As the month of February ends and winter approaches spring and harvest, while nature renews itself all around us and March and April bring new colors, new scents; and as the brown land changes to fresh shades of green, and as the abundance of crops, flora and foliage emerges, India celebrates the change of season, with greenery and vibrancy. Spring is the beginning of the harvest season and most parts of India welcome this new season of happiness and prosperity with so many different festivals. And must I say that what makes Indian festivals so exciting is all the food these parties bring.
The first festival to literally usher in the spring season is ‘Vasant Panchami’. After ‘Makar Sankranti’ and ‘Pongal’, ‘Vasant’ means spring and ‘Panchami’ means ‘the fifth day’. The festival is celebrated every year on the fifth day of the month of ‘Magha’ and is like a pre-welcoming ceremony for spring and for Holi, which comes about 40 days later. Sounds a bit complicated? It actually isn’t. It is a spring festival 40 days before Holi, but sets the tone and mood for the coming season.
As with most festivals, this one too is associated with divinity, in this case the goddess Saraswati. Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge so it should be a good time to start new endeavors. But the most endearing aspect of this festival is the use of color to emphasize its meaning. The color of ‘Vasant Panchami’ is the favorite color of Goddess Saraswati, the color yellow. But it is also the color of the mustard fields that bloom at this time, the color of the ripening crop, the color of the sun shining in all its glory, as well as the color of light, prosperity and optimism. The color yellow defines the season, and children and people alike not only wear yellow clothes, but cook yellow food and make yellow candies.
When I say yellow food, I immediately think of yellow moong dal and khichdi. The Vasant Panchami khichdi is festive. Especially during Saraswati Pujo in Bengal. In Bengal, they cook khichdi, or “Kichuri” with fragrant gobindo bhog rice and split moong dal. This “khichuri” is decorated with an array of vegetables such as carrots, green peas, cauliflower, potatoes and the like. The strong aroma and robust taste of this “kichuri” comes from ginger, garlic, cumin, green chilies and garam masala. And then there’s ghee. It just finishes the kichuri and gives it that festival justice and sanctity.
Another yellow food cooked in Bengal during Saraswati Poojo is Beguni. Beguni is a pakoda made from eggplant. Nothing goes better with dal-torkari rice or khichuri than Beguni. It’s really quite simple, thin slices of brinjal dipped in a batter of besan, rice flour, salt, sugar, turmeric powder and Kashmiri red chilli powder, gently fried, emerge as crispy golden slices of joy.
It resembles the simplicity of Vasant Panchami’s Khichdi, because after that we have a feast of rich, delicious and saffron-filled candies that are not only yellow but also full of cream, milk and dry fruit. Starting with the favorite Halwa of Northern India and Rajasthan, the golden yellow Moong Daal Halwa. Well made, this halwa can be rich and decadent. It’s a simple blend of moong, which gets luscious with sugar, lots of ghee and cardamom powder, and is slow cooked in milk and khoya, garnished with chopped nuts and painstaking to make, but it’s all worth it. The coarse moong dal turns into a sweet, soft, crumbly moist and luscious dessert.
My favorite yellow candy is the Boondi Ka Ladoo. As we all know, the word Boondi comes from the Hindi word ‘Boond’ which means drop or drop. So Boondi is made from besan or gram flour. Small bead-sized balls of besan batter are deep-fried in hot oil or ghee to create crunchy pearls that can be either sweet or savory. These besan pearls are soaked in saffron flavored sugar syrup mixed with ghee, nuts, cardamom and dry fruits and then rolled into small balls or Boondi ka Ladoos. The other version of the Boondi ka Ladoo is the Motichoor ka Ladoo. It’s the same Ladoo, only Boondi ka Ladoo has bigger boondis and Motichoor Ladoo has smaller ones. Both Ladoos are made from gram flour or besan batter. But in Maharashtra we make our Boondi Ladoos, crunchy, hard and impossible to bite into, but otherwise it is a sweet and soft decadent affair.
Speaking of sweet balls, in Bengal you have Rajbhog. A throwback to the royal culture of Bengal, Rajbhog is often made during special occasions and festivals such as Vasant Panchami or Saraswati Pujo. Rajbhog is a rosogolla, but quite a large rosogolla. Made with cottage cheese (chena), this massive yellow Rosogolla is filled with almonds and pistachio and drowned in sweet saffron sugar syrup. The challenge is to eat this voluptuous sweet yellow ball in one bite.
In South India, spring is celebrated with the sunset yellow, Rava Kesari, which is called Sooji Halwa in the north and Rava Shira in Maharashtra. Made with rava (sooji or semolina), the rava is roasted in ghee until it turns golden and begins to give off a nutty, toasted aroma. Then mixed with raisins and nuts and soaked with saffron and thickened with condensed milk. The end result is a soft, fluffy luscious and melting pudding with a silky yet grainy texture. In Maharashtra, the Rava Shira is considered auspicious and is served as “prasad” or “bhog” during most pujas. I don’t know why, but our family always put some sliced small bananas in the halwa.
In Maharashtra and Gujarat we also make yellow Shrikhand. Creamy and flavorful Shrikhand is made from their curds. The curds are not hung long enough to turn into paneer, but just the right amount of time to reduce some moisture. The slightly crumbly curd is then vigorously mixed with powdered sugar until it becomes thick, smooth and creamy. To this is added saffron and dry fruit. Especially pistachio. Shrikhand is often eaten with hot fried puris.
And finally, a truly indulgent yellow candy is Meetha Chawal or Kesari Bhaat, similar to Rava Kesari but made with rice. Rice is cooked in ghee with cinnamon and cloves and then with sugar and saffron. When the rice is fully cooked and slightly sticky, it is flavored with cardamom and nutmeg. So similar to Zafrani Pualo or Zarda. As blasphemous as it may sound, I like to eat my Kesari Bhaat, with spicy mutton kheema or pickle. Because festivals are supposed to make you happy, right? And this is what brings me great joy.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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