Rituals of feasting

Written by Anoothi Vishal | Updated: Nov 11 2012, 07:07am hrs
From a simple agrarian festival to the festival of excess, if the spirit of Diwali has changed, so have rituals surrounding festive foods. And this year, the emphasis seems to be on healthy bingeing

Food, religion and rituals go hand in hand in most ancient cultures, but more so in Indiawhere many of these traditions survive till datethan anywhere else in the world. It is inevitable then that festivals that mark important moments in the agrarian calendar see concentrated bouts of ritualistic eating of foods dubbed auspicious, which are then mandatorily prepared and consumed in homes across regions and communities.

Diwali, one of the biggest celebrations. In the subcontinent is, of course, also a harvest festival. It falls at the end of the kharif season, when the paddy crop comes home. Thus we find that it is rice, in all its forms, that assumes a large ritualistic significance as far as all the feasting goes during the five-day fest. When we were growing up, and perhaps even now in the smaller towns of northern India, the buying of kheel (unthrashed rice) and batashe was a much anticipated event. The sugar often took the form of nicely moulded animals/figures that children could admire and play with before they were placed with the diyas, worshiped and finally eaten. If kheel (that you later dry roast in a pan, and season with rock salt for an instant, low-cal snack) defined rituals in the north, it took on the form of the flattened chivda/poha in the westfried to crisp, mixed with bits of coconut (another ritualistically auspicious food; Lakshmi is seen holding it so its Diwali connection is inevitable), with nuts, tempered with turmeric (a spice with so much religious significance in Hindu homes) and curry leavesto give us another delicious Diwali staple.

And then there is kheer, one of the most popular celebratory dishes across the subcontinent, a basic milk and rice pudding that can be really elevated to a sublime delicacy if cooked on a slow fire for a long enough time. Its a must-eat food for Bhai Duj just as delicacies like meetha bhat (sweetened rice) and the various murukkus, chaklis and ribbon pakoras, et al, that float around during this festive time.

If rice is the big ingredient for Diwali, there are other quaint traditions of eating too. Yams, for instance, are supposed to be eaten on the main Lakshmi Puja night to usher in prosperity (Lakshmi, a story goes, resides in these). You can make either yam kebabs (made to approximate shami kebabs), which have grown in popularity at cocktail dos and restaurants. You can layer your rice dish with spiced-up yams (thats a Rajasthani preparation) or you can make a thick curry like they do in my home each Diwali, carefully cleaning and frying the yam slices first so that the throat does not get all itchy.

Yams (suran, zimikand or ratalu, as it is commonly called) belong to an old family of root vegetables in India, thriving in our tropical climes. But they may as well be West African in their origin (Jamaican rituals still use these). On the other hand, with trade and cultural exchanges, it is inevitable that palates, habits and finally rituals of cooking and eating change. And nothing is more indicative of this give and take with the larger world outside our homes/communities/regions than the preponderance of the karanji/gujiya as a festive sweet in our midst.

Like the samosa, the gujiya most probably is fusion fooda medieval addition to our line-up of mandatorily-made Diwali sweets. Filo-encased sweets infused with nuts is clearly an Arabic/Turkish/ and thus Greek tradition. We see that in the baklava as much as we see it in the regional mezze. In India, the samosa is the most celebrated offspring of this cultural mishmash. But the gujiya is as worthy a successor, the maida shell enclosing either rich khoya flavoured with cardamom, raisins and nuts or grated fresh coconut.

Today, of course, such fusion of food and culture is much more frequent. We live in a global village and Diwali has morphed from being a simple agrarian beginning of a new cycle to a festival of glitz and glamour of almost bottomless consumption and excess. From rare single malts to Dom Perignon, from single origin chocolates to Middle-Eastern desserts, from Avadhi biryanis and qormas to Spanish tapas served up on card party menus, everything can come with a Diwali special tag. The past couple of years have seen an explosion of what we dub fusion sweetsaka doda barfi cheese cakes, shrikhand tarts, chocolate ras malaiand so on during this time replacing many of the traditional dishes. Purists may rue the change but really it stems from growing awareness and exposure to global cuisines and creativity that has always been the hallmark of the Indian kitchen.

This year, the accent seems to be on healthy bingeing, as if the two were not mutually exclusive concepts! The concern with the origin and provenance of food and how healthy and ecologically sustainable it is is quite the chic, global dining phenomenon of the moment (though many of these concerns are perfectly valid). So there is no reason why we should not, for instance, ditch that refined flour and artery-clogging fats for healthier festive eats like the eggless yoghurt cake or oatmeal cake that the now in-vogue home/artesnal bakeries are claiming as their specialities.

I found a recipe for yoghurt brownies (see box) incorporating olive oil (!) instead of eggs and butter at Dessert Carte, a small guilt-free place that has opened in Delhi, offering home-made desserts. Serve these brownies on Diwali instead of those barfis!

For your cards parties, it is a smart idea to do grills and kebabsbut with a twist. Use some refreshing new flavours to globalise our traditional tidbits. You can make a prune relish for instance (kind of like a meethi chutney) and drizzle it over seekh kebabs, serve up fried aloo chaat in readymade tart shells or enclosed in wontons, do a different bhel with Japanese BBQ sauce, paneer tikkas marinated in pesto and so on. If Lakshmi rules Diwali, so does Ganeshathe god of small, wise, creative things!

The writer is a columnist with FE