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Room for one more

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 28, 2016
Delhi belly: Digestives on display at a Chennai exhibition. In many parts of India, digestives are routinely served at the end of Diwali feasts. Photo: M Karunakaran

Delhi belly: Digestives on display at a Chennai exhibition. In many parts of India, digestives are routinely served at the end of Diwali feasts. Photo: M Karunakaran   -  The Hindu

What sumptuous meal is complete without greed-fuelled decisions? Of course, these decisions require the healing touch of a good digestive afterwards

About two decades ago — around the time the Great Indian Wedding switched from celebration to spectacle — we received an invitation for a shaadi. Not content with the usual gold-on-red artwork and shiny tassels, the card featured the dinner menu as well. This listed the usual array of fancy international dishes and ghee-rich Indian specialties.

It was the last item, however, that was the most intriguing. “101 types of Mukhwas” the menu stated — conjuring up the image of a table the size of a cricket pitch laden with platters full of saunf and churans and masala golis.

I was mind-boggled then. And I remain mind-boggled now. Are there really 101 different digestive aids to quell the gurgly woes of a greedy gut? This, not even counting Eno, Pudin Hara and Digene?





Admittedly, Indians are obsessed with the digestive system. Strangers on trains chat about it. Grannies hold forth endlessly on home remedies. And anybody who’s grown up in the era of black-and-white television will remember how much screen-time was taken up by suffering, belching men rubbing large paunches — only to be rescued by a magical churan or poisonous green liquid. Just so that they could start binging all over again.

So I guess it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that every community in India has devised its very own digestive aids — and is probably stocking up on them as Diwali approaches. For there’s no two ways about it. All those mithais at 9 am, big, oily meals, and sleepy bank-holiday afternoons do contribute to a lethargic headachy feeling and a sense of kinship with those burping men of yore.

Recognising this, the Tamils have devised a special, medicinal paste called Deepavali legiyam made with ginger, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ajwain, pepper, cardamom and jaggery. As its name suggests, this spicy concoction is made only during this time of the year and is meant to keep the festival blues away. My husband — a Tamilian from Chennai — recalls that during his childhood it was often served alongside the ghee-rich mithais gorged during Diwali.

If the Tamils consume spoonfuls of the dark glutinous legiyam, the Bengalis keep their bottles of jowaner arak at hand during the happy excesses of Durga Puja. This is a vile, orange brew made from ajwain that, according to a grateful blogger, is more valuable than gold and more elusive than fairy dust.

“It’s literally a life saver for us foodies,” writes Bones, the blogger. “After a good meal, you are supposed to pour a teaspoon of this foul-tasting stuff in a cup of water and gulp it down whilst holding your breath…”

Little wonder, then, that this terrifying concoction hasn’t gained popularity in other parts of the country. Unlike those hip little paan shots popping up all over the place. Or spicy masala golis marketed under brand names like Fatafat. Or the ubiquitous Hajmola, which is even the star of a YouTube video called “Americans try Hajmola for the first time”.

Not to forget the squat plastic jars of addictive, sticky, plump masala grapes. Or those lethal churans that use Ayurveda-recommended ingredients like amla and pomegranate seeds. I still buy these from my old dry fruit shop in the heart of Crawford Market — but swish, packaged versions are crowding the counters of grocery and health-food shops these days.

Of course, paan, that favourite North Indian remedy, is available at virtually every street corner. Saucers of saunf are offered at the end of every meal by Indian restaurants great and small.

Ironically, although modern medicine has slammed paan and its use of carcinogenic substances, it has recognised fennel seeds (saunf) as a wonder food that helps to speed the digestive process and prevents indigestion and bloating. Similarly, coriander seeds (the dhana ni daal so popular with the Gujaratis) are also acknowledged both by tradition and science as a get-your-tummy-in-order fix. This explains why the Gujaratis use fennel and coriander seeds as the foundation of their numerous different, brightly coloured mukhwas.

Not all digestives are after-dinner munchies, though. Parsis drink lemongrass tea as a pick-me-up for both indigestion and sagging spirits. While Goans and coastal Maharashtrians swig endless glasses of sol kadhi — a sour, pale-pink drink made from kokum — so that the fiery vindaloos and heaps of fried fish don’t trouble their siestas. And Punjabis quaff tangy glass of jal jeera to “startle” their taste buds and get the digestive juices flowing.

The Bohras begin every meal with a pinch of salt and sometimes end it with a delicious cashew-nut-based gutka (no relation of the cancer-causing poison in a packet). The Tamilians end every meal with a serving of soothing curd-rice. The Bengalis try to work ingredients like raw papaya and banana into the meal — and my Bengali sister-in-law talks about a sour dish called ambol, often made with mangoes, which is meant to generate enough juices for efficient digestion.

How many of these glutton’s-little-helpers actually work is anybody’s guess. But as most of them are delicious anyway, you could give them a try this Diwali. And if all else fails, attempt a little self-control.

Shabnam Minwalla is a Mumbai-based journalist and food writer

Published on October 28, 2016
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