Neighbourhood platters of plenty4 min read . Updated: 14 Feb 2020, 01:05 PM IST
Festive foods such as Ladakh’s ‘mok mok’, Bihar’s ‘thekua’ and Meghalaya’s ‘sakin’ embody the culinary tradition of sharing
An assortment of sweets, from pastel-hued, fruit-shaped marzipan to a thick slice of plum cake and kulkuls (deep-fried, sugar-dusted flour sweets), gift-wrapped, sealed with a ribbon and tagged with a card that reads “compliments from the Reggos" is sent to my flat in suburban Mumbai every Christmas. It’s from the landlady’s family that stays opposite ours. The distance between our flats is not more than 5ft but we barely meet five times a year, and even when we do, we don’t spend more than 5 minutes exchanging courtesies.
It has been about three years since we moved into this neighbourhood and every Christmas, I wait in anticipation of the small food packet from their home. They are from the East Indian Christian community of Maharashtra and it is a culinary tradition to distribute sweets in the neighbourhood during Christmas; an annual food ritual that I have grown quite fond of. The daily grind can leave one feeling rudderless and sharing food in this manner can help forge friendships. For this, I am grateful.
Holi is another such occasion that underpins a neighbourhood through food. In north India, particularly Old Delhi and parts of Uttar Pradesh, groups of people, called tolis, visit their neighbours’ home to play with colour. With faces smeared with colour, they wait to feast on Holi snacks. Typically, it begins with something sweet—malpua soaked in sugar syrup or gujiyas stuffed with mawa, followed by a savoury item such as chaat with dahi vada or dahi pakodi, explains food writer Anoothi Vishal.
Vishal, who grew up in Lucknow, recalls the women in her neighbourhood coming together to make sun-dried potato chips. Freshly harvested potatoes are available in plenty during this season. They would be thinly sliced, placed on the terrace to sun-dry, then fried and served as snacks during Holi. “This cultural community engagement is slowly fading," she says. In Varanasi, they would sun-dry thin squiggles of rice fritters known as chawal ki kachris, also a Holi snack.
A similar food story unfolds in Bihar, with groups of people visiting neighbourhood homes to play with colour and dig into Holi delicacies. Alpana Varma is a Mumbai-based home chef who co-founded Flavours of Bihar; their food is available on Authentic Cook, an online platform to explore local food experiences. She comes from Patna and spent a part of her childhood in a multicultural neighbourhood with Biharis, Parsis, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. “In a Bihari household, the Holi lunch menu was set. It included dahi vada, dry malpua or sookha pua, a mutton gravy dish with poori. We would move from house to house on a culinary adventure." Every household would follow an unwritten kitchen rule, that of making extra food to welcome guests during Holi. The sookha pua, made from a batter of wheat, banana, jaggery, sugar and milk, is unique to Bihari cuisine. They would be deep-fried in small batches—during Varma’s childhood, the preferred medium to cook sookha pua was ghee.
During Chhath, an important Bihari festival that involves sun worship, thekuas are made and distributed in the neighbourhood. These are deep-fried, slightly crumbly sweets made with wheat flour, jaggery and flavoured with fennel seeds. “When I was growing up, the water for thekua dough was special. We would source it from Gangaji," reminisces Varma. The river sacred to Hindus has become so polluted that its water is no longer deemed fit for cooking.
Festivals related to the new year according to the Hindu, Parsi, Sikh or Buddhist calendars have multiple culinary iterations. Nilza Wangmo, the founder of Alchi kitchen in Ladakh, a restaurant that specializes in the local cuisine, talks about Losar, the Buddhist new year according to the Tibetan calendar. She says the food that’s cooked and shared with neighbours is strictly vegetarian, such as vegetarian momos called mok mok and the Tibetian thukpa. Mok mok is stuffed with vegetables like carrots, cabbage and indigenous spinach-like leafy greens mongol. The noodle-based thukpa is flavoured with yak cheese and has brown peas, radish and locally grown chives and wild cumin. “These days, people also prefer sweets such as halwa and kheer," she adds, unwittingly highlighting the culinary diversity that seeps in as cultures integrate.
Sesame and jaggery are the signature ingredients for Makar Sankranti in Maharashtra. Til vadis (barfis), til podis (rotis stuffed with sesame and jaggery) and til laddoos are eaten and distributed in the neighbourhood. This culinary tradition with sesame runs the length and breadth of the country.
In the Garo hills of Meghalaya, the community food during Christmas and new year is a sticky rice cake with black sesame. Both the ingredients are hand-pounded, placed in layers in a banana leaf, wrapped and steamed over a wood fire. It is cooked around a bonfire when people from the community gather. Sakin, as this sweet is known, has an irresistible chewy texture and distinct rustic flavour. In our contemporary lives, so to speak, sakin would be shared with neighbours and friends who are not from the community.
Harvest festivals, like Pongal, are a community affair in south India. Chef and food show host Rakesh Raghunathan says that in urban spaces with modern apartment set-ups, neighbours, friends and family organize a potluck with a wide variety of rice dishes during this festival, when paddy is harvested and multiple rice dishes make an appearance—from tamarind, coconut, lemon, curry leaf and coriander to sesame rice.
In Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli region, he adds, farmers from neighbouring villages gather for the harvest. People, irrespective of their caste, contribute by bringing rice, dal, spices and cooking oil to make a dish called kootanchoru. “Kootan means coming together of people and chooru translates into rice or anything that’s cooked. What’s beautiful is that this practice breaks all class barriers in a community," he says, encapsulating the essence of community sharing.