Fasting, feasting: Kunal Vijayakar on the foods that make Navratri come alive
Navratri celebrates the triumph of good over evil as people around the country celebrate the nine-day festival with a frenzy of local delicacies
No, Navratri is not celebrated to worship the goddess of dandiya, Falguni Pathak. It’s a nine-day festival that signifies the triumph of good over evil. In Bengal and in east India, it’s celebrated as Durga’s victory over the rakshasha Mahishasur. In the north and west, it’s the nine days leading up to Dusshera, when Rama vanquished Ravan. In most parts of the country, the nine days are a celebration as well as a time to reflect and give your stomach a rest.
I’ve visited many parts of the country during this festival, and the one that has left a lasting impact has been Kolkata. The outpouring of abandon and gaiety is incomparable. Of course there is devotion, but with a mammoth sense of celebration. The city is festooned with light and colour, and the images of Durga in their psychedelic glory, give divinity a sense of glamour.
As you walk down the streets of Kolkata, especially where some of the older pandals are, it can get hot sweaty and pulsating. Gariahat, in the heart of south Kolkata, and Ballygunge Cultural Association, near Rashbehari Avenue, are where pandal hopping and eating go hand in hand. It’s is quite time-honoured to, hear pujo dhaks beating out a throbbing cadence in front of the pandal on one side while hearing a long-haired singer belting out Bengali hard rock on a makeshift stage on the other side.
In Kolkata, stalls selling Bengali delicacies like egg-fried mutton kabiraji cutlets, fish rolls and mutton kebabs are popular. ( HT File Photo )
Natives and out-of-towners alike sample the chow on the streets. Stalls selling Bengali delicacies like egg-fried mutton kabiraji cutlets (flat minced spicy cutlets fried in a lacy egg coating), mangsher chop (crumb-fried mince balls), batter-fried fish and, of course, fish roll, (fish fillet stuffed with minced fish and prawn). If you are still hungry, then there’s the famous Kolkata roll (egg-fried paratha with mutton kebabs, onions and sauce), and shoitan deem directly translated as devilled eggs (boiled egg coated with spicy mutton mince). And finally, influenced by the kitchens of Tiretta bazaar and Tangra, the chowmein chorchori (noodles tossed with chicken in tomato ketchup, chilli sauce, mustard and onion).
As we head to Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, the music continues with raas, garba and dandiya. Durga pandals are all over, but the action is at the dandiya parties. Young men and women, in traditional finery, swarm open spaces with a singular motive: to let their hair down and dance. The food however takes a slightly more austere avatar. Navratri food in Gujarat and Maharashtra is vegetarian and nearly saatvik. Many foods are forbidden, especially grain like wheat, rice, besan, sooji, corn flour and millets. Onion and garlic as well as most green vegetables are prohibited too. With all the restrictions in play, it still offers a great spread.
Instead of rice and wheat there is singhade ka atta (water chestnut flour), sama ka atta (barnyard millet flour), kuttu ka atta (buckwheat flour), rajgira ka atta (amaranth flour), sabudana (tapioca pearls) and phool makhana (fox nuts). Tomatoes are considered fruit and are accepted as are raw papaya, pumpkin, bottle gourd, colocasia root, yams, raw banana and carrots. Dairy of course is saatvik approved.
The fasting season means whole menu of vraat foods. At the top of the list is sabudana khichdi, my favourite and simple to make. Sabudana or tapioca pearls are cooked in ghee, with a tempering of jeera and green chillies, soaked with heaps of sliced potato, and garnished with crushed peanuts. To me, the taste of hot, freshly made sabudana khichdi is hard to explain and impossible to resist. Other fasting dishes are kuttu atta puri, which is heavenly with sukha aloo sabzi or curd, and puris made with rajgira atta, kneaded with ripe bananas and spiced with cardamom.
Navratri food in Maharashtra is mainly vegetarian. People love thalipeeth made with a batter of soaked sabudana, water chestnut, raw banana with green chillies and coriander, and fried. ( Praful Gangurde/ HT Photo )
For those who cannot handle fried foods, the sookhi arbi or dry-cooked colocasia root, thinly sliced and shallow fried in ghee and sprinkled with ajwain, red chilli powder, cumin and amchur, is a great snack. Even a Maharashtrian style farali thalipeeth is simple to make. The pancake, made with a batter of soaked sabudana, water chestnut, raw banana or sweet potato is flavoured with green chillies and coriander, and fried. Eat them with a cool cucumber, peanut and curd salad.
This is just what the east and west offers during the season. South India cooks a variety of dishes during Navratri that are saatvik but distinctly different from the west. Like sundal: dry lentils like gram or moong or peanuts, stir- fried and tempered with coconut, curry leaves, mustard seeds and dry red chilli.
So while others clash their dandiya sticks in a frenzy, my choice of activity during Navratri is the hope that someone cooks up a frenzy of food.