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Why Indian cuisine is fascinated with the number five

From mains, spice blends to temple food, the five-ingredient formula is omnipresent across dishes

Panch phoron is ubiquitous in cuisines of Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Assam. (IStockphoto)

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Holding mighty sway as a binding thread that has been woven into the rich tapestry of ancient Indian culture and society for eons is the number five. Known as pancha in Sanskrit, the middle numeral has a unique significance in various socio-religious tenets. It is widely used and associated with various concepts of Indian philosophy, religion, spirituality, Ayurveda, astrology etc.

And so, we have everything from the five detoxification processes of the Ayurvedic Panchakarma and the concept of the five-member Panchayat jury to the five elements in the universe and the all-important five senses. Of which we’re focussing here on taste.

This is because this ‘Power of Five' can also be seen through the prism of food and drink. Here are five such examples that pack quite a punch:

Panch Phoron

What the ubiquitous, ground spice mix of garam masala is to north India, sambar powder to the south, the hallowed five-spice panch phoron and its regional iterations are to the eastern belt of the subcontinent. Though very different in its ingredient base, one could even go so far as to draw parallels to the insanely popular Chinese five spice powder. The latter itself is another ode to ‘five’!

Panch phoron can be found cutting a wide swathe with its intoxicating aroma and intense flavour thorough the cuisines of Bengal (and Bangladesh), Odisha, Bhojpur, Mithila (where it is called padkaune) and even farther up in Nepal. Said to have its underpinnings in Ayurveda and ancient Hindu scriptures—where the aforementioned ‘power of five’ holds great sway—this all-seed blend sees an equal amount of cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds (often substituted with radhuni or celery seeds) first roasted and then blended whole. Though, this last aspect is subject to conjecture with a few regions powdering the quintet of spices. This is particularly seen in the Odia version of panch phoron called panch phutana that’s used to jazz up typically Odia dishes like the banana stem delicacy of manja rai. In Bengali cuisine, panch phoron is primarily used at the tempering stage of dishes like a masoor dal, a shukto and a poshto, besides scores of others.

Panch Mishali Tarkari

Often side-lined, by its more illustrious plate fellows in the Bengali side dish space like aloo poshto and begun bhaja, panch mishali tarkari (mishali being medley and torkari as in curry) is a winter speciality. But what makes it super relevant in the context of this line up is that it offers up a double ‘five’ bonanza. To begin with, it is the sum of its five vegetable parts. These generally being pumpkin, potato, eggplant, broad beans and radish. Though one can also use an assortment of other winter veggies. But always just five. So, one can also do a turnip, capsicum, pointed gourd, ridged gourd and carrot iteration. The second ‘five’ connection comes from the liberal sprinkling of panch phoron at the tempering stage of this onion- and garlic-bereft preparation that’s almost stew-like in its profile. Though some households in Bengal are known to add bori or dried lentil dumplings while cooking it.

Panchamrit

While it might seem like a drinkable pastiche of random ingredients, the holy drink mixture of panchamrit is made up of five highly significant parts. Literally meaning five nectars, it is offered to the gods and deities in both Hindu and Jain worship. Once sanctified, it is then distributed as a prasad to devotees. Also known as charnamrit, it combines curd (signifies prosperity), milk (signifies purity), honey (signifies sweetness), ghee (signifies victory) and sugar (signifies happiness). Interestingly, as we journey from the north to south India, we see the components of panchamrit change quite dramatically. Called panchamritam in Tamil Nadu, banana, jaggery, and cardamom join the standard ghee and honey. While in Kerala, it is not uncommon to find bits of tender coconut added to their version of panchamrit. Other regional recipes contain ingredients as varied as batashas (sugar candy), dates and even grapes.

Panchratna Dal

I grew up not knowing the ‘official’ name of the Rajasthani panchratna or panchmel dal. For me it was always panch jaat ri dal (literally the dal of five casts). This, thanks to my Jaipur-raised mother who referred to it so. An ‘occasion’ dal, we’d partake in its five lentils brilliance whenever Mum was feeling nostalgic and pining for the food she grew up eating. It is named for its five ratnas or jewels that take the form of toor dal, urad dal, moong dal, chana dal and moath dal. All used in equal quantities with a bit of sugar, salt and turmeric added to them along with water, and pressure cooked. Once they assimilate with each other to form a dal with a thin consistency, a tempering of ghee is given to it. This is done by adding a range of spices, including nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, coriander powder, mango powder, ginger and asafoetida. Breaching its Rajasthani borders, versions of panchratna dal are said to exist in far-off places like Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago known for their strong Indian diaspora.

Punch

The Germans may call it punsch. The Mexicans refer to it as ponche. While in the Caribbean, it is simply called ti’ punch or little punch. Whatever the world knows it by, there’s simply no denying the decidedly Indian underpinnings to the party favourite of punch. A restorative alcoholic drink made with five ingredients viz. water , sugar, fruit juice, spices and country liquor, punch is believed to be an ancient Indian drink. It however, got popular the world over after it was exported from India to England by employees of the East India Company in the late 17th century. With the easier to procure gin as a country liquor substitute. From there it was introduced into other European countries and then farther afar to the Americas and the Caribbean where rum and tropical fruit juices of pineapple, passion fruit and guava were added to the mix.

Also read | How invaders and travellers shaped Indian cuisine

 

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