By Madhulika Dash
One of the fondest memories of Coastal cuisine expert, Sandeep Shreedharan of the Navratri, which is as big a festival down South as in North India, is of the Ayudha Puja prasad. “It is the day when Goddess Saraswati is worshipped, so for a day and half there are no books and no studies. But what I really loved about this Puja wasn’t just the opportunity to be book-less (in school, it was akin to a royal holiday) but the prasad that was made of puffed rice, jaggery, fresh pieces of sugar cane and raisins. It was addictive and for those few days following the puja, it was my favorite mode of sustenance.”
And while the self-taught chef admits of having the where-all to make it, he admits of “keenly awaiting the Puja” just so he can have the dish, which tastes the best during the time.
Shreedharan otherwise a self-confessed seafood and meat isn’t alone in his admission of love for Vrat ka khana, Chef Neeraj Tyagi (Executive Chef, Shangri-La Eros Hotel, New Delhi) is equally candid about his favourites too. “I simply cannot resist the traditional Navratri thali, it simply tastes much, much better during these days and your mind and body intuitionally demands it over any other gourmet food.
But the one thing that I await this festival most for is this sweet dish made in Meerut. Made of raamdana (Amaranth) with dry fruits, jaggery and ghee, it has this nostalgic quality about all the memories associated with the festival. In fact, it is often served as breakfast with a cup of warm milk and is one of the few meals I can literally travel to eat.”
Chef Tyagi’s excitement is shared by Chef Sabysachi Gorai (Owner, Fabrica By Saby), who if in Calcutta travels to this “hole in the wall” sweetmeat shop to binge on the thal size “jeelipi with fresh unsweetened milk/curd” to start the Puja season. “It is one of the few things that spell celebration in so many flavours and texture. And the other thing that I have taken fancy to is the yam, which can take its own different avtaars during this festival”.
Concurs Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Lounge Hospitality), who even though is a self-confessed rajma-chawal fan for those nine days gives in to the charm of kuttu ki puri, shakarkandi ki chaat and makhane ki kheer, swears by the range of halwa he gets to dig on during the festival. “It is sheer indulgence at one level, but on the other it is also this happy realization that how each vegetable – like bottlegourd – can have this amazing sweeter side to it.”
For Chef Chetan Sethi, an otherwise potato lover, the connection is the sweet potato. “It somehow tastes delicious even if it's smoked and served with a dash of lemon and aamchur. But on these nine days, it takes this wondorous versatility where it is turned into a salad, a cutlet, a curry and even used to make this fascinating crepe like dosa that on their own make a meal.”
Concurs Chef Prasad Dalvi (Executive Chef, The Park Calangute), who feels that the connect today to Navratri food isn’t just the taste, but also because of the festival that ensures that he too finds time to cook/indulge in such kind of food that brings him close to his own culture. “Vrats are the only time as a chef I can find the perfect rise to cook my favourite traditional food, and what makes it even more delicious is the memory. ”
Of course, Chef Prasad admits, “There are few who have been my beloveds too like the Ratylacha Kees, which is essentially a stir-fried, sweet-spicy, sweet potato salad, an absolute soul filling light meal to have when on a busy day; and the Varicha Tandol or Samo Rice, a seasonal rice crop that is immensely rich in fibre, minerals and vitamins – and perfect alternative to choice to indulgence when you do not want to put weight.”
Agrees Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director-Food Production, The Park Kolkata), whose favourite is the makhane ki kheer. “The wonderful thing about Vrat ka khana,” he says, “isn’t that it is too similar or too delicious, it is made of the things that are seasonally available and are local. So you are indeed cooking with fresh food. Plus these foods are so rich in other nutrients like vitamins, fibre and mineral that they not only detox a carbohydrate and fat filled system, they also fill the body with much needed nutrients.”
If Ayurveda was believed, the reason for choosing these pseudo grains and power food for Navratras were not only their seasonal presence, but also the kind of repair and rejuvenation they could, in combination, do for the body, mind and soul. In fact, Katuliya, who encouraged the consumption of such pseudo grains when the army and king was not in war after a day of fasting and ritualistic cleaning, considered Vrat Ka Khana as the “super charge” every human needed to continue with his duties – as a king, priest or even a commoner.
Little wonder that even in Vedas, this period of Navratras that come twice in a year were marked as a peace period, where no dynasty went to war. Over the years, while war became redundant, the wisdom and superfood detox continued disguised in form of Navratri.
In Picture: Varicha Tandul and Ratylacha Kees (sweet potato spicy preparation)
Also check these recipes curated by Chef Neeraj Tyagi - Phaldhari tikki with Pears chutney and Dal chironji with Kuttu ki Poori