Last year, during the monsoons, I came across a peculiar (to me anyways) vegetable that somehow had never caught my attention before. Even though it was new to me, I decided not to give into temptation and buy it. This vegetable belongs to the family of gourds, is small, green and looks like a cousin of the bitter gourd/ bitter melon but covered all over in small soft spines.
Green when unripe with soft whitish seeds inside, it turns yellow when mature and seeds harden and turn brown. Apparently, it makes an appearance every year during the monsoons and I have been here in Goa long enough to have seen it before.
This vegetable is known as the Spine Gourd for obvious reasons and locally referred to as “Phaagil” or “Phagla” It is quite expensive and so much of a favourite that people will wait every monsoon for its arrival at the market and gladly pay whatever it costs to take some home!
I have not seen this vegetable back home, but I understand it is grown and cooked in various parts of Indian including Maharashtra, parts of the Konkan coast, Chattisgarh, Orissa and the North Eastern states. Only the green and tender fruit is used and it is cooked in many different ways.
It is known by various names locally wherever it is eaten and you might recognise this vegetable as Meetha Karela, Khekhsa, Padora, Bhaat Karela, Kakrol, Kankro, Kantola, Aakakarakaya, Phagla, Phaagil, Ban Karela, Bhat Karola or Kartoli!
Some people call the Spine Gourd the Teasel Gourd, but that is a different vegetable. The Teasel Gourd has longer spines and looks more like Rambutan. Though Spine Gourd brings to mind the bitter gourd/ melon, it is generally not bitter thought one might be able to discern a mild bitterness in some fruits (they’re fruit rather than vegetable actually)
It is the season once again, for the Spine Gourd, and as I was assured that it was not bitter, I brought back some from my visit to the market last week. I decided to inaugurate our Spine Gourd taste buds by making “Phodi” out of them. “Phodi” are the Goan way of coating sliced vegetables in a spicy rice flour or semolina mix (or a mixture of both) and then pan-frying them till crisp.
People in Goa love their “Phodi” and it invariably pops up as a side dish at lunch. That’s really not surprising because I don’t know of anyone who could resist fritters that are fried with a thin crisp delicious coating but not greasy.
So you will find Goans making Phodi out of fish as well as a wide variety of vegetables which have very little moisture/ wetness in them like potato (batata), eggplant (vayngan), raw banana (kele), bitter gourd/ melon(karate), elephant yam (suran), ivy gourd (tendli) and spine gourd (phaagil)
In fact, for Ganesh Chathurthi and other festivities here, there is a tradition of making Phodi out of 5 different vegetables and serving it during the festive lunch.
Since this was first tryst with a vegetable that I had never eaten or cooked, and wasn’t sure how it would taste. Now gourds are mostly not big in the taste department by themselves and usually take on flavours of whatever they are cooked with.
I did not really want any unexpected surprises after cooking them, so I decided to make Phodi with my Spine Gourds. In my experience, if there is a way to disguise a vegetable well enough for most people to like it, then it is by frying it!
An added bonus is that this dish is also vegan and gluten-free!
Phaagila (Phagla) or Kantola Phodi (Pan Fried Spine Gourd Fritters)