Here’s how a few kernels of raw rice and a handful of sweet ingredients celebrate not just communities (and the idea of a society) but also forge new friendship that truly last.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures & Recipe Courtesy https://culinaryxpress.com/; Sketch: Seema Misra
Let’s face it; when it comes to festivals, few civilisations across the world can match not only our numbers but the versatility of our celebrations, even in those that seemingly look like a common affair. Take Makar Sankranti for instance. One of the biggest sun festival celebrated pan India, this ancient festival while appears to be this grand harvest festival has its own fascinating story as we traverse the length and breadth of the country. While in North of India, it is about summer which brings in the fresh crop of sugarcane and lentils; for Southern India, it is paddy and for those in the West, it is a time to celebrate millets and legumes (it is the best time to search for Ponkh in Gujarat and Maharastra).
East India, especially the tribal belt, too celebrates it as a day of bounty – what with the palms ready to be turned into jaggery and the aroma of barakoli wafting through the air enticing foragers, but with a slight difference. Here, it is a day dedicated to Goddess Tusu, the deity who brings in great harvest and good season too. A tribal festival that dates to the early years of civilisation, this version of the Makar Sankranti is celebrated more like a fair complete with songs, dances, kite flying and loads of food that celebrates nature’s bounty, but what separates the Odia version from the rest is one unique purpose of this festival. Unlike its neighbours, Makar Sankranti in Odisha, especially the tribal belt of West, Mayurbhanj and the ilk, is about friendship and community with an almost Jai-Veeru kind of undertone.
On this day, two acquaintances forge their friendship (for a year) with new rice playing the proverbial bond. In fact, on this day, says culinary custodian Alka Jena, “you can choose your best friend for a year by inviting him over to be a part of the ritual, which begins with the offering of new rice to the God followed by a shared bowl of Makara Chaula, which unlike Pongal or Khichdi is made of raw rice. Yes, raw. Once done, the friend is addressed as Maharshad (for boys) and Makarathe (for girls) and is considered to be almost the next of kin to you for the rest of the year.”
Fascinatingly, if folk tales are to believe, the festival today, which is popular more as an Indianised version of Friendship Day, didn’t exactly begin as one. It was more of a community festival, where wives would send a bowl of newly harvested rice to the neighbours on this day as part of the Tesu puja. The ingrained idea of this tradition was the more you share, the more prosperity would come to you. This was the reason that even a farmer’s wife could send a bowl of rice to the richest trader or the chief’s wife in the community – and the gesture will be reciprocated with equal love. To nurture this sense of unity, it was rice – a staple ingredient across all classes – was chosen as the best offering.
The ingenuity worked for a predominantly agrarian society where rice wasn’t just food but also a prized possession and mark of prosperity and wealth. Any relations built on rice was like sacred oath – not to be broken. The fructuousness of the tradition was such that even the Kharavela kings made it an integral part of their culture for not only forging worthy alliance with their neighbours but also infuse an acute sense of brotherhood in their kingdom. Denizens were encouraged to follow the tradition by making it a part of the temple rituals that advocated it to create a larger sense of belonginess. And at the base of it all was the pudding called Makar Chaula, which stood for more, adds Jena, “than just a tasty prasadam that celebrates nature’s bounty.”
The thing about Makar Chaula, continues Jena, “is the hidden life lesson in its making. Think of it, the dish has raw rice, which is made edible by soaking it in water overnight as oppose to cooking it like in Pongal. This turns the otherwise brittle rice malleable while washing away the toxins if any thus resulting in a fine powder that is edible and easy to digest. The process simply showcases how every new relationship when nurtured well can lead to great comradery. This also explains why most of the flavourant like the jaggery made fresh from the ripened palm, the coconut, chenna, the ripe banana and even the ginger, which is harvested in this season, too follows the suit of being new.”
The idea that dish presents is two-fold, adds culinary archiver Manju Das, “while on one hand it teaches that new friendships are just as good and need the same amount of nurturing as the old one; it also signifies that one can always start afresh. The very reason why the only mandatory aspect of the dish is the use of new rice, the flavourants are mostly local ingredients and produce that available in abundance around the time.”
That also explains why there are as many recipes of Makara Chaula as there are regions in Odisha, although many consider the one offered in Jagannath Puri as part of the Uttarayana Jatra and Uttarayana Bandapana to be the original.
Which brings us to the next question as to why raw rice? While modern science has its reservation about having raw rice since it results in a series of discomforting symptoms, traditional wisdom has a different take on the subject. Old texts like Rigvedas, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “view eating raw rice, especially new raw rice, as part of the body’s natural function. In fact, what makes new rice more suitable for consumption is that they are structurally not as defined as an old rice and thus cook faster and also are more malleable, thus can be broken down into formats that are easily digestible by the body while extracting the nutritive goodness. What works in Makara Chaula's favour is the process of soaking it overnight, which drains it of excess starch and bloated. In other words, two steps prior to the al dente state. The follow up drying and pounding of the kernels breaks down the nutrition composition into ease to digestible format.”
Of course, continues Bhassin, “that is no way compares to the easiness of cooked rice, but it does make it safer than having it in its pre-soak stage. What aids the wellness factor of the dish are two things: one, our immunity functioning is at an all time high during the time and thus has the ability to digest pre-cooked roughage as well; and two, is the sugar layering along with enough potassium and fat boost in the dish thanks to the jaggery, chenna and banana used in the making. This ensures that the liver is taken care of while the body works on getting its nutritive soldiers. The bonus is the blend of milk and rice, which works at calming down the body while realigning the vatta, kaffa and pitha creating a sense of jubilation.”
Clearly, our ancestors were at good when they choose Makara Chaula to be the dish that bring it all together – new friendship and a community.
MAKARA CHAULA Recipe By ALKA JENA
Freshly harvest Arua chaula 1/2 cup
Milk 1 cup
Freshly grated coconut 4-5 tbs
Small sugarcane pieces1/3 cup
Ripe banana 1 no.
Jaggery 1/4 cup
Pepper powder 1/4 tsp
Chenna 2 tbs
Grated ginger (1 tsp)
Soak the rice overnight. Wash and drain. Spread on a plate and allow to dry at room temperature for 2-3 hours.
Using a mortar pestle, grind the rice into a coarse powder and transfer to a mixing bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients except for the banana and mix well. Peel and crush the banana. Add to the mixing bowl and mix well.
Serve with slivers of coconut, cucumber and slices of banana.
Curator’s Note: While coconut, banana and chenna are usually popular given their easy availability in the home, the recipe can also be made with a variety of other ingredients such as sakara aloo among others. The only thing to keep in mind is that the combination should work well to create that tasty bite. As for the rice, try soaking it overnight. This would make the kernels malleable and easy to digest.