Festivals, Feasts And Foodies

Posted: October 3, 2011

Time for fireworks, festivities, family and fun! A look at the regional and seasonal variations in our festive menus and a recipe to soothe your stomach.

By Lavanya Donthamshetty

We are in the thick of festival season in India right now – the 9-days long Navratri/Dusshera is in full swing and the mother of all festivals, Deepavali is just waiting in the wings. The newspapers are full of details of Golu and Dandiya nights but for the foodies out there, it just means it is Primo Food Time! Just think of the festival fare; depending on the part of the country you live in, it could mean different types of sundal every day, varieties of payasam/kheer, crispy fried vadas…. I better stop before I drown in a puddle of drool!

Indian festivals traditionally are a celebration of what is in season. Pongal/Sankrathi food is about freshly harvested rice and sugar cane, coupled with a good old-fashioned carnival atmosphere, to celebrate that year’s bountiful harvest. The various regional New Year celebrations happen around springtime, just when the mango season starts. Thus, for Ugadi/Tamil New Year etc, we eat dishes featuring raw mangoes – manga pachadi, raw mango dal, raw mango rice etc.

Some festivals such as Rama Navami mean very simple fare – buttermilk, panakam (a jaggery- flavoured drink) and soaked split moong salad. But the grand-daddies like Deepavali, Eid and Christmas mean it is time for a massive blow out! The biggest festivals of the calendar is the time to push the boat out and the richest of dishes – sumptuous kheers, dry fruits and cakes, pulaos and biriyanis – in short, many good things featuring sugar, ghee and meat are prepared and eaten with much gusto.

But there’s nothing to beat Navratri for the sheer diversity it brings to the celebrations across the country.

In the South, where lentils and pulses hold court, a different type of sundal is made every night, garnished with freshly grated coconut and some ginger, to aid in digestion. One of my fondest childhood memories was doing the golu rounds with a big group of the neighbour children every night. We used to get dressed in our silk pavadais and go to every house that had a golu, chanting “maami, maami golu vechaa sundal, illaatti kindal!”(Translation: “Auntie, If you have a golu in the house, then give us sundal; else you will be teased mercilessly!”) Our version of ‘trick or treat’, I suppose!

In addition to the sundals, Saraswati Pooja and Vijaya Dasami days’ menus will also feature some kind of payasam, vadas (regular or dipped in yogurt) and other fritters, as specialities.

If you look at it, there is a big difference between the festival fare for those that are celebrated during the hotter parts of the year and those that fall during the cooler months. Rama Navami falls during early summer, while Deepavali, Navratri and Christmas are celebrated during the cooler months. This has a big impact on the content of the festival menu – one of the reasons why the dry fruits and other richer (read heavier) ingredients feature greatly in the winter (ish!) festivals menu.  Also, the dishes feature items that are available easily in the local area – you’ll find freshly grated coconut being used liberally in areas like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, where coconuts are found in abundance. Elsewhere, it is the dried kopra that is used, in keeping with the availability. (The diaspora can remember this and not sweat too much trying to source an ingredient next festival season and use desiccated coconut unreservedly!)

On that note, I wish my lovely readers a lovely month of festivals and would like to share this simple recipe of pirandai thuvaiyal with you to help the rich food go down a little easier. There is a story behind this thuvaiyal – apparently, in the olden days, the meal that is made for devasam or death anniversaries was ultra rich, featuring ghee (clarified butter) and many sweet dishes. It is said that ghee used to be poured onto cupped palms and drunk! One of the main sweetmeats, athirasam, was eaten broken into pieces with a massive dose of ghee poured liberally over it and mixed into it! The saying was that one such meal should keep one sated for the better part of the year! And how did it all go down so easily? All thanks to the pirandai thuvaiyal rice that was eaten as the appetizer!!

Pirandai Thuvaiyal

Ingredients

Pirandai (pic) – 250 gms (Cissus Quagrangularis – an edible stemmed vine)

Tamarind pulp – as big as a gooseberry

Urad dal – 2 tsp

Salt – to taste

Dried red chillies – 3-4

Jaggery – a tiny piece, 1”

Grated coconut – 1 tablespoon

Curry leaves

Method

1. Trim the pirandai around the edges, peel and chop roughly.

2. Roast the urad dal and dried red chillies in a teaspoon of oil. Cool.

3. Grind together with the chopped pirandai, tamarind pulp, salt, grated coconut and a smidgeon of jaggery.

4. Serve garnished with curry leaves.

On the festival days when you have a number of rich dishes awaiting your culinary pleasure, start your feast by mixing some thuvaiyal with a ladle of cooked rice and a spoonful of ghee, before making inroads into the festival menu. Your gut will thank you!

Growing pirandai in your backyard or balcony is easy, but if you can’t grow or access it at your local market, check out other tummy soothers such as inji lehyam or inji sorasam!

Mother, writer, foodie, margarita lover, Lavanya is the exception to the rule that women are

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