There is this chunky peanut chutney from the Marathwada region of Maharashtra that’s a bit like a well-kept secret, a hidden gem, in a plethora of side dishes served all over Western and Southern India. Maharashtra has a portion of the thali reserved for these itsy-bitsy additions to the daily meal that make them special. Davi kadey, Marathi for on-the left-side, is the side of the thali reserved for a multitude of condiments, from salt to pickles, from a wedge of lime to chutneys of all kinds, a side that is almost completely missing in my Kashmiri thali. Exceptions only prove the rule. I think we allowed rice to find its way into that corner as well.
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. Continue reading “Puran poli – the long story”→
Haerath mubarak to my Kashmiri readers, and a very happy Shivratri to the rest of you! There was much feasting at my mom’s last night where we gathered for Mahashivratri puja. Shivratri is the most important festivals for the Kashmiri Pandit community. The festival marks the end of winter in Kashmir. The preparations start weeks in advance and culminate in the final three days ending with doon pooza (walnut puja!) on Phalgun amavasya, which is tomorrow. [Read more about it here and here] For us, today is Salam, the day after Shivratri, the day the youngsters receive Shivratri kharcha (spending money!) from the elders in the family. We got it last night itself from my father!
The rituals are quite elaborate and food and cooking is an integral part. Every family has their traditions and the ceremonies are not complete without the cooking of certain dishes. In the puja last night we had vatuks (vessels for water) that symbolised Lord Shiva and his wife-to-be, Parvati, who were married in the presence of other gods and invitees (represented, in their turn, by smaller vatuks). Only the eldest family member observes a fast while the rest feast. Walnuts are soaked in another vessel, to which are offered tiny bits of fresh food from the meals cooked everyday. Meat and fish are traditional and are part of the puja offerings. In the last 25 years, since their relocation from the Valley, Kashmiri Pandits, on finding themselves amongst Vaishnavites, have started observing vegetarianism during this festival. In deference to tradition, my mother cooked fish the day before Shivratri. Last night’s menu for the Shiv-Parvati wedding: rajma, paneer kaliya, mujj chetin, dum-olu, palak-matar, steamed rice, roti (for the non-Kashmiris!), and modur polav.
For many of us dal-chaval constitutes the ultimate comfort food. It is hard to come up with food that is simpler or more satiating. One such version of dal-chaval is the Maharashrian sada varan-bhat.
Many Sundays during our courting days I would visit V at his home for lunch. Varan-bhat was frequently on the menu – it was a Sunday favorite with the family. Sunday used to be the day of the weekly veggie shopping from the Shahadra mandi in the days before Mother’s Dairy Fruit and Vegetable Shops and Big Apple marts appeared in every neighbourhood. Often I would arrive to find V and his father still not back from the market. With fresh vegetables yet to arrive for re-stocking the fridge, varan-bhat must have been not only the logical meal but also one that would allow time needed for the sorting of the soon-to-arrive green-groceries. I remember my MIL following a regimen of washing and drip-drying all the vegetables before stocking them for the week. Bundles of greens (spinach, coriander, and methi) were untied, picked over to remove damp or rotting stems, and then packed into bags; other vegetables were trimmed and washed and spread on a cloth to dry off for a while. If I got there before it was all done, I too would lend a helping hand. That is when I learnt to do a quick job of picking methi (hold a fistful of the leafy-stems in one hand and pull at the stem-ends with the other!), and that stems could be left in while using green coriander!