Ugaadi: A celebration of Mangoes

… summers, and how this one-day New Year celebration teaches us about having the right balance of emotions.

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph and recipe courtesy: Conrad Bengaluru

It has been a busy morning at Caraway Kitchen, the all-day dining at Conrad Bengaluru. While the restaurant takes on a festive look with strings of marigold festooning every part of this multi-cuisine dining space, inside the kitchen there is a musical chaos as it sets to celebrate one of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh most joyous occasions – it is the New Year and the day when the twin state officially shifts to summer mode. And the start of it happens not with the quintessential coffee (of Kapi as many would say), but Ugaadi Pachadai. A sweet, sour, slightly bitter drink that not just celebrates seasons first flush of raw mangoes, but also, says Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru) “the essence of a life with its six flavours: kaaram, uppu, teepi, vagaru, chedu, pulupu (spice, salt, sweet, bitter and two types of sour).”

In fact, continues Shetty, “the beauty of Ugaadi Pachadi, which in many ways begins the tradition of having at least one or two pachadi in our meal is its very composition, which aside the essential sweetness from jaggery, coconut (and banana), sourness from mango and tamarind, saltiness from salt, spiciness from chillies has this extra touch of bitterness from the tender neem flowers that not just add a different dimension to this essential Ugaadi drink, but also revvs up the palate that is readjusting itself to the summer flavours. In other words, it is working at not only detoxing the palate, cleansing but also prepping it to move on to more subtle flavours from the heavy spices that ruled the winters.”

Adds seasoned Chef Vijaya Bhaskaran, “the brilliance of a Ugaadi meal that begins with this raw mango and neem flower pachadi is the light theme that rules the spread. The meal prepared which is heavy on pachadi, especially that made of vegetables that have high level of water and fruits, works on the theme of going light. Take the case of the Southekai Pachadi. The ‘raita’ version from Mangalore isn’t just a fantastic summer coolant thanks to the use of beaten curd in it, but the sheer number of tastemakers used in it including grated coconut, roasted cumin and chillies are all tailormade to keep the body cool, while making the gut function better. In fact, it also pares down the heat of the food paired along with it and helps in breaking it down.”

The brilliance continues the former executive chef, “is that most of these pachadi use not just the tender vegetables and fruits but are raw. Which in nutrition parlance means that each of them retains much of the nutrients in an amount that is good for the body.”

Concurs Chef Shetty, who finds not just the array of pachadi, a dish that traditionally was used as an antidote in Charak Samhita, created for this occasion (and round the summers) fascinating in its composition but also in technique. “One of the most interesting aspect of the Ugaadi meal is the play with local foods that have fascinatingly reached the prime edible stage during this time, or how techniques are used to bring it to a level that is good for the taste and the body. The array of pachadis that we in Karnataka and Andhra make during this time stands testimony of how our ancestors didn’t only know how food can be used to heal, but how to create interesting dishes that do so with taste.”

A fine illustration of Chef Shetty’s observation is the Mangalorean Pineapple Sasive. An essential part of Ugaadi celebratory meal in Mangalore and Udupi, this form of pachadi, says the culinary expert, “is all about the spices, especially mustard with pineapple chunks added in the end to balance not just the sharpness of mustard and the sweetness of Byadagi mirch, the two key ingredients of this chutney-style dish, but also give it that punch of fibre that is needed during summers to help food digest better.”

The one place, continues Chef Shetty, “that often brings out the taste (and health) aspect of these pachadi is when they are paired alongside dishes like the Avakaya Biryani. An Andhra Pradesh speciality, this dum-style cooked biryani that uses traditional long grain, fragrant rice from the region gets its ‘puckering’ taste from not just the way it is cooked but the Avakai pickle, a delicious pickle made with mustard and raw mango. In fact, the beauty of the spice mix is such that it often gives the biryani its distinct aroma and spiciness, with of course a dash of probiotic goodness. All of which is instantly calmed down with a slurp of  Southekai Pachadi or the Onion Pachadi served with it.”

In fact, conclude the culinary experts, “if you look at the traditional Ugaadi spread, it has dishes that aren’t just meant to be paired together but are a sequence of dishes that usually tells us how the whole idea of ‘taste’ was created in the Indian meal – which is by bringing the various flavours together in different proportions with one flavour playing hero every time. And this includes the sweet Obbattu as well. Often seen as a cousin of the famous Puran Poli, this 12th century dish was in fact designed to ensure better digestion and a sense of satiation that comes from the sweet lentil filling within.”

No wonder Ugaadi is often called the festival of life – and its New Chapter.