Makar Sankranti and why we can 'OD' on all things Sweet?

Here’s a look at what gives us that leeway in indulging in the high starch, high carbohydrate and calorie food – and the goodness behind it.

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures Courtesy: Stock Images

Til with gud, chikki made of peanut and gud, ponkh tossed with sugar and coconut, rice pudding made with jaggery, coconut, banana and such; Undhiyu with root vegetables and tuvar served with puri or kachori, jalabee with rewri. If one has to look at the feast table of Makar Sankranti, there is one thread that is present in equal measures as rice and lentil, it is sugar – the third most valued harvest across India during the time along with fresh ginger (a root known for its contrasting sweetness). But ever looked and wondered why was such a calorie rich, sugar-heavy meal curated for the occasion, especially given that Makar Sakranti marks a seasonal change when the days will be longer than nights – or in other words, end of winters and a sign for the revved up metabolism to finally come back to its normal pace till chill sets in next time?

One way of looking at it is of course the harvest bounty, which calls for celebration that is both about thanking the Sun as well as enjoying the fruit of labour; the other side, which today finds credence among wellness expert, is that of prepping your body for the months ahead, especially the caramelising heat of summers, which warrants a meal that in equal parts nature the body, fuel it up as well as stock up for a future.

Put it simply, the Makar Meal, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “was about creating the traditional granary system for the body that could help it stay well through the year while effectively tackling exigencies, if any. And the way it was done was by creating food combination that would help create this two-layer foil – one that would be used for immediate fuelling; another that would be broken down and stored.”

This, she continues, “is where two ingredients took on the functional role: one was ghee and another was jaggery or sugarcane juice. What gave them the credence was the all-palate appealing sweet taste, and the fact that both ghee and sugar (juice or granules) had gone through the first process of breaking down and hence were easy to digest as oppose to having it as part of the ripened palm or sugarcane.”

Result, anything combined with jaggery or sugar would immediately be broken and stowed away for later use. But that was just one aspect of why sugar and ghee were used. The other aspect, continues Bhassin, “was jaggery and ghee ability to make the muscles more pliable to incorporating nutrients while taking care of the wear and tear in the body.”

With jaggery, it was the liver; and for ghee, it was the brain where it helped balance the cortisol level. This, say the expert, “left enough room for the rest of the ingredients to work their inherent purpose. Like roots vegetables for instance in food ensured that the body has its fill of Vitamin A, D, E and K and potassium that will keep the kidney and blood pressure in check. Or phonk, which is said to give us the necessary dose of zinc, which while playing its basic role of regulating the immunity and keeping inflammation under check, also works at ensuring a healthy sexual appetite and fertility.”

And given that these ingredients are available only for a limited time during the season, there were dishes created that could help us extract these nutrients in the most effective way. Of course, adds Bhassin, “what helps is our immunity system, which is at its effective best during the winters (faster in colder areas, not so fast in slightly warmer mainland and coast) tends to be at the same level though the country on the day of Makar Sankranti. In fact, on this particular day, thanks to the Sun and Moon movement that immunity status is almost similar through the country – a fascinating function of the body, which allowed our ancestors to curate a meal that would have the desired effect with all.”

This observation while explains the commonness of our meal in terms of it being high on starch, carb and calorie with rice, lentil, fresh millet and root produce including ginger playing prominent roles, it also explains the permissible OD-ing of sugar (and fat) during the time.

After all, ends Bhassin, “this once, sugar (and fat) in its various formats aren’t just playing the beloved tastemaker, but the first fuel that is keeping the body and mind energised and happy while it stocks up for the future.”