Slanting rays of the sun shining on your face, a soft blanket spread over your legs, a book in your hand, and a plate of your favourite food beside you. No, we are not describing an Instagram post here; we are talking about an ideal winter day.
Winter, in India, happens to be special, and why not? It is the time when everything is more beautiful—the sun is soft, the breeze is cool, the gardens are blooming, and, most importantly, the food is great. While Makki Roti, Gajar Halwa, Gobhi Parathas, Methi Thepla, and Undhiyu have their fair share of fame as winter specials, winter cuisine in India goes much beyond—every region is a treasure trove of age-old recipes that prepare you to face the changing seasons.
Legumes of the North.
Come winter and every house in Himachal smells of Teliya Mah and Khatti Meat. “Teliya mah is a simple dish made by boiling black lentils and tempering them with ginger, garlic, and, onions. The most important ingredient, however, is raw mustard oil added in the end.” Says Shikha Sharma, an HR executive, who hails from Himachal and routinely cooks the dal in her kitchen. “The dal is eaten with Khatti Meat – a preparation of mutton with dry mango powder – and steamed rice. “There are greens too; mostly Pahadi Palak cooked with Saunf, or Dill as we call it ” she adds. The dal, mutton, greens, and rice make for a robust meal and help combat the bone numbing Himachali winters.
In Uttar Pradesh, the season is celebrated with fresh vegetables, especially peas. Traditionally available only during the winter, peas taste wonderful and are versatile. Chunki matar, made by tempering shelled peas in cumin and seasoning with salt and dry mango powder, is a much loved breakfast item. It is eaten with aloo tikkis and green chutney as New Year special breakfast or by itself with evening tea.
The peas are also made into a rich curry called nimona. Cooked along with select spices, wadis, and potatoes; eaten with rice and ghee. Nimona nourishes the body with essential minerals, fats, vitamins, and energy to fight the biting cold of the Gangetic planes. Needless to add that it is super delicious too.
The hidden gem of winter food in the Hindi heartland, however, is Malai Makkhan, or Mallaiyo of Benaras and Daulat-ki-Chaat of Old Delhi. This airy delight is neither butter nor cream, but a soufflé made of milk foam. The dew of winter morning is an essential ingredient of this soufflé – no dew, no Makhan Malai. Step out in a foggy morning and you will be rewarded with the calls of a makkhan malai wala selling this delicate sweet in the rugged lanes of UP.
A stark contrast to the bone chilling, mind numbing winter of the north, winter down south is short and swift, and passes by before one can pull out the quilts. That does not deter the southern states from creating special winter menus and laying out lavish offerings to winter God. The ingredients are local and seasonal; the recipes are eternal. Kollu Rasam of Tamil Nadu and Ulavacharu of Andhra made with horse gram, a seasonal produce, are two such dishes.
Then there is the Dappalam, a curry made with tamarind and seasonal vegetables eaten with rice, and Kadamba Kootu, made with lentils and 24 different types of seasonal vegetables. Eaten as a side dish with pongal, it brings together all that winters stand for in Tamil Nadu.
Millets of the West.
If the North and South of India take pride in their colorful vegetables, fresh greens, and unique sweets, Millets are celebrated passionately in the west.
“Bajre ka khichda is cooked throughout winter in every household in Rajasthan. It is eaten with spoonfuls of ghee and powdered sugar. Rich in fiber, amino acids, fats, and minerals, it is a high-energy food and helps your body face the intense dry winters,” says Amisha Dadheech, a homemaker from the capital of the desert state. Then there is Shakarkand ki Rabri, traditionally consumed by the dessert travelers and gypsies but a favourite of the city folks too. The sweet potatoes and milk together provide nourishment and act as an immunity builder.
Surti Ponk, or tender sorghum from Surat, is among the most famous winter foods of Gujarat. Mixed with a variety of sev to make a bhel like mixture, it is cherished as a snack. In some places it is also used to make ponk vadas and ponk kheer. Then there is Khichdo, a thick sweet pudding, made with broken wheat, thickened milk and dry fruits. Methi nu Pak, Ubadhyu, Kachariyu, Baajri na vada – the list of Gujrati winter specialties goes on.
Far away from Gujrat, Assam awaits winters with a bated breath. “In Assam, winter is the season for Duck meat. The Ducks, Assamese believe, are fatter and healthier at this time and Hanhor Mangxo Kumora, a duck curry with ash gourd, is cooked in every household.” informs Naju Medhi, who hails from the state and regularly hosts her friends to Assamese delicacies of the season.
The Assamese pride however is Pitha or Pithe – various kinds of crepes, dumplings, and pancakes made with rice, jaggery, flour, sesame, and milk. Making them is an art, eating them is a pleasure.
No one enjoys the winters quite like the Bengalis though. In the sleepy lanes of Calcutta, the season is announced with a liquid gold called Nolen Gur. Made of date palm, this runny jaggery is considered the elixir of life. Through the winter moiras (sweet makers) create luscious rosogullas and sondesh out of it; housewives use it to dole out bowls of gurer payesh, narus, and Bengali versions of the Pitha.
There is savory too, of course – crispy kadhaishutir kachuris made with peas, phulkopir singara made of cauliflowers, and bandhakopir pakoda made with cabbage. Perfectly fried and deliciously spicy, these compliment the sweetness of nolen gur just like the beautiful winter food compliments the chilly winter.
This post first appeared in CondeNast Traveller.