Gobar Times
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Fest Food

No festival in the world is complete without a belly-full of good food. The idea of celebration may differ from place to place along with culture, but organising an elaborate larder of both cooked and fresh food during such celebrations is a universal human practice. In fact, a lot of our rituals and customs deal with how to grow, obtain, prepare, serve and eat food.

 

Many of our festivals celebrate the onset of a new season, and of regeneration. In doing so, they actually celebrate the coming of a new kind of food into our food basket, be it a seasonal vegetable or fruit, or foods rich in proteins, fats or oils. With every changing season, our requirements of nutrients also undergo a change. For example, we need more fats and oils in our food in the colder seasons and more fluids during summer and monsoons.

 

India offers a wealth of examples that illustrate this interesting bonding of food, festivals and environment. Take the case of the Bengali festival staple of khichuri and labra, which constitute the essential elements of the bhog (food for the gods) during Durga Puja. Come October, and you will find serpentine queues in all Puja pandals, waiting for a plateful of this. While the rice-based dish khichuri is a strictly vegetarian version of the khichdi, labra is a delicious mish-mash of several kinds of vegetables, the most important of which are seasonal—such as the eggplant or the unripe pumpkin. It is believed that the labra may have originated

in the traditional and austere kitchens of Bengali widows, who were forced to create recipes from whatever vegetables the seasons had to offer.

 

Durga Puja, of course, is one of the most widely celebrated and well-known festivals. What about those which we know little about? Let’s find out...

 

In the third week of February, the Mahua Pendule is celebrated by the Koya tribals who are spread across the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. At this time of the year, the forests are full of fresh sweet-smelling mahua flowers. Every Koya village gets ready to welcome and celebrate the coming of these flowers and, as per tradition, prays for the enrichment of their lives with food, drinks and happiness.

After the prayers, the villagers are free to collect the mahua flowers and its fruit (called tolo). The flowers are spread on bamboo mats to sun-dry until they turn dark golden-yellow in colour. The dried flowers are now suitable as food or for sale: they are usually fried and then pounded into flour for making bread.

The lowly bean is another seasonal vegetable which has a festival dedicated to it. Planted during early monsoons, it starts flowering from October onwards—which is when the Koya tribals celebrate their bean festival, the Chiquid Pendum. A day before the festival, villagers contribute rice, chickens and eggs. The local priest draws six rooms on the floor with the rice. He places the eggs and a single bean seed in each room. The chickens are sacrificed and the blood is smeared over the eggs and beans in each of the rooms.
This is how the beans festival begins, and thereafter all are officially permitted to eat beans till the end
of the season.
In Malkangiri, Odisha, Marka Pendum is celebrated during the months of March-April by tribals. In this festival, mangoes are worshipped along with the household deities. Village headmen direct local priests in a formal meeting to prepare all villagers for the celebration. After the celebration of Marka Pendum, all are free to pluck mangoes. If someone plucks or eats mangoes before the ceremony, it is believed that such a person shall be killed by a tiger, or die of other causes.
     
Lohri is what we are talking of here. Signalling the onset of the harvest season in Punjab, Lohri is traditionally celebrated on the winter solstice. It also marks the end of the coldest month of the year as the earth starts its descent towards the sun.
Bonfires are lit and people gather around them for warmth, conversation and eating foods like gajak, chikki, puffed rice, popcorn, rorhi and peanuts. In fact, the name Lohri comes from the til (sesame seeds) and rorhi (jaggery) traditionally eaten on this day. Most of these foods have a high content of proteins, oils, fats and carbohydrates—they help keep people warm.
Makar Sankranti is believed to mark the transition of the sun into the Makara rashi (the zodiac sign of Capricorn). The day is traditionally considered a marker of the arrival of spring and thus, the harvest season, especially in northern India. It is one of the few festivals which have a fixed date—January 14/15. In Bihar, the rice crop is still new enough and sugarcane is ripening in the fields around this time. The festive food, therefore, is dahi-chura, a delicious concoction of beaten rice (chura) and curd. Sugar/jaggery and sesame preparations—such as til laddus or tilkut—are also relished. Basant Panchami is celebrated to welcome spring in many parts of northern India, usually in late January or early February. While large parts of northern and eastern India celebrate it by workshipping the goddess of learning Saraswati, in Himachal Pradesh it is celebrated by performing a ritual cleansing of households and worshipping the clan gods and goddesses. Kesar halwa and kheer are prepared, marking the cusp of winter and spring. The season’s tori (ridge gourd) and the ber (Indian jujube) are also introduced into the diet on this occasion.
     
In mid-April, it is customary in Bihar to feed Brahmins with sattu (ground parched barley), tikorha (raw mangoes) and water, and to give alms. This feast is called the “satuain” or “satuani”. Not surprisingly, this is the time when mangoes start appearing on branches and the chana (chickpea) and barley crops are fresh—these are coarsely ground to make the sattu, a staple high-protein food of this region that is also used to prepare cooling drinks in the summer that follows. Chhath is the only Vedic festival dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya and Chhathi Maiyya (the ancient Vedic goddess Usha). It is celebrated in October–November, mainly in the eastern Gangetic plains (Bihar, eastern UP) and Nepal. What we all look out for during chhath is the delectable thekua, the dry sweet made from wheat flour, chasni (melted sugar) or jaggery and ghee. Cardamom is sometimes added to enhance the taste. Once the dough is ready, it is deep fried in ghee or vegetable oil till it becomes reddish brown. It is soft when hot but hardens after it cools. It needs no preservatives and it can be stored for several days. This is also the time when the season’s first singharas (water caltrops) and sharifas (custard apples) are eaten. Thai Pongal is a Tamil harvest festival celebrated over four days, usually in January. It marks the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards (the Uttarayanam). It also corresponds to the entry of the sun into the 10th house of the Indian zodiac, Makara or Capricorn (see Makar Sankranti). The festival is primarily celebrated to convey appreciation to the sun god for providing the energy for agriculture. An important part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the sun.
     

Ugadi is celebrated in March-April in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. It is believed that Brahma, the creator in the Hindu pantheon of gods, started creation on this day. The ancient mathematician Bhaskaracharya has also proclaimed the Ugadi day as the beginning of the new year, new month and new day. The onset of spring marks a beginning of new life with plants acquiring fresh life, shoots and leaves.


What do we eat on Ugadi? In Karnataka, a special dish called obbattu or holige is prepared. It consists of a filling (gram and jaggery or sugar boiled and made into a paste), stuffed in a flat roti-like bread. It is usually eaten hot or cold with ghee or milk topping or coconut milk. In Andhra Pradesh, a dish called bobbattu is prepared; Telangana has named this dish bhakshalu. Gram, sugarcane and milk are in abundance in this season. Another festive food marking the moment is the bevu-bella or Ugadi pachhadi. It is a mixture consisting of jaggery (for sweetness, signifying happiness); neem buds and flowers (for bitterness, signifying sadness); green chillis or pepper (for hot taste, signifying anger); salt (signifying fear); tamarind juice (for sourness, signifying disgust); and unripe mangoes (for its tang, signifying surprise).


Every year, festivals teach us to ring in the new with renewed vigour. Amidst all their revelry and merrymaking and piety, they also tell us some essential truths: that mother Nature brings us a bounty which is wholesome. And they tell us how closely our lives and lifestyles – our survival, even – are linked to biodiversity and nature and the environment...

     

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Fest Food