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Harvesting grain, making memories

From Assam to Kerala, Punjab to Bengal, April is the month of bountiful harvests, abundant kitchens and time-worn food traditions

Women prepare ‘pithas’ ahead of Bihu celebrations. Photo: PTI
Women prepare ‘pithas’ ahead of Bihu celebrations. Photo: PTI

When my father left East Bengal in the late 1950s, he didn’t realize that the food of his birthplace would remain etched in memory. Today, he reminisces about the fresh hilsa caught from the Padma river, the date-palm jaggery, the shor bhaaja (a sweet made by deep-frying milk fat or cream) made by his pishima (paternal aunt), and so much more. More than six decades have passed, but he cannot stop talking about these times, redolent of bountiful harvests and abundant kitchens. My childhood is laced with stories of opar Bangla (now Bangladesh)—of festivities and celebrations alike. Poila Baisakh, or the Bengali New Year, was special for Baba, and almost as big as Durga Puja. As a young boy, he has vivid memories of the day, complete with a visit to the local town fair in Comilla (now Cumilla, in eastern Bangladesh). “The day would typically begin by applying turmeric, followed by a bath, and then putting on new clothes. Breakfast would typically consist of cheere (flattened rice), curd, home-made kheerer sandesh, as well as thickened milk, all mixed together," remembers Baba. The siblings would accompany their father to the fair to watch the most-talked-about fish auction of the year. “It was a chaotic scene where fishermen displayed their biggest catch of the day. The bidding would end with the man of the house walking back with a giant-size rohu or kaatla fish," says Baba. Once home, it would be prepared in two ways—a fry with a simple marinade of turmeric and salt, and a kaalia or a spicy gravy with onions, tomatoes and ginger.

For me, Poila Baisakh in 1990s West Bengal did not involve fish auctions or home-made sandesh for breakfast. My mother would invariably make luchi-torkari (deep fried flatbreads with a dried sabzi) in the morning, followed by an elaborate lunch of mutton curry, fish curry, tomato and date chutney, and mishti doi or sweetened yogurt. She would stock up on sweets from the neighbourhood shop as friends and family would invariably drop by. After all, nobo borsho without sweets was considered blasphemous.

A special Poila Baisakh ‘thala’ at Novotel Kolkata featuring ‘kosha mangsho’ (dried spicy mutton preparation) and ‘ilish bhape’ (steamed mustard ‘hilsa’). Photo: Instagram

Just like Bengalis, the Odia, Assamese, Punjabi, Tamil and Malayali communities also come together to celebrate the first day of the Hindu calendar on 14-15 April each year. Undoubtedly, rituals on the day revolve around food, often imitating life and the changing seasons.

The Bihu celebrations in Asssam are strikingly similar to Poila Baisakh festivities in my home. For US-based Biyanka Baruah, who grew up in Sivasagar in Upper Assam, breakfast was always a big affair on Rongali Bihu. “Jolpaan was always elaborate and consisted of three-four varieties of pitha (rice, sesame or coconut pancakes), sira, or flattened rice, and handoh—a roasted rice powder eaten with doi (curd) and gud (jaggery)," says Baruah. For her family, the day’s menu would be strictly vegetarian.

Today, she is settled in California and celebrates the occasion by joining the local Assamese community for a potluck. Baruah adds that food traditions on Bihu vary depending on caste.

Similarly, food blogger Nagalakshmi Viswanathan’s memories of Vishu in Kerala are of specific things, like the kanikonna, or the beautiful yellow flowers of the golden rain tree. Growing up in Kottayam, she recalls the elaborate sadhya or feast that consisted of puli inji, or a tamarind, ginger and jaggery relish followed by mango or lime pickle, a pachadi (okra or beetroot in a salty yogurt base), traditional Malayali items like aviyal (vegetables cooked with coconut), olan (a light coconut-based vegetable curry), and a few odds and ends like varatti (banana chips coated in jaggery), spiced buttermilk, sambhar, and, sometimes, rasam. “My favourite was always the payasam because in those days it would be made only on special occasions like Vishu, Onam, birthdays and weddings." Interestingly, the men usually eat first, served by the women; the arrangement is then flipped. “I always ate in the first round," she says—the aromas of the food being cooked would waft around the house and leave her ravenous. This year, Viswanathan is planning to celebrate Vishu at her home in Singapore by making a cherupayar (split mung bean) payasam.

In Tamil Nadu, Puthandu is a beautiful celebration of the new year. Chennai-based home chef Shri Bala says one of the most important items of the sappadu, or banana leaf spread, is the pachadi—a dish prepared with raw mango (tangy), jaggery (sweet), tamarind (sour), red chillies or pepper (spicy), neem flowers (bitter) and salt—each of the six flavours signifying different moods of life. Everything is prepared on the day, and from scratch, including pickles—stale food is a strict no-no. As summer is round the corner, the community also offers neer mor, spiced buttermilk, and panakam, a cooling jaggery drink, to the gods.

It’s not unusual for seasons to play a huge role in deciding festive food traditions. On Pana Sankranti, or the Odia New Year, people scour the markets for bela, or wood apple, believed to be an antidote to heat stroke. Food photographer and writer Pallavi Roy Sawant, who grew up in Jamshedpur and is currently settled in London, remembers her mother tirelessly extracting the pulp of the fruit to make bela pana, a cooling drink, and offering it to the gods. “Bela pana and chatua, or roasted-gram flour, are both considered coolants in the intense heat of Odisha. They are offered to the tulsi (holy basil) plant as Odia fables consider this to be the personification of Ma Brundabati, who was blessed by Lord Shiva to be reborn as the sacred plant," says Sawant. The traditional recipe for bela pana combines bela, mashed banana, tender mango pulp, shredded coconut, paneer, curd, milk and jaggery, and is seasoned with black pepper. “Mid-April is the onset of spring in London, so it’s still quite early to feel parched, so I always end up making pitha (rice and gram pancakes filled with coconut and dry fruits) and chatua, because it is readily available. I am yet to find wood apple in London though," sighs Sawant.

As farmers in the north gear up to harvest the year’s rabi crop, the food traditions related to the harvest festival of Baisakhi are not centred on a home-cooked meal. The day also marks the beginning of the Khalsa sect under the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh. “An Amritdhari Sikh (a Sikh who has been initiated into the Khalsa) follows a strict vegetarian diet so the festival foods are also mainly vegetarian," says food blogger Amrita Kaur.

Kaur, who grew up in Indore, remembers visiting the gurdwara for the langar, which consisted of a simple dal, roti and kada prashad (a wheat halwa). At home, her mother would always make meethe chawal (sweet rice).

As I sit down to discuss the nobo borsho menu with Ma, Baba steps out to buy sweets for tomorrow. Thankfully, we won’t have to queue up outside a Bengali restaurant, as we do every year.

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