At a press meet convened by Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Araga Jnanendra of Thirthahalli, a town on the banks of the Tungabhadra, petha was served. And thereby hangs a tale.
The delicacy that is known to the world as Agre ka petha, is made from ash gourd (known locally as kumbalakai). The sweet is usually made in the North of India, far away from Thirthahalli, but barely a week ago, out of sheer desperation, it began to be made right here. A week ago, Shashank Hegde, also from Thirthahalli, put out an impassioned plea on social media. The 35-year-old posted how farmers had cultivated 2,000 tonnes of ash gourd that should have found its way into Agre ka petha. But with the lockdown, they were left holding the gourd.
Warm Welcome Juice by Mallika Badrinath
- White pumpkin: 400 gms
- Cucumber: one or two
- Carrots: one or two
- Ginger: an inch-long piece
- Apple: 1
- Celery: (optional)
- Karpooravalli leaves: (optional)
- Salt, white pepper
- Just a drizzle of honey
- Wash, peel, de-seed and chop the vegetables. Add them to the juicer or mixer. First put in the ginger and celery. Add the karpooravalli leaves if you enjoy the taste it lends. Add the rest of the vegetables and grind. Do not add water. Strain, add white pepper and salt and very little honey. Your nutrition-packed juice is ready.
MLA Jnanendra, industrialist Kuntolli Vishwanath, tehsildar Sripadh and president of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee HR Mahabalesh, along with the Horticulture Department, and Shashank’s Hingaara Foundation, swung into action to help the farmers.
“Someone from Delhi suggested that instead of trying to transport trucks of ash gourd to Delhi, why not make the petha right here? It was not that complicated to make,” and so the Thirthahalli petha was born, says Shashank.
Ash Gourd Minestrone by Chef Bakshish Dean
- Ash Gourd: 1 cup (150gm), 1/2” dices
- Olive Oil: 3 tbsp (you can also use gingelly oil)
- Garlic: 4 cloves, sliced thick
- Onion: 1/4 cup (30gm), 1/2-inch dices
- Carrot: 1/4 cup (30gm), 1/2” flat dices
- Bell Peppers: 1/2 cup (50gm), 1/2” flat dices
- Cabbage: 1/2 cup (40gm), 1/2” flat dices
- Spinach: 1/2 cup (40gm), 1/2” flat dices
- Parmesan Rind: 2/3” piece (optional)
- Pasta (short): 4 tbsp (40gm), dry
- Chickpeas: 3/4 cup (120gm), boiled
- Chickpea water: 2 cups (400ml)
- Water: 2 cups
- Salt: 1 1/2 tsp (to taste)
- Pepper: 1/2 tsp, freshly ground
- Pesto: 3 tbsp (45gm)
- In a heavy bottom pan, over medium heat, add the sliced garlic, followed by the vegetables, except spinach, mix well and cook covered for 3 minutes.
- Add the Parmesan rind, chickpeas, chickpea water, water, pasta, salt and pepper, mix well, allow it to come to a boil, cover and simmer gently for 8-10 minutes, stir every 3/4 minutes.
- Add spinach, mix in well and simmer for another 4-5 minutes.
- Check doneness of vegetables and pasta, and seasoning.
- Finish the soup with Coriander Cashew Pesto.
- Pour in portion bowls and garnish with grated Parmesan cheese (any good hard cheese can be used in this soup) and a drizzle of olive oil.
- This is a hearty soup, which if complimented with some good rustic toasted buttered bread, can turn into a fantastic meal!
Many hours of YouTube and consultations later, 39-year-old Kuntolli Vishwanath set his people to work and the first lot of pethas was made. Vishwanath, a mechanical engineer, also owns a food processing unit. His company is a pioneer and holds a patent for arecanut dehuskers.
“My company exists, thanks to farmers. I had to do something to pull them out of trouble. When the district administration approached me, I readied a sample in 24 hours but it was not perfect. YouTube instructions are not the most accurate and we got it 60% right,” he laughs.
So Vishwanath turned to Suresh Bhatt, who has been making sweets for weddings and other functions for 30 years. Suresh pointed out where they were going wrong. Now Vishwanath has around eight to 10 women working on the petha. “At the moment, we are manually cutting two tonnes of the gourd. Our target is 10-15 tonnes once the machines take over. We are learning by trial-and-error. I have tasted the pethas but had no idea they were made from gourds grown in my region,” says Vishwanath.
The process from start to finish takes 72 hours and needs precision. “The gourd is cut, washed, soaked in lime for several hours, then again thoroughly washed and boiled.” The sugar syrup is made to just the right consistency. The sugared pieces have to dry. “We cannot keep them out as even a drop of water will lead to fungus.”
Vishwanath is buying ash gourd from farmers in need of sales within 10-15 kilometres radius from here. “They have no money to harvest, or transport… I am reaching out to them.”
But just making pethas does not solve the problem. One is unsure how much of it will sell, and 2,000 tonnes cannot all be converted into the sweet. So they are working on a marketing campaign. “We plan to send ash gourds to Bengaluru. I have spoken to contacts at various apartment blocks and gated communities.”
They have requested residents to buy the ash gourds and distribute them to anyone who is struggling to put food on the table.
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