Feasting begins with the eyes first, and Sheetal Bhatt, a Gujarati food researcher who started the blog The Route to Roots, knows how to captivate her readers with recipe images straight out of a coffee-table book.
Recently, the Singapore-based Bhatt introduced the Prasad Series on Instagram (@theroutetoroots) to focus on homemade sweets popular during Navratri. For the project, she partnered with the designer and artist Shwetal Bhatt, who recently released a documentary film, Ramji Thakkar Bhimji Thakkar, centered on garba as one of the modes of celebrations of the folk practices of the state.
Bhatt spoke to Mint on the series and how she picked each recipe for the nine days of Navratri. Edited excerpts:
How did the prasad series come about?
There isn’t one reason, really. This year, if things were normal, I would have probably been in Gujarat during Navratri. Although I stay in Singapore, for my food related research, I would travel to Gujarat every two months. Now, I have a lot of free time and thought I could do something interesting to start a conversation on food. This year people are hesitant to buy food and mithais from outside. So I want to encourage them to cook with simple recipes of sweet dishes using easily available, seasonal ingredients. Each dish, from Shakkaria no Shiro (sweet potato halwa), apple barfi, and rajgira laddoo, is low on sugar and isn’t time consuming. I don’t want to make sugar-laden sweets, because in my family we don’t have too much sugar. If you visit us during Navratri, this is what you will be served.
What constitutes as prasad in a typical Navratri celebration?
During dandiya events, we would be eating fistfuls of roasted peanuts and sugar pearls as prasad. In the past, we also had a small marble-sized sugar ball stuffed with peanuts. Protein from peanuts and glucose from sugar is a potent combo; an essential fuel to sustain us as we danced through the night. Let’s just say they acted like modern-day energy bars. There would be a variety of sweets like colourful sugar candies or golis (pellets) with cumin and fennel, along with a candy coating and lots of pedas. The idea was these items need to be fuss-free so that we could spend time dancing.
Why is there so much focus on sweets?
Apart from the ‘energy bar’ factor, Gujaratis believe sweets signify love and hospitality. So, if there are many sweets on a platter served to guests, it indicates more warmth. Serving food to god as prasad is no different; more the sweets, greater the love.
How did you plan the visuals?
The images for the Prasad Series have colours of the garba grounds with bright yellows and reds, the mood is soulful with dim lighting, and flowers like marigold and leaves were used to evoke a festive feeling. The inspiration for the leaves came from thorans, an essential home decor item during Navratri that are hung on the doorway. Visual storytelling holds deep meaning, especially on social media. Good photographs instantly grab attention. My intent is to also motivate you to cook so that we don’t lose our traditional recipes. It all begins with a photograph.
The series will end tomorrow. What did you learn through this process?
To get creative with whatever was available to me. For instance, most of my vintage brass crockery is in Gujarat and I had to work with leaves and flowers (laughs). Here, in Singapore, I had to keep the recipes simple because not all ingredients are easily available to me. Also, mithai making requires great skill, and I had to think in terms of recipes that can be easily recreated. The Prasad Series is my connect to the garba that didn’t happen; I did it to cheer myself up.
Recipe of Shakkaria no Shiro (sweet potato halwa) by Sheetal Bhatt
1+1/4th cup steamed and grated shakkaria/sweet potato (150 grams by weight)
1 cup khoa/mawa, grated
3/4 cup sugar (refer notes)
1/3 cup ghee, melted
A pinch of powdered green cardamom or nutmeg
Grate the steamed and peeled sweet-potatoes to have an even texture. Grate the Khoa for easy blending. In a heavy bottom kadai (preferable the traditional iron kadai) add ghee.
Once the ghee gets warm, add grated sweet-potatoes. Keep the flame gentle. Roast sweet-potatoes in ghee until the moisture evaporates.
Now add grated khoa, mix well and continue to cook, till it takes a little colour. As it cooks, it will start to feel light. Add the sugar and cook the mixture until it releases ghee. You will notice ghee oozing around the sides.
Mix in the cardamom powder. Turn off the flame. Transfer to a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note from Sheetal Bhatt: You can pressure cook the sweet potato, but they tend to get soggy. So I steamed them over a sieve in a pressure cooker. I used powdered khadi sakar (rock sugar), so I needed less of it. Also, the sweet-potatoes I used were quite sweet, which meant less sugar. Please adjust the sugar to your taste. The mawa was homemade that had caramelised during cooking. Cooking it in an iron kadai gives Shakkaria no Shiro (or any mithai) a nice karara (distinct) texture.