Of the many delicacies brought to India by the Mughals, a favourite is kofta.
According to a study there were nearly 291 different kinds of Kofte (plural of kofta) in Turkey, the Country where it is said to have originated. We love our kofte too, though the variety I make is limited to about two or three. Originally kofte meant minced meat balls, made of lamb or even fish. They were introduced in India by the Mughals and have been adapted by various regions, according to local tastes. In its present day version, kofte include vegetable balls. The minced vegetables may be bound by refined flour, eggs or cheese, or gram flour, and deep fried to resemble the original kofte, and are served in a bed of spicy sauce. The more the balls are soaked in the sauce, the better they taste.
Lauki kofta, or bottle gourd kofta is a gluten free version, and though deep fried, it is still the least ‘unhealthiest’ of the various versions. The rest use rich ingredients such as cheese and cottage cheese, apart from cream. I make a cream-less ‘malai kofta’ too on rare occasions. Kofta tastes great served with rice as well as any flatbread. I served with pooris this time.
The recipe that follows is not the usual method given for preparation of kofta. This is my version for a ‘week day kofta’. I use this method whenever I am short of time, which translates into most week days. On other days I follow a different method, which I hope to share some other time. The quick version is not very quick. You don’t make a quick kofta unless you use tomato puree and garam masala. My recipe does not use ‘garam masala’ in the powder form. I make fresh masala every time I make this dish ensuring rich flavour.
Before I go on to the recipe, here are some pointers on selection and preparation of bottle gourd for this recipe.
Lauki kofta is made of firm, tender bottle gourd, preferably without any seeds. Select gourds that are pale green in colour. The skin should be free from cuts or blemishes and should be firm to touch. If the gourd feels elastic, i.e., you are able to press, it indicates that the vegetable is mature or stale, rendering it unsuitable for cooking. Bottle gourd juice is said to be beneficial for the body. Kofta gourds should be fibrous so that you can press out water from the grated gourd and retain enough fibre. The fibre imparts the quintessential stringy, chewy texture that makes a good kofta.
Preparing the gourd for kofta:
Peel the gourd and grate/shred it immediately using a large sized grater suitable for shredding vegetables. Take a small quantity in your palm and squeeze out the juice, keeping the juice and the residue in separate containers. Repeat with the entire quantity. The juice is beneficial if taken immediately, before it oxidizes. If kept out the juice will oxidize and turn brown. At this stage it is better to discard the juice. The juice can also be used to make dough for rotis / parathas or any other flatbread of your choice. Add some salt to the pressed out gourd and rest for five minutes. Press out the juice once more, but lightly, so as to retain some liquid. If very stiff, the kofte will not absorb the juice or flavours from the gravy.
Dish: Lauki kofta ~ Fried bottle gourd mince balls in red sauce
Yield: 30 kofte
Ingredients for sauce:
Oil – 2 tbsp. + 1tbsp.
Cumin seeds / Jeera – 2 tbsps.
Bay leaves / Tej patte – 2
Cinnamon / dalchini – 1” stick
Star anise / Anasphal – one petal of a start anise
Black or green pepper corns / Saboot kali mirch – 5
Cloves / Lavang – 4
Green cardamom / hari elaichi – 4, seeded
Mace / Javitri – 2 or 3 strands of a dried mace
Coriander seeds / Sukha Dhania – 3tbsps.
Asafoetida powder / hing – 1 pinch (The one I use is very strong in flavour)
Turmeric powder / Haldi – ¼ tsp.
Ginger /Adrak – 1”, grated
Garlic / Lahsun – 1tbsp., minced
Green chillies / Hari mirch – 1, minced (or as per taste – I use red chilli powder too)
Onions, medium sized / Pyaaz – 2, sliced
Tomatoes, medium sized / Tamatar – 4, sliced
Salt – ½ tsp. to help the onions and tomatoes cook faster
Red chilli powder (Optional) – to taste
Method for sauce:
In a plate keep the following spices ready together; bay leaves, cinnamon, star anise, black pepper corns, and cardamom.
Heat oil in a wok to moderate. Splutter jeera and add the spices together. Reduce heat. When the cloves burst, add coriander seeds, mace, asafetida powder, ginger, garlic and green chillies. Sautee till the coriander seeds change colour to golden. This way the garlic and green chillies will not burn.
Add sliced onions and sauté till brown on medium flame. Add tomatoes and a little salt to help the tomatoes cook fast. Mix well, cover and cook for 3-5 minutes on low flame.
The tomatoes should be pulpy and oil should start to leave the mixture. If not, mix and cook further for a minute or two, taking care not to burn the mixture.
Remove the mixture onto a plate and set aside to cool.
When cool, remove the bay leaves and grind the mixture to a smooth paste.
Clean the wok. Heat another tbsp. of oil. Add the ground mixture and sautee till the oil leaves the sides. Add chilli powder and mix well, if using. Adjust consistency, adding water according to your tastes. Some like their kofte to dunk in a thin gravy (I do!), while some like the sauce thick.
Set aside and prepare the kofta.
Ingredients for Kofte:
Pulp of bottle gourd (prepared as per instructions in foregoing paragraph) – 4 – 4.5 cups, loosely packed.
Gram flour – 1.5 cups, loosely packed
Salt – to taste
Red Chilli powder – to taste
Roasted coriander seeds, coarsely crushed with a pestle (Optional – I like this, though it is not used traditionally) – 1 tsp.
Oil to fryram
Method for making kofte:
Place the pulp in a wide mixing bowl. Add spices as indicated and half of the gram flour. Mix well. If needed add more of the gram flour by tablespoons till you get a mince like dough.
Gather into lime sized balls and deep fry in moderate-hot oil till uniformly golden all over. Do not turn or disturb the balls immediately after putting into the oil. Wait for a little while and then turn. You can fry about three or four kofte at a time depending on the amount of oil used.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen papers.
I prefer preparing the sauce/gravy before I prepare the kofta. Once drained, I add the hot kofte to the gravy immediately, so that the juice and flavours are absorbed.
For the photographs however, I set aside a few kofte. Kofte smothered in gravy are not as pretty to look at, though they taste as great.
The taste of the sauce depends on the tartness of tomatoes used. You might want to add a pinch of sugar if the sauce tastes tart, or add a tsp. of cashew paste/cashew curd to round off the tartness.
This time I missed out on weighing the ingredients. However, Indian recipes I have found are more about adaptation and less about exact measurements.
The number of kofte depends upon the water content in the bottle gourd, and the amount of grated and squeezed bottle gourd mash you get.
If you need a low calorie version, steam the kofte balls instead of deep frying, till done, about five minutes. Remove when cool, and saute in a tbsp. of oil till they brown all over. I have tried this and it tastes good, though I am partial to the deep fried balls.
I like to make the dish at least an hour or two before serving. That way the kofte soak up the liquid and taste really good. If there is a lot of water in the kofte they will disintegrate in the gravy, so you have got to be careful about the consistency of the kofte-dough.
Note: Lauki kofta can be used with spaghetti to make a vegan version of meat balls. It won’t be the same naturally, but it tastes good. I have tried it.