Re-engineering wellness by eating

Vrat Ka Khana: here’s how our ancestors curated methods that does more than just rejig up the palate and revitalised the cells with food

By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy Farzi Café

Ever look at a bowl of sabudana khichdi or a thali of kuttu ki puri, singhade ka halwa and aloo sabzi and wondered: why is it that these ingredients were chosen for the meal after a day of fasting? Or why is it that we have it only for a week or nine days in a year – and not throughout or whenever we feel like? And what is it about this simple looking feast that makes us crave for it during the time of the year?

For many of us the answer as to why we have such a meal during the nine days of Navratri often ranges from, “they are not grains” to “it is satvik and nourishing”. For others, the temporary diet system is explained as part of the ritual which demands you have something that is easy to digest and light on our system. Fascinatingly, as a team of nutritionist recently discovered, there is more to our vrat ka khana than the “religious” explanation that is given of its existence – and continuing practice.

A fact that culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai discovered while researching on the dietary habits of our ancient civilisation. Says Chef Gorai, “Food, curiously, for our ancestors wasn’t just a source of energy or simple nourishment. It was the tool they harvested (efficiently) for wellness, to recover from illness, for longevity even to enable cellular rejuvenation. In fact, the traditional Indian food habits were designed in a manner that would allow us to eat local, seasonal but also effectual – where it would help us live a healthy life.”

Agrees nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, who sees our traditional food as the finest stream of functional nutrition that can do more than “just nourish or built our immunity, it can actually help us age slowly and happily through cellular rejuvenation.”

One ancient diet system that does the “rejuvenation process from inside” with much effectiveness is, says Bhassin, “our vrat ka khana.” Yes, the very bowl of sabudana, kuttu ka halwa, phalhari kofta and such that we find so enticing for our palate after a day of fasting.

In fact, adds the seasoned food expert, “the food that we eat during fasting is curated especially for effective autophagy – in other words, the process of healing from within through self-eating, and weight loss if necessary. Karma Kanda in Yajurveda identifies this process as one of the “key essentials of a healthy mind and body”. It was in fact one of the many rituals that even the kings would follow of ancient India to ensure a longer phase of life. Food lore has it that Chanakya would often send ChandraGupta Maurya into intermittent fasting with a similar diet plan to keep his energy levels high but also deep cleanse his tissues. The result, many believe, was the long life of the Emperor who was among the few kings to die on will rather than be plagued with illnesses. It was a system adopted by the Ahom Kings who found this break in food habit a beneficial act of self- wellness. It was a bi-monthly ritual for most of the ancient civilisations who consumed a selected group of food that were chosen for the curative properties.

This was the reason, explains Bhassin, “that only those food groups were picked up that were high in the regenerative combinations. Essentially good source of fast acting protein, antioxidant, minerals and fat. That explains the classic ingredients of vrat ka khana like buckwheat, sago pearl, fruits and ghee along with other fruits and vegetables that worked in tandem with these main ingredients. The other reason for such food combination was also because they were great at managing the circadian rhythm that reacts to the change in weather and stress level.”

But the beauty of this curative diet plan was the flexibility that allowed the inclusion of newer food like potatoes without affecting any change to the basic functioning of the diet – which when paired with fasting – intermittent or otherwise - could lead to a stage wise recovery of the body and mind.

This was made possible, says Bhassin, who has been using the traditional food pairing methodology in her practice, “by creating a core group that did most of the curing while the second food group would work as fortification. So while constants like sago pearl, sighade ka atta and kuttu ka atta (buckwheat) being rich source of protein did all the heavy duty work of rejuvenating hair follicle, reworking the sugar processing unit of the body, repairing wear and tear of bones and cleansing and revving up the gut for better digestion and performance; additional fruits and vegetable ensured a steady supply of other nutrients and mineral that kept one energised and functional.”

But just creating groups wasn’t enough, says Chef Gorai, “given that there were no instant source of complex carbohydrates, food had to be cooked/processed (which could be adding salt or sugar to a particular food) in a certain way that allowed easy digestion and absorption. This is where Ghee came in handy as a healthy source of fat and taste. The addition of nuts was yet another way to combine taste and nutritional functionality.”

In fact, continues Chef Gorai, “the other fascinating aspect that helped the vrat ka khana achieve autophagy was the introduction of the three broad techniques that were used to cook the meal. The idea was to keep it minimalistic while ensuring there is enough taste for better digestion. One way they achieved this is by using the concept of kheer and later halva in the thali composition. Both the dishes were well known to keep the mind calm. Another was the poach cooking, which allowed for spice restraint in food.”

However, the one technique that really sealed the deal for the vrat ka khana and its role in autophagy was, says the culinary anthropologist, “frying. As a technique that India aced in, frying came as the perfect method that not only shorten the period of cooking, made food tasty with minimal seasoning but also aided in preserving as much nutrients as possible.”

Result, a balanced thali that does more than just ensure you are nourished enough after a day of fasting – but slowly builds you from inside-out in nine good days. Little surprise that nutritionist world over began looking at our vrat ka khana to re-engineer eating habits that heal – and revived intermittent fasting and keto.