A fresh plate

Manidipal Mandal | Updated on April 18, 2014

Food for thought: A ceremonial Seder plate for the Jewish festival of Passover. Photo: Shutterstock

Pongalo pongal: The pot of plenty bubbles over at Coimbatore. Photo: M Periasamy

Nothing marks a new year or a winter’s harvest better than a laden table

The Chinese, all over the world, just drove into the Year of the Horse with endless noodles and golden oranges with leaves intact, edible charms whose consumption ensures longevity and prosperity, like their size and shape. At Makar Sankranti, mid-January (the uncorrected date of the winter solstice in the old Hindu calendar), Bangladeshis and east Indians from Assam, Bengal and Orissa, as well as parts of Bihar and Jharkhand steamed rice cakes in an assortment of shapes and textures (pitha), thickened milk and sweetened it with coconut and the first date-palm syrup (notun gur); all first fruits of this winter’s harvest. Down South, the plentiful pot of pongal has bubbled over its abundance. By this time, the lentil soups of Italy, Hungary and Brazil have been well digested. The tiny gold-coin shape of the lentils is the first taste of the New Year’s promise of perfection and plenty. These are just some of the many magical foods that feature in cultural observances across the globe. Foods, that by their very existence or cooking, ensure their own and their cook’s continuity, and prosperity and protection of whole communities.

Down in Kochi and thereabouts, Jewish homes have been picking over their raisins for the Pesach (Passover) since the start of 2014, and will soon drink its sweet promise in the four cups of the seder next month. Each draught of seder by an adult certifies him or her a free descendant of ancestors once enslaved. The ritual drink frees him or her anew each year. A fifth cup awaits the Prophet, as Elijah might come again. And redemption will come… because the cup is there undrunk (another version of Santa’s cookies and milk that make sure he slides down nonexistent chimneys).

The Bene Israel of the ‘lost tribes’ are looking forward to making their matzoth (matzos), the unleavened crispbreads a thanksgiving and a promise. Unlike the pridefully puffed up leavened loaves, they celebrate a sense of community in hard times (the flight from Israel with no time for bread to rise) and the divine covenant to renew the people if they observe austere humility (eggless, wine-free). And so, piousness and expectation of reward are enacted on seder plates across Jewish communities. There is the sacrificial magic of the shankbone of the lamb that bleeds; the bitter herbs of the Israelites wild wanderings cleansed with salty tears of brine, just as the wandering Jew is purified by his exile and austerity; the sweet haroseth (date jam) that binds the celebrants of the feast into a community, symbolising the brick mortar used by the enslaved Israelites. And here in India, where Baghdadi Jews have settled with their sambusak, the necessity of eschewing chametz (gluten grains, which puff up with pride when leavened) will see the rolling out of rice-flour pastels, rather similar to both Northern Indian aloo samosa and Spanish empanadas.

The full moon of Holi has also come round with its celebration of unfettered liveliness, and with the liberal consumption of bhaang-laced thandai, washing down the full-moon-shaped sweet-stuffed gujiyas, in the plains from Bihar up to the capital city of Delhi.

Over among the Parsis, Navroze will see in a sweet new year with rava and falooda and the scent of rosewater rising. Wheat shoots will grow alongside. Again, both sweetness and growth are ensured by food alone, magically ensuring that the gratulatory greeting of ‘Sal Mubarak’ cannot be denied.

Meanwhile, back in Bengal, we greeted the spring with a wholesome dish, Gota Sheddho, for the health of young ’uns, the whole baby vegetables enacting the wish for similar wholeness on our children, uncut like the Chinese lucky noodle.

Gota Sheddho

Made on the day of Saraswati Pujo/ Basant Panchami to be eaten the day after (Sheetol Shosthi or the ‘Cold Shasthi’), this dish is an earthy — and super easy! — stew of whole black gram (urad) and vegetables. As with all shasthi rituals, this lunar sixth-day is all about the welfare of young children. In this case, the mother wishes her children unimpaired health by keeping her vegetables whole, because on this day, to cut and burn the seasonal fruits of the earth would be to inflict injury on the fruits of her own womb. She further sacrifices her comfort to theirs by eating the dish cold and kept (preserved!) overnight, innocent of spice but for a drizzle of hearty mustard oil. For modern non-magical eating, it goes deliciously well with a side-order of mishti doi, though the traditional accompaniment is a sour chutney of Indian plums (topakool).

Choose five from:

12 baby brinjals, with the stalks intact

6 whole new potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled

6 small sweet potatoes, scrubbed and whole

18 fresh young peapods, on the vine

12 whole pods of flat or broad beans (sheem) or string beans (borboti)

24 baby spinach plants, still in a bunch with the tap roots largely intact

6 baby turnips or small red radish, with tops

6 or 12 baby carrots with tops

12 tomatoes, also preferably on the vine or at least with stalks intact and green

Also: 400-500g or so of whole black gram, soaked overnight

1 Put the legumes and vegetables in a pressure cooker with enough water to cover by two fingers’ depth and bring to a rolling boil.

2 Cook on medium-low heat for the duration of about 5 whistles, or about 15 minutes.

3 Serve cold with a drizzle of raw (unrefined) mustard oil on day-old rice.

NB: For once, proportions are not of great import; add and subtract and substitute ingredients at will. Authenticity only demands the use of whole lentils or legumes of some sort if urad is unavailable, and a quintet of vegetables, each numbering in multiples of six — the legumes make six. As for seasoning, some families do add salt, sugar, turmeric and chilli powder or whole green chillies; I know of one that uses fennel seeds (great for the carminative effect on legume-heavy diets). For non-ritual purposes, go to town!

Manidipal Mandal is a travelfood writer in Delhi

Published on March 14, 2014

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