Janmashtami: The art of good living and eating

By Madhulika Dash

Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Windsor Manor, Bengaluru, on how the festival didn’t only shape up his philosophy of good food, but life too!

Janmashtami. A day that celebrates the birth (or rebirth) of perhaps one of the most beloved, almost-human-like gods, Krishna. It is a day that tells you two things: if you are meant to survive, you will, by any means; and the supreme sacrifice parents make. After all, even legend shows how Vasudeva walked miles in hail and storm to ensure his son’s safety from the evil king Kansa, and Nanda nutures him till he comes of age to fight.

But for many of us, who grew up being a part of this happy occasion, Janmashtami rarely meant all the above – it was a day when elders fasted, kids feasted. A day even I, as a child, eagerly awaited. Janmashtami was different from all the other festivals. It didn’t need elaborate preparation, the food had on this day is simple, and it is perhaps the only festival where the story grips you – and each time (and age) you heard it, there was a new life lesson learnt. And evenings unfolded with a promise of great celebrations and feasting. In fact, even after so many years, it is hard to explain the excitement of tugging on to the thread to give the beautiful crib with an infant Krishna still holds true, or making a beeline for panjari, which tastes infinitely divine on this day.

So is this general sense of happiness and high spirit that makes Janmashtami such a significant part of our social fabric? Or is there something more to this tradition that truly connects even today?

If you look at Rajasthan, where every home or vicinity has a Krishna mandir, the answer is simple: he is omnipresent. But that is only half of the explanation. The other side tells you the story of how Krishna was chosen to represent the meaning of a good life. Here was a god who lived a human life – he fought his own battles, fell in love, made difficult choices and paid a prize for any wrong he did. But most importantly, he lived the life of both the farmer and the warrior: interesting the two big pillars of a good society. And that is what made Krishna, the ideal representation of life – and that is the connect that many have with the Lord who taught us the way to live a life, and still enjoy it with all its imperfection.

He taught us that it is permissible to make mistakes if you are ready to bear the consequences; and the joy of life truly is in simple things. A reason why we often see his birthday feast made of simple dishes that are mostly comfort food for many. Like the singhare ke ate ki puri and aloo, or the samvat ke chawal ki khichdi, which is a family heirloom of the Deolia dynasty, and has been made since the past four generation. But what’s more fascinating about the food is that even though they are simple, they celebrate local flavours, ingredients and the age-old culinary wisdom of making tasty khana – which is keeping it minimalistic.

In fact, the wonderment of these dishes is that no dish uses more than five ingredients, this includes the salt and water too, and every dish made compliments the other, and thus can be had together or one after the other and yet doesn’t leave you with a feeling of being stuffed. Impressively, each of the dishes in the way they are made not only shows the culinary ingenuity of our ancestors, but also nourishes the body for a second flow of season. In fact, the amount of ghee we have on this day is on the higher side and yet thanks to the ingredients used, it not only gets digested but also cleanses the body of any impurities whatsoever.

Take the case of the most addictive prasad, panjiri. Made with atta (wheat flour), khaand (desi sugar) and dry fruits, it is more than just a great palate play, and actually warms the body, improves the gut to cope up with the seasonal change and even ensures nutrition reaches the joints. One of the reason that cooked fat like ghee is used to make food on this day is not only because ghee has the highest boiling point, which ensures even during frying the nutrients remain intact, but also because it is clarified, it digests in the body more readily thus ensuring nutrients are absorbed too. The fact that it makes food delicious means that you eat just enough – and not overindulge.

Of course, the added bonus is the fact that through this feast you tend to rejoice in having those ingredients, which we would not otherwise enjoy today like kuttu, and in as many varieties as possible. No wonder, it remains a festival that connects all.