Another Uttaran/Makar Sankranti has come and gone. The tell-tale signs, though, will stay for months: The deadly kite strings will continue to float around trees, homes, electric cables lakes and ponds, torn kites will litter the streets, after drifting for miles and injuring countless birds in flight. Overnight, I feel a subtle change in season although technically it is still winter.
Makar Sankranti is one festival whose date—14 January—has stayed constant for the past century. On winter equinox, the sun moves from the Tropic of Capricorn (Dakshinayan) to the Tropic of Cancer (Uttarayan), giving the festival its name in Gujarat, Uttaran. The days grow longer and warmer and the migratory birds gear up to make their long way back to their spring and summer destinations.
There are myriad reasons for celebrating Makar Sankranti: Agriculture, climate and local culture play an important role. The Aryans apparently celebrated it as it marked the onset of the harvest season. In an episode of the Mahabharata, Bhishma Pitamah lingered on till Uttrarayan after being wounded in the war so he could attain moksha at an auspicious time.
Being a major harvest season festival all over India and known by various regional names—Pongal, Uzhavar Thirunal, Maghi, Lohri, Magh Bihu, Bhogal Bihu, Poush Sankranti and Maghe Sakrati in Nepal —food is, of course, a central part of the festival. Sesame, jaggery/gur, rice and millets are some of the mainstays, depending on your location: Tilguls (sesame laddus) and chiki (brittle) in Maharashtra and Gujarat, pithey (rice flour sweets) in Bengal, khichadi in Bihar, the list goes on.
At home, my mother started a tradition of a rustic, earthy, wholesome savoury Bajra no Khichdo, using millets from our farm, as well as a sweet faada no khichdo, with organically grown wheat. Plump but tender pigeon peas/tuver fresh off the plant, luscious lilu lasan (garlic greens) and just-harvested turmeric root—all winter delicacies in my part of the country—add to the down-to-earth but delicious and comforting savoury millet khichda. Cooked on a sigri/coal-fired stove, it makes for a wonderful Uttaran lunch, served with a thick buttermilk/raita.
The raita is flavoured with a green chutney using coriander and garlic greens, green chilli, ginger and roasted gram. This is then “smoke-seasoned”, or flavoured with dhunaar. A small cup/container is made with a layer or two of an onion and placed on the raita. Then a glowing charcoal is dropped into it and a little ghee is poured over it and the whole container is quickly covered for 10 minutes. Dhunaar adds a delicate aroma to the raita, which pairs very well with the humble but wholesome khichda.
Here’s the recipe:
My mother’s special Makar Sankranti bajra khichda with fresh garlic greens and fresh tuvar. It’s best made on a sigri. Quantities are approximate.
4-and half katoris bajra
1 and half katoris ghee
Two 2-inch sticks cinnamon
A few cloves
A few tejpatta
2 and half katoris yellow moong dal
Fresh grated turmeric root or 2tsp haldi powder
1 katori rice
250gm garlic greens including the white bulbs, washed well and finely chopped
1kg fresh tuvar beans/arhar, seeds removed and washed well
3 or 4 green chillies, as per taste, broken into a few pieces each
Salt to taste
About 20-25 katoris of hot water or more, as the khichda should be semi-liquidy
Wash and soak the bajra overnight. Drain the water and spread the bajra to dry on a clean, dry cloth. Once it’s completely dry, break down the grain in a mixer (one or two pulses) but do not powder it.
In a big pot, add about a katori of ghee. Add the cinnamon, cloves and tejpatta. Let them crackle. Add the moong dal and gently roast till the colour begins to change. Add the grated haldi or haldi powder.
Then add the broken bajra and gently stir and roast well. Add hot water and rice and cover and cook on medium heat till almost done.
Then add the tuvar seeds. When they are cooked through, add the garlic greens, stir and cook covered for 5 minutes or so. Remove vessel from heat and keep it covered for about 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.