THE PUMPKIN is a strange vegetable. Call it what you will, the sitaphal or kaddu, it is mood insensitive. In parts of northern India, it is a must for all ritualistic meals - on happy or sad occasions. Sitaphal has to be served for weddings as well as for tehrvis to mark the dead. So, not surprisingly, the sitaphal was an integral part of my youth. And unimaginable as it may sound - the poor pumpkin, after all, has its share of bitter detractors - I have quite a fondness for the vegetable. As college students in Meerut, we visited Gokul Halwai at least twice a week for breakfast. For one rupee, we got six puris, aloo ki sabzi, some thick raita and a healthy dollop of sitaphal ki sabzi.
Delhi was an eye-opener after life in a mofussil town. All those small non-vegetarian stalls found a ready customer in me. But I also spent time scouting all the lanes and by-lanes of Old Delhi in search of vegetarian savouries. Every gali had a puri-sabzi stall or a hawker peddling his wares on a cycle. But what disappointed me was that though one could always get some good bedmis (lentil-stuffed puris), the accompanying vegetable was usually made of potatoes or chholey. So my craving for some sitaphal sabzi could only be fulfilled when a relative got married - or died!
But, one day an informer whispered into my ear that there was this small shop in Daryaganj that served sitaphal with its bedmi. Daryaganj is such a maze that I took the help of a friend who spent his childhood and most of his youth in the area. Even he needed to ask some locals for directions before we finally managed to reach Jain Sahab's shop.
Now that I know the directions, it is not all that difficult to find Jain Sahab. All you have to do is reach Golcha cinema hall, cross over and take the broad road which links up with Ansari Road at a T-junction. Just before the junction, on your left, is a small place called Arihant sweets and their bedmi counter. The locals refer to it as Jain Sahab's bedmis.
My first time there was a revelation. I saw a large crowd of men, some sitting by a table and eating bedmis, and the others waiting for their orders to materialise. Like a true Delhiwallah, I rushed towards the owner, Jain Sahab, yelling for two plates of bedmis and waving a currency note in my hand. I was in for a humbling experience. Jain Sahab gave me a cold look and said: "This is not New Delhi. First you eat, and then you pay." I was put in my place, but knew that very instant that the bedmis sold by a gentleman steeped in tehzeeb would be great.
The bedmis - one plate of two bedmis comes for Rs.8 - were small and crisp. With the puris came a dona of aloo-chholey sabzi with one moong-dal ka kofta. The potato vegetable was delicious, and the methi ki chutney that laced the dish gave just the right taste of tartness to it. But it was the sitaphal ki sabzi - served on a separate sal leaf - that floored me. It was lightly spiced, and the sweet taste of the vegetable dish nicely balanced the masalas of the aloo-chholey.
I couldn't resist it. I ate six puris and drank a kullar of lassi. And then I rounded up a great meal with four delicious pedas. Going to Jain Sahab's was like going back home. My relatives are pretty happy that I have found the perfect place for sitaphal in Delhi. I no longer call them up, asking eager questions about marriageable nephews or nieces, or making solicitous enquiries about the old and the ailing.