When everyday offers a feast, what happens to ritual feasting? Our food blogger on the the kheer, gul gulle and shinni that are endangered species on our plates today
Every full moon night, in a candy-less land far far away, the moon would be worshipped and, as a reward for lunar piety, a little treat would be on the menu. The treat differed from family to family, but rice pudding featured high on the list of favourites, often kept out at night covered with muslin to receive blessings directly from the moon. Some families roasted wholewheat flour with ghee and sugar and piled it in a sandy hill and studded it with airy light sugar puffs and sliced bananas, while yet others roasted some nuts and coconuts, poured over molten sugar and set them in tiny, diamond-shaped brittle.
God, I miss that candy-less land far far away and I miss puranmashi puja and the prasad we used to hop about in a lather of impatience to get our hands on: Kheer made with rice or makhana, choorma with batasha that melted in a sandy delicious gloop on your tongue and sometimes, chiraunji barfi set in copper thalis. In the restaurant-and-take-out-less landscape of utter deprivation and want that was our youth, these were the small treats that dotted our lives and which we stumbled upon with delight, tiny little benedictions from a middle-class socialist God.
Today, when every restaurant and dhaba is clambering up on the gravy train of saintliness and every fast and every festival has a “special thali" to match, these then are the yummies that are fast vanishing. Caught somewhere in the no man’s land of commercial unviability and domestic neglect, they are the microscopic feasts that the restaurant industry and the religious police forgot. The tiny festivals and the small celebration foods that are worth no one’s while to hijack, the little mouthfuls of ritual sumptuousness that are so humble they can only be made at home and yet are delicious enough to have shone like little beacons in the junkfood-and-processed-sugar-less-wasteland of our ’70s and ’80s childhood.
So, on every Basant Panchami, as a nod to the onset of spring, a tiny little handkerchief would be dyed yellow and tucked discreetly into our school uniform. For enduring this sartorial hardship, we were rewarded with yummy meetha chawal at lunch: rice, dyed yellow with saffron, sweetened with gur and studded with tiny pieces of coconuts and raisins. And every Makar Sakranti, officially supposed to herald the last day of the freezing winter cold, was a ritual feast of all the “warming" foods one can’t really chow down on in the hot summer months: rich, fragrant khichri made with whole urad dal and rice, anointed with rivers of ghee, and til chutney and raita, coloured a lurid green by the addition of bathua. Til laddoos that crumbled gloriously in the mouth (which we were forbidden from being eaten anywhere except at the table, because they crumbled indiscriminately) finished up the end-of-winter feast.
My grandmother had a nice little private understanding going with God: It was an arrangement between two professionals who respect each other and engage only at a wary distance. Essentially, my grandmother’s only ritual propitiation to a power greater than her’s was to provide God with yummies from her kitchen. So, every birthday or anniversary or exam result day or puja, she whipped up these amazing pakoras and ostentatiously placed the first ones in her shrine room. These used to once be standard in every pahadi home at every auspicious occasion and are today sadly missed since very few people have the requisite kitchen skills to make them: urad dal pakoras with a donut-like hole in the centre, golden and crisp with an imprint of white and brown sesame seeds on the outside and fluffy as a warm steaming pillow on the inside.
Every home and every family had their own versions of these humble, unpretentious feasts that are today on the endangered list. Increasing pressure on the domestic kitchen, a higher emphasis on more cosmopolitan culinary skills (you can’t really wow dinner party guests with gota sheddho and shinni, be honest) coupled with the loss of significance or importance of the little rituals or festivals they marked, have put these little feasts in hospital. But what has pushed them to the brink of extinction is the easy availability of treats on tap (or app if you want to get technical). Today on Durga puja, how may people opt for khichuri with labra and tomato chutney and how many simply order some pepperoni pizza? On Diwali, which child sidles up to the shrine room when the adults are playing cards to steal bowls full of kheel batasha and khilona (the crude sugar animals we used to adore) when the fridge is groaning with Lindt chocolates and the choicest mithai boxes and cookie tins are lying open for plunder?
Something clearly is being lost as we speak, and it’s just not the jobs of the makers of the sugar khilona. For my part, I am determined to fight back and reclaim at least some of the feasting owed to me. All I need is a list of festivals and the dishes and recipes that go with them, so that I can start the process of curation and creation and ritual demolition. Being an equal opportunity feaster and treater, I’m open to suggestions from everyone. So a huge request to all: Please, please, please be generous enough to share with me as many feasts and treats and recipes as you can remember from your own family tradition.
Something with some ghee and sugar or gur would be great. Things involving light and fragrant vegetables would be a real treat and those with meat and fish would be fabulous. Fried things, snacky things, spicy things, prasad, entire meals, anything, as long as the only rituals involved are the cooking and the eating, I’m willing to sacrifice myself at the altar of the forgotten feast. What I’d ideally like is an entire year full of these ritual foods: There’s got to be at least 365 half forgotten treat traditions I can adopt and slurp my way through. And then repeat. Year after year after delicious year.
It’s a hard job, I know, but someone’s got to do it.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker. Desperately seeking a trust fund. Applications welcome.