Since time immemorial, the waxing and waning of the moon have dictated eating habits across the country
Certain dishes are made during feasts and fasts that occur at specific times of the lunar cycle
From the naan nazuk and chandra kanti to kadubu and even the ubiquitous idli—our vibrant regional cuisines feature several dishes inspired by the colour and shape of the moon. Some of these culinary creations have even made it to ballads and poems, such as the one described by K.T. Achaya in the chapter “Foods Of A Royal Couple" from his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion. He cites a Kannada verse by Jaina poet Terakanambi Bommarasa, circa 1485, describing the wonders of the kadubu (a sweet, deep-fried dumpling). “The Kings," Bommarasa says, “are relishing the kadubu made of black gram: it looked like a full moon; like a mass of mist set together; as if heavenly nectar had solidified into circles; or as if the drop of moonlight had hardened."
For centuries, cooks have attempted to reproduce the likeness of the moon in their kitchens, the shimmery sheen and its various phases. There is the chandra puli, part of the age-old tradition of sweets in Bengal, which is shaped like a half-moon and stuffed with coconut. A similar sweet can be found in Assam as well—joon pitha—that is made during festivals such as Bihu. “We call the moon joon in Assam, and since the sweet is made to resemble a half-moon, it is called the joon pitha. It too is stuffed with desiccated coconut and cardamom, and then deep fried," says Guwahati-based chef Kashmiri Barkakati Nath. Yet another dish like the joon pitha is the gujiya, garnished with saffron and pistachios, and consumed by the kilo across households in the northern belt during Holi.
It is not a coincidence that these dishes are made during feasts and fasts that occur at specific times of the lunar cycle. The shape of pithas and gujiyas signifies the association with the moon. Holi, for instance, is celebrated on a full moon in early spring. In fact, since time immemorial, the waxing and waning of the moon have dictated eating habits across the country. “The phases of the moon affect tides in the seas and oceans. And since human beings are made of 70% water, the lunar cycle is bound to have an impact on metabolism. Therefore, since ancient times, people have eaten according to principles laid down by Ayurveda, in which lunar cycles have always played a significant role," says Pritha Sen, food historian and culinary consultant. According to Sen, the concept of fasts was introduced to institutionalize these principles.
In her book Feasts And Fasts: A History Of Food In India, Colleen Taylor Sen mentions the Bhavishya Purana, first composed in 500 BC, which prescribes nearly 140 fasts a year. “The eighth and eleventh days of the first half of the lunar month were cited as fast days," she writes. One of these days is ekadashi (which literally means “eleventh day" of the lunar cycle). Alka Keswani,who runs the blog Sindhi Rasoi, talks about how grains, cereals and meat are not eaten on this day, with members of the Sindhi community consuming sauri (barnyard millet) in various forms. “Sauri flour is made from samo seeds, which is then used to make rotis. This is had with a curry made with a roasted slurry of flour, to which cubed potatoes are added. This is flavoured with pepper and tamarind juice. Lotus stem too gets added to this sometimes, if available," she says.
On a day called the Prabodhini Ekadashi, or Vadhi Gyaras by the Sindhis, street-food vendors sell snacks such as the Gyarsi chaap (tawa-fried potato and arrowroot patty) and the Lahori gajar (sweet potato roundels boiled with sugar or jaggery syrup). In some households in Bengal, though, on ekadashi this fast is sometimes observed without having a single drop of water, to drain the excess fluid from the body, and is called nirjala upvas.
“Then there are two other significant days in the lunar cycle in Bengal called the Bhoot Chaturdashi, celebrated before Kali Puja, and the Chaitra Sankranti, on the last day of the spring season and the night before the new moon," says Sen. During the former, a mix of 14 greens, or chodyo shaak, is made with locally available greens such as paat pata (jute leaf) and spinach. “There is a scientific reason for that. Bhoot Chaturdashi occurs in mid-to-end autumn, just before winter. In Ayurveda, this is the season when the body is prone to infections, especially those that affect the pancreas. It is a good time to have leafy greens, full of vitamins and minerals that kill the bacteria," she says. During Chaitra Sankranti, a dish called pachan is made to aid digestion, with 5-50 greens and vegetables mixed together, and cooked with a dash of panch phoron (Bengali five-spice mix). Ingredients that cleanse toxins are mixed together. Hence you find neem leaves being used in jhol (runny gravy) form or in stir-fries with brinjal, and also consumption of sattu, a cooling agent, to prepare the body for summer.
“If you look closely, festivals on the full moon are about bounty and surplus. But the new moon is always about austerity. The way we look at life is reflected in the food," says Tanushree Bhowmik, a Delhi-based development professional, who documents and revives old recipes through her pop-up Fork Tales. She cites the example of the Kumara Purnima in Odisha, when during the morning unmarried girls perform the jahni osa by offering striped gourd, cucumber, banana and betel nut to the sun, and then at night, chanda chakata to the moon. This dish is made of popped rice, jaggery, banana, coconut, ginger, sugar cane, palm hearts, cucumber, ghee, honey and milk, which is then laid out on a kula (winnowing fan) in the shape of a crescent moon. Then, during the Kojagari Laxmi Puja, celebrated on the full moon after Durga Puja, a bowl of kheer is left out in the open, preferably in a silver bowl, to soak in the properties of the moonlight.
Rakesh Raghunathan, an heirloom food curator and host of the TV show, Dakshin Diaries, on Living Foodz, too has witnessed such rituals in Tamil Nadu while growing up. During all full moon nights, most temples would make a prasad of semolina cooked in milk. “Called the ksheera, the colour would be white like the moon. Not even saffron was added to taint that hue," he says. Food historian Pushpesh Pant has come across pure white meals in Jaipur, made specifically during Sharad Purnima. “This is seen across cultures. For instance, during Muharram, a tarq-e-lazzak is made, a white-coloured meal, by the Shia community," he says.
Since the moon is associated with the feminine, there is a certain daintiness and elegance in the dishes that it inspires. Hence, in Hyderabad, one will find a range of breads that are softer than the rest as they are made with milk. According to Javed Akbar, an expert on the royal cuisine of Hyderabad, whose ancestors were ministers in the nizam’s court, a prime example of this is the naan nazuk and the sheermal, made with milk, eggs, saffron and almonds. Cooks in the royal court would outdo one another in creating delicate moon-inspired dishes. “There is something called the chandni murgh, made with curd, cream, almond paste and green chillies, and served with silver leaf or varq. Raw papaya paste is used to tenderise the meat. Not even red chillies are added to this preparation. Then, there is the sufiyana biryani done in milk, with no saffron being used," says Akbar.
Rising to perfection
If you were to read Hindu Soul Recipes by Pushpesh Pant, you would find the food historian likening the idli to purnima, or the night of the full moon. “(This) is what this satvik dish with a thousand-year-old ancestry immediately brings to mind," he writes. In his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, K.T. Achaya traces some of the earliest mentions of idli in Indian literary works to Shivakotyacharya’s Vaddaradhane, a Kannada work from 920 AD, which lists idlis as one of the 18 items to be served to a brahmachari (celibate) visitor as refreshment by the lady of the house. It even finds a mention in the Manasollasa (1130 AD), written in Sanskrit, as the iddarika, made of fine urad flour and fashioned into small balls, fried in ghee and then spiced with pepper powder, jeera (cumin) powder and asafoetida. “In Tamil literature, the ittali is first mentioned only as late as the Maccapuranam of the 17th century AD. In all these references, three elements of the modern idli are missing," he writes. These elements include the use of rice grits, the process of grinding the mix and fermenting it overnight, and the steaming of the batter. “The literature offers no certain answers as to when in the last few centuries these elements entered the picture. In AD 1485 and AD 1600, the idli is compared to the moon, which might suggest that rice was in use," adds Achaya. Some writers also seem to suggest that the modern form of idli was introduced by Arab settlers to India. “The Arab settlers were strict in their dietary preferences. They insisted on halaal food, and Indian food was quite alien to their palate. To avoid all confusion regarding what is halaal or haraam in food, they began to make rice balls as it was easy to make," wrote Sumit Paul in The Hindu in 2015 about its history. These rice balls would then be flattened and eaten with coconut paste. Today, many feel idli is one of the purest forms of food. “I don’t know about that, but it sure is the safest form of food. During exams, we would only be given idli as it was the safest and didn’t upset the stomach," says heirloom food curator Rakesh Raghunathan.