Kitchens were mostly shut. People were either seen in pooja pandals or dandiya halls. Navarathri festival that concluded a couple of days ago, is traditionally more about restrained eating and fasting rather than indulgence.
“There is no special food or sweets,” says Madhuri Shah, a Gujarati settled in Chennai. “Most of them fast and just take fruits on all the nine days. Others make a few dishes using sago and rajgira atta,” says the housewife. While sago, a low-calorie food, is used to make vadas and khichdis in a Gujarati household during this festive season, rajgira dough that is made from the seeds of amaranth is used for making puris. Yet another ingredient which tops the shopping list around this time is suran or yam. “There is suran ki sabji, suran ka cutlet and suran ka wafer,” she says.
Yam is again a low fat- low sugar food. Low on food, high on celebrations — Gujaratis seem to follow this motto with their dandiya and garba nights, which end with a bite of traditional sweets that are given as prasad. Ameeta Agnihotri, a food critic, says, “Kopra Paak, a burfi made using fresh coconuts, is given on the last day in the ladies dandiya and sheeraa, a sweet dish made of roasted semolina or rava is given on the first day in the men’s dandiya.”
The celebrations, however, seem to be on a subtle note for those from Maharashtra. “We don’t have any dance or loud celebration, for us it is all about connecting to Mataaji,” says Manisha, a Maharashtrian. Dedicating all the nine days to meditation and aarti, she says that she breaks her day’s fast with chapathis or rice mixed with turmeric. The palate seems to get some flavour on Maha Navami, the ninth day of the festival, when they prepare puran poli, a delicacy made of maida and ground bengal gram dough stuffed with jaggery and kesar or besan poli, the same with besan flour roast.
“The dish that is specific to us Marathis is chinche chi kadhi, which is made of tamarind and tastes like rasam that they make in the South,” she says.
The one ground rule for the Navrathri cuisine for Neha Amaravath, a Rajasthan-born housewife is that it should please the kids. “They love puri, channa and rava halwa. So we invite girls below six years and offer these,” she says.
“Also, since kids like sweets, we make lapsi, which is crushed wheat, mixed with ghee, milk and sugar and topped with crushed almonds and raisins,” she adds.
While a mixture of ground wheat, milk and sugar is served as kheech, the same with rice is served as kheer, or what we call payasam in the South.
The tradition of offering food to young girls extends to the Bihari community too. After pooja, a handful of boondis are served as prasad in every Bihari home. “These are small balls of sweetened Bengal gram flour,” says Priya Jha, a college professor. “Dinner is kept simple with just paranthas made of singhada atta or water chestnut, potato fried in ghee and Sabudana kheer,” she adds.
Tangential to the idea of boycotting onion, garlics or non-vegetarian food is the Bengali community, which arranged for a range of stalls outside the pandals to satisfy the gourmets. A P Chakraborty, president, Bengal Association, T Nagar, says, “The celebrations kickstart on the fifth day, wherein families get together to enjoy Anandmela, where several dishes prepared by the ladies of the association are served.”
The menu usually has both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Labanga Latika, a traditional Bengali dish — puris stuffed with a mix of sugar, coconut and milk, Pati Shapta, thin-layered rice-flour crepes with thick kheer filling and Mangsher Ghugni, channa cooked with chopped mutton and macher chop, Bengali style fish croquette, are some of the dishes included in the menu.
Cooks are specially brought from Kolkata to prepare the authentic Begun Bhaja, fried thick slices of brinjal in mustard oil, cholar daal or chana daal and Bengali-style biriyani that is yellow and tastes sweetish with little spice and potatoes. Rupam Das, a member of the Bengal Association in Besant Nagar says, “The stalls also served a range of sweets that include sandesh, made of paneer and cheese, rosogolla, kalo jam or gulab jamun, mishthi doi and jalebi. “Tamilians, however, give sweets a miss. Instead it is chickpeas, moong dal, channa dal, peas, rajma, green gram dal, or peanuts are served as sundal. Divya Ganesh, an IT employee says, “It is cooked with lentils or beans and tempered with mustard seeds, urad dal and chillies. But unlike the ones sold on streets, it is served without onions.”