Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I love this time of the year---and this year after a long gap, the Monsoon is back---and the way it used to be---in the old days!!!Tomorrow is "Janmaashtami" in Maharashtra---the birthday of Lord Krishna,the most Beloved Incarnation of Lord Vishnu---and widely celebrated all over India----but a day earlier in Maharashtra.
On the day prior to His Birth, Maharashtrians observe a Fast----for 24 hours starting at midnight---they do not eat or drink anything----only those who are medically advised eat certain Foods made from the approved "Fasting Items" or "Upvaasi Pharaal" as it is called.Dairy Products are totally abstained from in deference to the arrival of the Lord----to the extent of not taking Milk in Tea or Coffee---that day denying oneself the usual cup of Tea or Coffee is a sign of Devotion !!!The entire day is spent in Worship and Prayer and in preparing the Ceremonial Food for The Birth at midnight----a sumptous Spread is prepared to celebrate the Event on hat day!!!Each household has different Traditional Menus which are cooked on that day.In our home we cook Green Peas "Usal" and Fresh Corn Kernels "Usal" --- both being a dry dish simply cooked but truly tasty!!!Then there is "Masaaley Bhaat" or Spicy Rice,steamed White Rice,"Varan" or sweet mashed,lightly seasoned Split Pigeon Peas, "Aloo- Kansanchi Paatal Bhaaji" or Colocassia/Taro Leaf and Corn Vegetable Curry, "Bataatyaachi Suki Bhaaji" or Dry Potato Curry,"Khamang Kaakdi" or Cucumber Salad,Green Chutney, hot and spicy Panchaamrut(a Chutney type Pickle),Papadums and Vegetable Fritters.Not to forget the crowning Glory----"Saanzoree" or thin Rotis stuffed with "Sheera"a Sweet Semolina Pudding cooked in Coconut Milk.Once cooked this Food is assembled in the prescribed manner and served on tender,clean Banana Leaves----starting with a pinch of Salt placed first thing on the left,followed by a wedge of Lemon,then a tsp.of Chutney,followed by a tsp.of Pickle,then a tbsp. of Panchaamrut,then the Cucumber Salad,then the Taro Leaf and Corn Curry,then the Potato Curry,followed by servings of both the Usals,Papads and Fritters---everything is prepared fresh that day itself---cooking starts in the late evening.The Food is always served left to right----and the Saanzorees and both varieties of the Rice are pressed into moulds and served in the centre of the Leaf.The White Rice gets a large dollop of Varan and a tsp.of Ghee over it.This "Varan -Bhaat" is the first thing eaten---this traditionally breaks the Fast!!!
My M-I-L Atya observed this fast each year----the reason being that when she was pregnant with Sudhir an astrologer advised her to do it--saying that the outcome would be auspiscious for the new Baby.She fasted on this day ever since till she passed away in 1994---since then I've begun performing the Ritual---I however do not Fast----but do cook the entire Menu as prescribed and after offering it to the Gods/Goddesses in my home Altar---feed my "Godly Husband" or my "Pati Parmeshwar" before I eat.I love cooking this Meal--it acts as a connecting Bond with The Almighty---May His Blessing always rest on our heads!!!
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Today I posted a recipe for Haleem---my deceased friend Jacob Aunty's Recipe---and again so many memories came flooding back!!!Funny thing though---they ALL are Food related!!
Aunty ,Vahini and I became acquainted in 1975---at a Ladies Kitty party organised by Meena Bhabhiji---she lives on the 2nd.floor above me.We were all barely 2-3 months old in this Complex and this was Bhabhiji's way of getting us all together----connecting and building a bond.I still remember the Snacks she'd made---Delhi style Papdi Chaat and Phirni----and both were lip smackingly delicious!!!As it was the first time we were meeting,everyone was a bit self concious----but somehow we all gelled together and so started out on a journey of Friendship---meeting once a month for Tea and Snacks.The way this Kitty functioned was to contribute a set amount---in those days it was Rs.100/ each and then to cast chits for a Lucky Draw.The person named got the Money collected and hosted the next month's Party---timing was 3p.m.---5p.m.All of us--18 in number-----solemnly agreed on a few basic rules---the most important one being---no Back Biting---and to this Rule we've adhered to steadfastly till today!!!The one Rule that was broken as soon as it was made was concerning the number of Snacks to be prepared---it was agreed that the limit would be just 2 Snacks---one Savoury and the other Sweet--but we were young and each one of us was out to impress the others with our Culinary prowess--so these fast multiplied into a large number of Dishes---in each successive Party the Spread was more sumptous than the earlier one!!!
Our ages ranged from the early 20s---in this case Kanta and me in our early 20s----and Aunty and Bhabhiji in their mid forties---the rest spread out evenly in between!!!Since we were the youngest in the group we were treated very indulgenly by the older ones---something like the time the older kids "allow" the younger ones to play with them!!!This is what I love the most about my Country---you quickly form relationships and the people you come close to adopt you and look out for you-----and these relations grow deeper and stronger with Time!!!As it always happens,some of us came together to form even closer and deeper bonds that went beyond Friendship---in my case 2 of these Kitty Friends--Vahini and Jacob Aunty----and I became very close Friends---we met everyday and spent hours together---those were REALLY FUN Times!!!Both Aunty and Vahini were much older than me--18 and 16 years respectively---but somehow we bonded really well together!!!Both were excellent Cooks---in Aunty's case---Mughalai Cooking was her forte---a very time consuming style---calling for both Patience and Precision!!Vahini and I learnt the intricacies of creating many of these sumptously delicious and rich Dishes perfectly in less than an hour!!!
Aunty shared with us her secrets of cooking a beautiful Biryani---spicy,aromatic and redolent with lots of Saffron----and each Eid Sayali and Lotta looked forward to her silky smooth Dry Fruit rich "Sheer Korma"---a wondrous Vermicelli and Milk Sweet Concoction that tasted like Ambrosia!!!Sayali could literally down litres of the Stuff!!!Aunty's "Garam Masala" was so aromatic even though barely a teaspoonful of it was used,our hands smelt of it for days afterwards----and even then her preparations used to be cooked in a lesser amount of Oil than we used those---hence healthier!!!She was a very meticulous person-----very particular and perfect in using her Condiments in the proper proportion----no casual way of Cooking for her----everything had to be "Just So"!!!
Vahini is another perfectionist-----she hails from the coastal Konkani town of Ratnagiri---and cooks that style to perfection!!Like Aunty she too prepares ALL her Spices at home----and has endless patience in roasting and grinding these personally.The Spicy Chicken that Vahini cooks is truly a work of Art and her Atta Laddus----literally melt in the mouth perfection!!The piece d' Resistence however are 4 types of Traditional Snacks she makes----Sesame Seed Laddus(Tillaachey Laadu),Bhaazaanichee Chakli(Savoury mixed Flour Pretzels),Pohey(Dried Parched and Beaten Rice) and Semolina Upma----all of us--specially both my daughters---just love these!!!The reason that Vahini earned my everlasting respect was the way she turned even the most despised Vegetable into a very tasty,lip smacking treat----I learnt that enhancing the original taste by applying simple methods of Cooking can transform even the humblest Food into a 5 Star tasting one!!
Just as I'm grateful for carrying the Traditional Cooking I learnt from my Mother,Grand Mothers,Aunts and other Family members enriched my repertoire of Culinary accomplishment---these two Women too have added to my large Collection of Great Recipes-----if today I'm recognised as a good Cook----these two names HAVE to be a part of the List of all the People I'm deeply grateful to!!!
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Hinduism is a Spartan Religion--it preaches a simple Life Style and lays down certain rules for our day-to-day routines.One of it's main maxims is "high Thinking---Simple Living"----teaching austerity to all those who follow it.Giving of yourself and your Wealth to the needy is perhaps one of the most practiced activity.Those who benefit can be the needy and poor or maybe some Temples too----depending on the promises one's made to The Almighty.
The Paradox in this comes from the grandiose methods in which we today practise it.There are Traditional Menus laid down for the Ceremonial Meals----and even today we try to adhere to these----according to the seasonal produce.Ceremonies take place often the most popular being the "Satya Narayana Pujaa" dedicated to Vishnu,The Sustainer.Here too everything---mainly the Prasadam is fixed ages ago---a thick ,dry Semolina Pudding made with equal quantities of Semolina,Sugar,Ghee,a Dozen Bananas and twice the amount of Milk!!!Seasoned with slivered Almonds,Pistachioes,Raisins,Saffron Threads and Cardamom-Nutmeg Powder this is called "Sheera/Halwa" and is India's best loved Dessert!!!
During these "Pujaas" the presiding Dieties are solemnly invited to attend the Ceremonies and various Rituals are conducted to appease and gratify them.Since in India guests are honoured and given the status of Gods---a Feast is prepared for the Presiding Deity-----since The Diety has made an effort to come over and bless the household---He/She should be fed well with solemn and respectful Piety----hence the huge number of Dishes prepared!!!As a child I loved being part of these things----there would be a hallowed ambience,loads of delicious rich Food,plenty of inter action with various Cousins and Friends---since entire Families would attend---those were really great times---loads of Fun and Games!!!How difficult it is to do was something I learnt only after I grew up,married, became a housewife----and crossed over to the other side---the responsible one!!!
It's no joke getting up in the early Dawn--3.30-4a.m. or so,bathing and shampooing the hair---rushing into the Kitchen to start the Cooking---everything has to be freshly prepared----trying to finish maximum number of Dishes before the Family stirs---'coz then the rush for morning Tea and Breakfast starts---all this without even a drop of Tea or Coffee inside one's body----for on that day it's all a mad rush so can't spare the time!!!The daily "Pujaa" of the Home Altar needs to be performed before the Ceremonies start----by the time the Priest arrives at 10 a.m.The Ceremonial Lunch is cooked,Family breakfasted and the daily Pujaa performed---and that is when the lady of the house can finally sit down and gulp down a cup of much needed Tea or Coffee!!!
Now when I write this I'm surprised that I could and still can muster up the Energy to rush around----but on those days it' s as if I've turned into a fast moving,undefatiguable Super Woman---exhiliarated with all that Adrenalin pumping through me---enjoying every moment of it!!Everything falls into place with His Grace---the Food is perfect and tastes divine---we have to serve it first to The Lord and then everyone else.Since it is sacred it can't be tasted----just asking Him to assist while cooking by making it perfect----I've tried making some of the Dishes just occasionally----cooked exactly in the same proportions as the Ceremonial Food----but the taste actually differs!!!It is as if He personally does Bless us and the Food----one can feel His Presence surrounding one for days afterwards----the Atmosphere too seems blessed and peaceful!!!
Today I cook only the Basic necessary Ceremonial Dishes---all of us can't eat many of the Dishes cooked and since I hate wastage I prefer keeping it simple!!!The young'uns have all flown the Coop to spread far and wide and somehow these Ceremonial Gatherings seem so small and tiny compared to those performed earlier---for such is Life!!!
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Indians are a deeply Religious lot----and also very ritualistic.We begin every new venture with a "Puja" and an offering of whole Coconuts to our favourite Dieties----a Coconut is considered very auspiscious and is ceremoniously broken open at the end of the Ceremony----it's meat is distributed as "Prasadam" or the Diety's Blessing to all the people present.These Ceremonies are held mainly during the 4 month period falling roughly between mid June/July to mid November.I just love being in India during these 4 months called the "Chaatur Maas" or "Chau Maasaa" period.This is the period when Lord Vishnu goes to sleep for the 4 months of the Monsoon and all religious activities escalate to keep all Evil Powers at a long distance away from our World.
The most happening month in these 4 months is the month of "Shraavan/Saawan" which is currently going on.All the various "Tithees" or dates are connected to some activity----each day of the Week too has it's own agenda!!!For instance we have a Tradition of "Mangala Gauri" in Maharashtra---celebrated each Tuesday.Young married women worship the Goddess Durga also called Gauri each Tuesday---"Mangalvaar" is the Indian word for Tuesday.These Rites originated in an era when girls were married very young---around the ages of 7-8 years---and were kept busy learning the basic rules of ritualistic Worship and sumptous pure Vegetarian Ceremonial Cooking---Hindu style.The entire day would be spent fasting and in performing various "Pujaas"---but come nightfall the mood would change towards Entertainment.There were various Games devised to keep these child Brides awake throughout the night---and this used to be a "Women Only" affair!!!These "Pujaas" lasted for the first five years after the marriage---being performed each year in this favoured month----on all the Tuesdays of that month----with all night revelry each Tuesday/Wednesday night!!!By the time these girls were 13 years old they'd become adept in performing these intricate "Pujaas" and also in preparing the Ceremonial Meals---which ran into a huge number of Dishes!!!The Hindu way of Life specially in Maharashtra is practised through our daily routine rather than special activities.Our day begins in a traditional fashion---with an early morning Bath,then "Pujaa" of all the Gods and Goddesses in the home altar---followed by chanting of "Mantras" and singing of Hymns---ending with the watering,worshipping and saluting the Holy Basil in the Garden .
After this begins the day in it's usual routine.I used to love this early morning routine each time I visited my maternal Grand Parents---Aaji and Aazobaa.Aazobaa retired as Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax and instead of returning to the ancestral property at Saawantwaadi in the Konkan Region,preferred to build a huge Bungalow in Poona(today called Pune).This Bungalow was set back from the main road---Prabhat Road----and was choc-a bloc with a tangle of Greenery in a huge Garden.Aazoba too loved Greenery and his Garden was full of a large variety of Flora and Fauna----many types of Jasmine and Seasonal Fruits---there were many rare Varieties here including a huge Tree of the Holy "Prajakta/Parijat" Flowers ---planted essentially to get these delicately perfumedFlowers as offerings to the Gods in the huge "Puja" room each early morning.Aazobaa and I would sit and pray together to all the different Dieties----surrounded by a perfumed Atmosphere---a mingling of intoxicating Scents from the Fresh Flowers,Incense Sticks and fresh Sandal Wood Paste.There is no way to describe the entire ambience---except maybe perhaps---sublime????
Aazoba was a deeply religious man and my Aaji was a fitting match for him---she was an extremely capable and large hearted woman who kept giving him a large piece of her mind--whether or not he asked for it on many important issues-----frankly she bullied that poor man mercilessly---but when it came to cooking huge quantities of Ceremonial Food for his various "Pujaas" she would personally attend to all the details.Even today the scent and the taste of that "Naivedyam" or ceremonial Food tingles my nose and tongue in Nostalgia---supremely delicious!!!The Food would be cooked in huge Copper and Brass Cauldrons----placed over huge "Sigris" or Coal fuelled Stoves-----consisting of only pure Vegetarian Stuff---cooked totally without Onion or Garlic in many different varieties of Chutneys,Pickles,Salads,Vegetables,Pulses(
Dals),Puries(deep fried puffed Indian Bread) and different Rice preparations in the Spicy Fare---in the Sweet selection there'd be the classic"Pancha Pakvaanna" or a variety 5 Sweets as well!!!You'll now realise that having grown up on a steady diet of Rich Food is it any surprise that even today I live to eat????
My Religion insists on self control and restraint mainly for the Women----there are a lot of Fasts---some like the "Nav Ratri"s running into a 9 days Fast which ends with a sumptous Feast on the 10th. day.I used to observe these 9 days on a diet of Milk and 3 Bananas daily for 9 nights in the Holy months of Chaitra,Ashwin and Maagha. Today I have been medically advised against Fasting----so I don't!!!Besides today it is physically impossible to cook the huge quantities that Aaji used to-----and also impractical as well---there would still be a large variety of Dishes which I'd cook personally---after waking up and bathing as early as 4 a.m. in the morning.Today having realised and gotten used to a more Spartan style of cooking , the Food in my Pujaas is simpler and less elaborate---I've moved towards expressing my deep Faith in The Almighty through my empathy towards my fellow Human Beings---rather than indulging in the Traditional ritualistic Ceremonies!!!
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