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The Prophet of Vegetables
Words by Daniyal Ahmed; Illustration by Samia Singh
Welcome to Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance, a Vittles series on food imagery, themes and lyrics in Punjabi music, from boliyan to protest anthems.
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The Prophet of Vegetables, by Daniyal Ahmed
Karela occupies a contentious place on any South Asian table. Frequently adored by elders, often detested by children, the polarised reactions it evokes are perhaps to be expected of a vegetable whose name in most languages refers to its stark bitterness: bitter gourd; bitter melon; 苦瓜. Unexpected, however – and perhaps unexplainable – is the deep reverence and love for karela amongst classical music practitioners and their families, particularly in Punjab.
I first noticed this adulation for karela when I visited the Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Hyderabadi’s home in Hyderabad, Pakistan, for a documentary shoot about his late uncle and teacher, Ustad Umeed Ali Khan. Today, Fateh Ali Khan Sahib is Pakistan’s most senior exponent of the Gwalior gharana – a style of Hindustani music which originated in the city of Gwalior in pre-partition India, during the Mughal era.
After the first half of the interview, Khan Sahib invited us for lunch where, despite the fried fish, yakhni pulao, bhindi and aloo cutlets that were prepared for us, what was presented as the most special offering of his house was karela gosht. (Although karela is usually the basis of quotidian, homely dishes, it is given special significance by these musicians when it is prepared this way.) To make the dish, the karela is skinned, salted, deseeded and fried, before being cooked with mutton, onions, tomatoes and spices. The harmony created by the combination of bitter vegetable, mellow curry base and spiced mutton confirmed why this unlikely contender enjoyed the special stature it did. That evening, we left with the memory of the karela gosht firmly in our minds and, when we returned months later for a follow up interview, everyone – including our van driver – hoped (not-so-secretly) to be served it again.
Over the course of that year, after speaking to several musicians – many of whom belonged to the old musical families of Punjab – I found that the karela cropped up so much that its constant presence felt somewhat unusual; it was something close to revered amongst most of them. Of course, there are many reasons for people to eat karela, none of which have anything to do with music: it is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, for example, and its nutritional benefits are well known. Karela is also thought to cure a sore throat, and in summer it is usually paired with a cooling Namkeen Kachi lassi. It is serendipitous that, in Punjab and South Asia, the karela season coincides with that of the mango, which completes this irresistible trio of summer flavours: bitter, refreshing and sweet.
But this doesn’t explain why it is so beloved by the maestros of raag music. As I thought about its presence in the home of these musicians, I wondered if it had a reputation as being nurturing for the voice. Do musicians believe it improves the sense of listening, or enhances one’s musicality?, I thought. When asked, no one hesitated to express their love for the vegetable, but I couldn’t get a straight answer to this more specific question. Instead, people were quick to tell stories, recipes and metaphors that detailed the preparation of the dish. Lahori vocalist Faheem Mazhar, for example, narrated me a joke about its popularity – ‘Once, a Miraasi (hereditary musician) was walking through the market and saw a karela drop to the floor from a vegetable cart. He quickly ran to pick it up, kissed it, and put it safely back onto the cart. When the vegetable seller asked him why he would do such an absurd thing, he quickly replied Bewakoof, tennu patta nahin? Ae sabziyan da paighambar hai! – ‘You fool! Don’t you know? This is the prophet of vegetables!’ Meanwhile, Ustad Akmal Qadri, the bansuri player from Lahore, told me that musicians go and buy karela the first day that it arrives on the market: ‘This is not a vegetable we bargain for. We buy it at whatever rate the seller asks for, no matter how expensive it is.’
Also among the reverends of karela gosht was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (BGAK), one of the most influential and iconic musical figures of the twentieth century. In an interview in 2011, his erstwhile pupil, Malti Gilani, mentioned the Ustad’s great love of ‘khaana and gaana’, or ‘food and song’. She remembered being served karela gosht at his home: ‘He used to do a lot of kasrat (exercise) and he was very particular about his food. His wife would make something special every day, like karela gosht, or kachnaar gosht’, she said.
When I spoke to Raza Ali Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali’s grandson, he told me that the Ustad enjoyed karela not just in karela gosht, but also in the qeema karelay style of preparation, which involves ‘splitting open the karelas, then filling them with qeema (minced meat)’. This is an unusually laborious preparation for karela: after the karelas are stuffed, they must be carefully sewn back together, before being cooked in oil.
To cook karela in a way that transforms its inherent bitterness is an art in itself. For karela gosht, qeema karelay and other preparations, one must evoke its potent flavour – just as one evokes the different rasas (essences) in a raag. Tackling the karela’s bitterness and making it delicious using salt and turmeric requires a method that is no less rigorous than the perfection that musicians seek through their daily riyaaz.
My initial observation about karela, which originated after my meal at Ustad Fateh Ali Khan’s home, began to form a pattern, adoration for the vegetable emerging in many of the musicians’ anecdotes. For instance, the legendary Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is also thought to have professed a love for karela gosht in an interview that he gave in Canada. In India, meanwhile, karela appears in the life of the musicians of the Kirana gharana (which housed the vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi) in Uttar Pradesh. The mother of Zafar Hussein – a classical vocalist from the gharana – was ‘famous for her stuffed karela’, an article about Hussein and his contemporary Karim Niyazi states.
As a bansuri player myself, my conversations with other musicians usually revolve solely around music. We talk about its pedagogy and discuss stories about Hindustani classical music’s greatest practitioners – the meticulousness and nuance with which they treat the raags. But in these conversations about karela, as the ustads described their shared love for the vegetable and the myriad ways in which it is prepared by their families, I realised that the karela, even though it is eaten in several ways throughout Punjab and South Asia, took special significance on their tables; as part of their customs. It is possible that, in the same way that knowledge of Hindustani music is passed from person to person, the love of karela is transferred, too. Rather than being spurned for its bitterness (as it usually is) here, karela and the dishes it is cooked in acquire the continuity of tradition and heritage by being beloved among ustads.
And there is also, perhaps, a more poetic explanation. In our conversations, Ustad Raza Ali Khan also remembered how the great sitar player, Ustad Vilayat Khan, would always make a special request to eat karela whenever he was due for a visit at their home. He also mentioned that both his father and grandfather would often sing Raag Kamod after eating karelas. When I asked him what the connection between the dish and the raag was, he laughed and explained: Baat yeh hai keh Raag Kamod aur karelay, donon hi rooh ki taskeen kartay hain –‘You see, Raag Kamod and karelas – they both provide consolation for the soul.’
Daniyal Ahmed is a musician and anthropologist from Pakistan. He works on South Asian folk and classical music and teaches at the Habib University in Karachi. His music research and publishing project is called honiunhoni.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.