The Food Route to Healing

And why the ceremonial Navratri thali could be the best place to begin the journey with. 

By Madhulika Dash


There is an obvious, single word – okay let’s make that a few - explanation to why the Navratri thali appeals to us: it’s delicious, and a welcome break from the usual format. But is it the only thing that is fascinating about the thali, which curiously for a predominantly fasting period is curated on fruit, roots, dairy (we were one of the few civilizations back in the day that could digest diary without the stomach growling back) and years later millets. Of course, for argument’s sake and rightly provided, one can point out the apparent existence of large quantity of carbohydrates and sugar – the two essential energy-makers to keep us going. 

In fact, a macro look at the Navratri thali with its selected ingredients that include buckwheat millet, tapioca and tapioca pearls, potatoes – sweet and otherwise – and an interesting array of root vegetables is definitely high on carbohydrates and sugar. The two elements that the body needs after a day of fasting and gaiety (how can we forget dandiya into the mix). And the known fact that each of the ingredients has a different processing time that involves breaking the nutritive matrix into simple, processable sugar or energy has earned the thali its stars as one of the must have during the time, even for those for whom it is a time to celebrate the liberty of gluttony.  And remarkably, the thali does justice to that virtue as well, with brakes that stops one from going overboard. 

One way that thali achieves that is by its chewability. While most of the sweets and the falahar are light and easy to digest, there are certain dishes that ensure we hit the “32-time mark”. Take for instance, kuttu ke atta ki puri, which has a texture that is like bajra rotla and needs to be chewed more than the one made with atta or maida. Reason, the complex carbohydrates in it along with fiber and other nutrients. Similarly, tapioca pearl or sabudana, which thanks to its boba-like texture makes us masticate it before it goes the food pipe to the work-station in the stomach.

And that chewing subconsciously not only ensures that we produce enough saliva but also revv up the digestive enzymes that makes breaking down the food, a smooth operation. This dual action inadvertently also works the grey cell eventually translates as a situation that often we describe in two stages – “pet bhaar gaya hai par maan nahin” (I am full but not satiated) to “tript ho gaye/maza aa gaya” (the feeling of tasteful satiation) in a span of one or two helpings. 


But was the Navratri thali created for this purpose? 

Incidentally not. The Navratri thali according to Vedas and Samhitas, first came into being for enhancing fertility – a concept that has always reigned high across civilization.  In fact, if one micro deconstructs the Navratri thali, that has evolved over the years to include newer ingredients like the potatoes and tomatoes, the inclusion of every ingredient and the technique that is used to make each of the dishes is primed towards aiding the body to detox, repair and prime up to bear a life. Thus, there is this layering of sugar, easily digested carbs, soluble fat, calcium, and protein, both from the milk and meat in regions that needed that kind of top up, fiber and then a series of complex carbohydrate, resin and starch – the last three comes from millets and roots that often take time digesting and thus create this back to back energy booster that manages to keep one energized through the period. This constant supply of nourishment that keeps the circadian rhythm, which Vedas explain as the realignment of vat pita and kapha that results in a Zen-like feeling while has given the thali its prime place in Navratri, a twice in a year ritual that curiously marks the beginning of a new season as well as the turn of the agrarian cycle. 

But that is one part of the wellness story. 

The food and its many combination including the fruits mix and the buttermilk and Sikanjvi that is had during these nine days in its initial days were built to what boosted fertility, which as per ancient wellness science meant food that could calm the mind, fill in the boxes of nutrition deficit, take out the water retention and extra sodium deposits and finally rework the liver and gall bladder to be prepared for a complete season of heavy duty food. And to do this, gluten that needs the latter two organs to work the most to digest needed to be replaced with food that even if took time to digest like sagu, millet and meat, did offer the luxury of doing so at a slow, supported base. Thus began the choosing of cooking process that could help break the food into two categories: one, enough breaking that would digest with ease like your kheer and halwa supported with the right kind of fat, ghee; and two, by helping elevate the nutritive value of the roots vegetable by boiling them first. 


This tasteful curation of thali turned it into a nutrient-dense meal that did more than just prime one up for fertility; it also allowed the process of autophagy or self healing. Of course, the process back then when Navratri involved meditation, work and one meal a day was a common process; today, the meal to be able to create that process needs one to be of a certain calibre. In other words, one who follows the minimal required order of eating on time, sleeping good hours, exercise and is working on the stress component. In words of nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “for those who have begun to take control of their health through a series of small but essential steps.” 

But that function aside, adds Bhassin, “the Navratri thali even with its elaborate format today is an easy start to eating healthy as it has the right combination of food that is effective in healing. The only caution: manage portion size, switch processed sugar and salt to rock salt and mishri; and match it with activities  that help you stay happy inside -that dandiya participation is essential- and sleep, seven plus hours if possible. Because it is during the time that the real action within begins.”

And it could be the start of a healthy you.