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Festival foods of India

A new food festival curated by IFTG opens at Chor Bizzare Delhi and Noida, bringing forth home-style specials served during festival times…The article below traces some of the festive dining patterns in different parts of the country.

Festival foods of India” festival is on at Chor Bizzare Delhi and Noida from Dec 8 to Dec 22

Even in the cold of the winter, India is a land for celebrations. Christmas is as much a traditional festival here as the two Ids and Guru Nanak’s birthday and myriads of other festivals. And Christmas specials in Kerala and Goa are worth savouring. In Kerala, palappams and stew are common Christmas Day breakfast. You can have duck roast and a spicy chicken ularthiyathu as indeed the meen mappas — feasts that the Western world can never recreate. In Goa, no Christmas can be complete without the famous Bebinca, a multi-layered dessert, and kulkuls, made of maida, ghee and sugar—along with a sinful, plum cake. Another Goan sweet traditionally eaten at Christmas is milk cream (combining milk with sugar and cashew nuts) that is melt in the mouth. Goan Catholic cuisine has a distinct Portuguese influence as can be seen in pork Sorpotel, often served with sannas, idli fluffed with toddy for Christmas dinner.

But if Indian Christmas is special for the kind of elaborate table laid out, so are other festival celebrated across the country usually marking the change of seasons. Autum is really my favourite time. Camphor smells mixed with incense, mixed with smoke from the havan in which offerings to the ancient, splendid, many-armed goddess have just been made. The sacred smell of ghee, sugary batashas, cloves burnt in the havan kund, halwa, pooris, freshly fried early morning by the most devout… Navratras, the nine days of fasting and feasting, of worshipping the primal female energy, traditionally held sacred in most parts of the country, are special — even to a non-believer. You can’t help but be taken in by the rituals of devotion: There is something so touching about an artist giving finishing touches to a Durga idol somewhere in the deep recesses of Kolkata, or indeed householders reverentially feeding pre-puberscent girls with tha traditional ashtami Prasad of halwa-puri-chana, symbolically worshipping the goddess herself thus. The revelry of the Puja pandals, the gentle calm of Navratri kolu in Southern India when young girls decorate their homes with dolls, the effervescence of a dandiya night, the autumn in India is literally quite divine.

In a land of so many diverse food traditions it is but natural that fasting and feasting be inextricably linked. The nine days of the Navratras, for instance, bring along with them several taboos — no meat is allowed, neither are eggs and even grain while you are fasting. But this long list of non-eats doesn’t mean that the fasting populace literally has to starve, or exist simply on phalahar, literally a diet of fruits. Instead, over the centuries fasting foods have been turned into virtual delicacies — if you can’t eat grain, there is always kuttu ka atta, Indian buckwheat, that is permissible and can be fashioned into pooris and paranthas to be mopped up with simple but delicious potato curries. This traditional fasting menu is usually accompanied by a rich non-cereal makhane ki kheer, where lotus seeds thicken the milk pudding in place of rice and are accompanied by everything from bits of dried coconut to chironji seeds and raisins. And in traditional Marwari homes, it is common to make a tangy tomato chutney and even crumble some chenna (paneer) to this pure satvick, no onion-no garlic fare. If fasting foods can be turned into veritable feats of art, most traditional festival foods of India are gastronomic experiences in themselves. Try the Puja mahabhog and you will never want to miss it again.

From east to west: In Gujarat, where the nine nights are as special and dandiya and garba dancing a several crore industry, you can feast on all-veg shrikhand-puri (the Maharashtrain connect), thepla-chundho, dhoklas not to mention chaas as part of community feasts in the evenings. In fact, if you are planning a trip to Ahmedabad or Vadodra, Navratri is really the best time to go—apart from Uttarayan (Makar Shankranti or Pongal, elsewhere in India, which marks the end of winter). In contrast to the autumnal Dandiya nights, the festive season in January is marked by kite flying and community parties over pots of undhiyu (a mixed vegetable “casserole”, traditionally made in an earthern pot over a wood fire), jalebis and til chikkis made of jaggery and sesame seeds. The Navratras end on the 10th day with Vijay Dashmi or Dussehra.

One of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar, this marks the triumph of Ram over demon king Ravana. Naturally, the day involves, much feasting as well as fireworks in the evening when effigies of the 10-headed Ravan are burnt in northern India. In old Delhi, for instance, the evening marked the grand finale of all the ram leelas (costumed ballets depicting the life of Ram) held in maidans for nine previous days—important as much for the delicious street chaats and sweets served by khomchewalle as for religious reasons. One tradition in my own home (a Kayastha household) was eating kaliya, mutton curry, for lunch on Dussehra. As upper caste Hindus, Kayasthas are one of the few Hindu communities with no taboos regarding meat-eating and the kaliya perhaps symbolized the end of abstentation and the beginning of celebrations.

Diwali, of course, is the biggest Indian festival. A five-day affair, it is celebrated in its many forms all over India — with specific regional food traditions. Yams, for one, are considered to be auspicious in many community meals in eastern UP and always eaten on the night of Lakshmi Puja. It is said that once planted yam keeps growing on its own — and since people want Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth to also proliferate in their homes in a similar manner, the belief is that eating yams brings luck! Zimikand ki subzi or even kebabs can be thus made on Diwali. In the south, Diwali is generally more sedate with the ritual lighting of lamps, oil baths in the morning and beautiful rangolis rather than fireworks. In Karnataka, the main day is Balindra Pooja rather than Lakshmi Puja, and water is worshipped as well as oil offered to Krishna (in Udupi). This day celebrates Vishnu’s Vaman avatar. Huge meals are laid out with all the Udupi specials. But all over the country, the ritual of exchanging sweets with neighbours is a well-established one — regardless of how the celebrations go.

Apart from rava and besan ladoos, kesri bhat, kheers and so on, one of the quintessential festival sweets all across India is gujiya/karanji. Made with refined flour and stuffed with variations of locally available ingredients, including khoya, rava, coconut and raisins, this half moon shaped dumpling is not just a Diwali staple in the north and Maharashtra but even a Christmas treat in Goa, where it is called Nuereos. In Maharashtra, the fresh coconut filling of karanjis is often the same as used in fried modaks offered on Ganesha Chaturthi. Two days after the main Diwali/Lakshmi Puja is Govardhan Puja—marking the day when Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain and saved the people of Vrindavan from Indra’s wrath. This day has a special food focus—in many parts of the India, where annakut ceremonies are performed and hundreds of dishes (or chappan bhog, 56 dishes) offered to Krishna. The significance of this day is not hard to miss.

As the first day of Kartik, this marks the end of monsoons in India and crops are now ready to be harvested. The first offerings are thus made to god, the official protector. Annakut marks the first day of the new calendar in Gujarat. Harvest times in an agrarian world were always marked by festivals and if Annakut symbolizes that—its spring equivalent—Makar Shankranti/Pongal/Gudi Padwa/Lohri as it is alternatively called all across is also a time when food is venerated and the gods thanked for this blessing. Celebrated on January 13/14 when the sun “enters” the northern hemisphere, one of the colloquial names for Makar Shankranti is rightly “Khichdi”.

Rice is boiled (and you are supposed to let it boil over) in a pot and this is mixed with lentils. The result is sweet and savoury concoctions offered to the gods to signify a bountiful harvest. On the night of Lohri (December 13th), bonfires are lit, to celebrate the last of winter, and rewari (made of sugar and til), and groundnuts fed to the fire. In Assam, Bihu celebrations entail many different kinds of pithe. And fresh water fish is a favourite festival food, whether it is steamed in banana leaves or curried as the soured tenga. Finally, Holi is, of course, the spring, bacchanalian extravaganza—where all is permitted, including the intoxicating bhang mixed in milk. More sober souls make do with kanji, pickled carrot water tempered with mustard seeds. And chaats and sweets.

(A shorter version of this article was published in Swagat Magazine)

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