stand back—the oil will spatter when you add them.
Add the dondakayi and stir to combine all the ingredients.
Stir fry for 2–3 minutes or until the dondakayi is glossy and sizzling in the oil.
Add the red chilli powder, turmeric, and salt and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 10–15 minutes or so, until the dondakayi is tender but still retains a bit of its original crunch. If the spices or dondakayi threaten to stick or scorch at any point you can add a tiny splash of water to the pan to prevent burning.
Scatter the crushed peanuts over the dish and stir in before turning off the heat.
Check for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Serve hot with rice and a big bowl of dhal or, even better, an Andhra-style pappu.