It is that time of the year again: Christmas has come and gone, the long-awaited holidays have ended, New Year is already here; and the herculean list of resolutions on your wall is making you even more forlorn every passing day. And if any kind of a diet was on your list, you can forget about it with the coming winter festivals that India has been celebrating long before Christmas and New Year.
Pongal, Bihu, Lohri, Khichdi, Makar Sankranti, the names are many but the significance is one — to thank the universe for a bountiful harvest. Like all harvest festivals around the world, this one is centered around food too. If you were busy indulging in varieties of pongal and payasam, it’s time to figure out what the rest of the country’s been feasting on at the same time.
Khichdi of the North
In Punjab, the festival is celebrated on the eve of Makar Sankranti as Lohri. Friends and families gather together, light bonfires and celebrate with music and dance while snacking on gajjak, chikki, peanuts, and popcorn — all local seasonal harvests. The meals, which are laboriously cooked through the day by the older women of the house, typically consist of sarson ka saag and makki ki roti, accompanied by white butter and gur, or jaggery, and are often finished with a generous helping of pudding made with sugarcane juice and rice called raskheer.
Unlike Punjab, the celebration of Sankranti in Uttar Pradesh is more sober and religious. It also marks the beginning of the auspicious month of Magh, and is celebrated with a dip in the holy Ganges early in the morning. The ritual is followed by donating generous portions of black lentils and rice, along with sesame and jaggery, to the poor and needy. If you happen to be in the heart of U.P., you cannot escape the strong scent of black lentil khichdi wafting through the lanes and bylanes of its dusty towns. Such is the importance of the dish in this part, that the festival is also called Khichdi among locals.
Revelry for rice in the East
Poush Parbon happens to be one of the most celebrated days in Bengal. It is that time of the year when the whole family gathers around the rannaghar, or the kitchen, in anticipation of pitha, a Bengali version of the crepe. The crepe, or pitha, made with rice flour, and filled with coconut, date palm jaggery, and sometimes, reduced milk, is a delicacy unparalleled in its texture and flavour. The main meal, here too, is often khichdi, although not the strong black lentil version of the North, but a softer, smoother mix of vegetables, lentils and rice served with various kinds of pan-fried vegetables like aloo bhaja, begun bhaja, and ucche bhaja. (potato, brinjal and bitter gourd fries). The crispness of these bhajas complements the softness of the khichdi perfectly.
Much like Bengal, Assam also celebrates the festival with rice. A typical Bihu eve is celebrated around a big bonfire called meji, with the whole community munching on various kinds of rice fritters, also called pitha — til pitha, narikel pitha, ghila pitha — made with sesame, coconut, jaggery, and rice flour. This is followed by a lavish feast of lentils, fish, duck, various other varieties of meat like pork, chicken and mutton, along with labra, a mishmash of mixed vegetables in local spices, a mash made of roasted sweet potato, and rice. The meal is washed down with some more pitha. The most interesting part of the food, however, remains the 108 varieties of saag (greens) that are essential for the Sankranti lunch. The greens, cooked in different ways, are eaten with boiled rice and ghee, and are supposed to cleanse and strengthen your system.
Savouries from the West
Unlike the North and East, the West neither lights a fire, nor bathes in the ice-cold waters of holy rivers, but celebrates the festival by flying kites in the lukewarm rays of the winter sun. Celebrated as Uttarayan, the festival is marked by colourful kites against the azure skies of Gujarat. Scientifically, this activity helps rid the body of infections and helps pile on Vitamin D for months to come; socially, it helps one connect with the community. No connect in Gujarat can be completed without food, and food remains an equally significant part of Uttarayan. While things like jalebi, chikki, chavanu (various savoury mixtures), dhokla, and khichdi are popular, the day truly belongs to undhiyu puri. Made with green beans, new baby potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam and eggplant, with fried fenugreek dumplings added to the mushy mixture, undhiyu is prepared in a gorgeous mix of local spices and sesame oil, and cooked in a clay oven or an earthen pot. The cooking process is a treat to watch, and eating it is a celebration in itself.
We can, perhaps, hold undhiyu responsible for the failure of all New Year resolutions of dieting. If undhiyu rules the roost in Gujarat, puran poli is the flavour of the season in Maharashtra. Made with wheat flour, lentils, jaggery and cardamom, puran poli is Maharashtra’s version of the pitha. Eaten with a generous dose of ghee, this delicate amalgamation of textures and flavours is supposed to nurture both body and mind. And then there is tilgul, another version of gajak or rewari. Made with sesame seeds and jaggery, the tiny yet fortifying laddoos prepare you for the season and provide your body with strength and vitality.
Payasam and Pongal of the South
In Tamil, the word Pongal, which literally means ‘boiling over’, refers to rice cooked in milk and with jaggery. The main dish — Chakarai Pongal — is made with rice, jaggery and Bengal gram, all boiled in milk. Two varieties of Pongal — the salty one known as ‘ven pongal’ and the sweet one known as ‘Sarkkarai pongal’ — are prepared on the second day. Every household greets people with rangolis at their entrance. People wear new clothes and worship the rain, sun and farm animals.
Towns and villages in Andhra wear a festive look with colourful kites, rangolis, decorated bulls and cock fights. The three—day festival begins with Bhogi where community bonfires are lit on the streets with household waste. During this festival, the most important item that is cooked is Pongali which is a rice pudding cooked in milk. Several other special dishes are also cooked like sweet rice cake or ariselu. Animals are decorated on this auspicious day and races are organized.
In Karnataka, a special dish is prepared. The ingredients of this sweet dish Ellu are coconut, sesame seeds and sugar. It is customary for the people to exchange this sweet dish with friends, relatives and neighbors. It is a token to show that hence forth the relationship will be as sweet as Ellu with no bitterness involved. In Kerala, it is marked by a ritual of boiling rice allowing it to boil over the pot. Later it is garnished with dry fruits. Keralites believe that it is good to see this act as it bring prosperity. This delicious dish is then offered to Mother Nature thanking lord Sun and nature for providing happiness. Several other sweet dishes are also made on this day.
This piece first appeared in The Hindu.