Have you heard of Champa Shashthi? In my Maharashtrian side of the family it is associated with a ceremonial pooja the beginnings of which are somewhat obscure. This winter I was visiting friends who celebrate this day with special prayers. In their family, the day of the pooja marks the end of a period of abstaining from certain foods such as eggs and meat, and brinjals (eggplant). Minor ceremonies are observed on the two days preceding Shashthi as well.
The celebration of this festival in our family has an interesting story. This festival is not traditional to the Konkanasth Brahmin community to which my husband’s family belongs. A long time ago, and I mean a really long time ago, traveling was an activity associated with uncertainty, hardship, and unknown risks, undertaken only for essential business or pilgrimage. At such a time, a family embarking on one such pilgrimage handed over the Champa Shashthi Puja to their neighbour and friend in the village, V’s ancestor, like a precious thing for safekeeping. They never returned to claim it back, and that is how we have this untraditional ritual as our heritage. Our family continues to fulfill a promise made a very long time ago. I remember my mother-in-law asking me if she should perform the udyapan, a special puja to mark the end, but I assured her I wanted it to continue. How could I not want to be part of this beautiful legend, our very own legend!
We, my husband, son, and I, are hardly religious people but I do believe that without religion, you may end up distancing yourself from what is your culture. Food is very strongly tied to culture and religion. One day, several years back, I realised we had not cooked sabudana khichdi in a very long time (years!). Since my mother-in-law’s passing no one in the family was observing any fasts anymore! We brought back the Janmashtami fast and now observe it as a family. The much loved sabudana khichdi is on the menu at least once a year.
Champa Shashthi falls on the sixth day of the bright half of the Hindu month of Margashirsha, usually coinciding with the first half of December. Coincidentally, this day is also my Dad’s birthday! Since I married into the family, he has become the guest of honour at the ceremonial lunch. There is a set menu for lunch on this day: sada varan-bhat, bharit (raita made with pumpkin, or sometimes with eggplant), cabbage pakoras (surely my MIL’s contribution?), a bit of puran, puran poli, katachi amti, and potato bhaji. The first thing put on the thali, starting from the left, is a pinch of salt. Also placed on this side is coconut chutney, bharit, and a wedge of lime with the pakoras also adjusted somewhere there. In the front part of the thali is served a small mound of steamed rice topped with hot sada varan and a spoon of ghee. At the top center of the thali is placed a katori of katachi amti, with the potato bhaji to the right of it. There is another interesting ritual to the serving. Three thalis are prepared as an offering: the first with one serving of each of the items on the menu, the second with two of each, and the third with three of each! After offering prasad to the Gods, the first thali is served to the head of the household, the second thali to the invited Brahmin, and the third thali (with the three servings) is meant for the house-help.
As with any puja, the food is cooked fresh. This means an early start to the day. Making puran poli is the most elaborate element in this traditional meal. I soak the dal for the puran the night before and it is the first thing I cook in the morning. After this initial cooking, the dal is put back on the fire with sugar added. This is cooked down till thick and then passed through a food-mill to give a smooth paste. These days I use an immersion blender to puree the mix but the results from a food-mill are definitely superior. The cooled paste is formed into small balls of puran that become the stuffing for puran poli. Bits of dal caught in the mesh of the food-mill and the rinse water from washing the food-mill and the puran pan is used to make the absolutely divine katachi amti, an intensely sweet, soupy, spicy accompaniment to this traditional meal.
Making puran poli requires a little skill (comes with practice!), and needs time and patience. You are a very lucky person if you have someone who can make it for you or if you can purchase it from home-cooks, as you can in Bombay and Pune. This recipe makes 30 puran polis; if you are making this for the first time, I suggest you halve the recipe so that the process goes faster and you are less inclined to throw in the towel. If an opportunity presents, watch someone making these; that will demystify the steps. The slideshow should help too. If you are adept at making stuffed paranthas, then this is just a teeny step up.
Puran poli is the traditional sweet on Holi in many Maharashtrian homes, and this post comes well in time for that. Karnataka and Andhra have their own variations. Some recipes use jaggery in place of sugar, and the spicing can be different. I make it just like my mother-in-law did.
Happy Holi, everyone!
For the puran:
2 C chana dal, soaked for at least 3 hours
2 C sugar
1 t powdered cardamom seeds
Dough for the poli:
2 C very fine atta, or all purpose flour (or a mix of the two)
2 T oil
rice flour for dusting
Cover the dal with half-inch of water and cook in the pressure cooker till tender, about 15min. Drain the cooked dal to remove any extra water. Transfer the dal to a heavy bottom pan, add sugar, and put the mixture back on the fire. Cook stirring continuously till the paste has thickened and will hold shape on cooling. The mixture splatters a lot as it bubbles, so take care to protect your hand as you stir. Mix in the powdered cardamom. Once the mixture has cooled a little, pass it through a food-mill. When the paste has cooled completely, form into balls about 1″ across. Clean and rinse the food-mill and the puran pan, reserving all the washing liquid and any undercooked dal caught in the food-mill to make katachi amti (recipe to follow). Puran may be prepared a day ahead.
Preparing the dough:
Mix the oil into the flour and using water make a very soft and stretchy dough. The dough is much softer than that for regular roti which makes it easy to roll very thin. Let rest 20 minutes. Knead a little, adding more water if required to get the right consistency – it is stretchy without being sticky. Smear the dough with a little oil and place about a teaspoon full of salt on the side.
Making puran poli:
Dip your fingers into oil, and then into the salt, and pinch of a small piece of the dough, about the size that you do for a small roti. Press it into the rice flour and make a depression into the ball, spreading it a little as you go, between your thumbs and fingers. Place a ball of puran into the depression and coax the dough over, and around to enclose the puran. This is where having a very soft dough helps – it stretches and gives easily to wrap around the ball of puran. Press flat. Dust the board liberally and gently roll the poli, turning it slightly as you roll. Roll as thin as you can, the dough ends up making an almost translucent covering for the sweet dal stuffing. Brush off any extra flour from the poli. Gently transfer the poli to a medium-hot tava (griddle), using the rolling pin as a support if needed. Cook for a minute till the poli develops golden spots. Flip and cook on the other side. The poli will usually puff up. Using a soft cloth brush off any flour that might be on the poli. Fold over and remove to cool on kitchen paper. Brush off any flour that may have found its way to the tava before cooking the next poli. You might need to adjust the heat up or down to cook the polis just right: they should have golden spots not black. Store the cooled polis in an airtight container. They can stay at room temperature for two days. Refrigerate if you are planning to eat them over the week.
To serve, spread a spoonful or more of melted ghee and enjoy! Some people like to dip them in cold milk, but soaked in ghee is my preferred way.
Puran poli brings up the 200th post on the blog! Slow…but steady.