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Homelifestylefood-and-drinkA feast beyond the sweets

A feast beyond the sweets

Jimikand or elephant yam may not be a vegetable of choice for most of the year, except oneseason when this grandad of tubers transforms into a celebrity of produce, eaten and loved in equalmeasures. From French fries to kebabs to curries and Undhiyus, there is an infinite number of dishes made with jimikand or suran and savoured with much relish.

In fact, for culinary specialist Chef NimishBhatia, the root marks the beginning of the season of abundance that starts with what many refer to as “theequinox or in more familiar terms the period between autumn end and the start of winter which is Deepavalievening.”

Apart from jimikand, shalgam, mooli, ganth gobhi, hara lehsun, hara pyaaz and even a wide variety of green leafy vegetables like spinach, amaranth and methi are available in this season. “Suddenly, tables that groaned under the dishes made with gourd, especially bottle, snake, and ash variety, would have dishes made of not just suran, shalgam and mooli that would also be paired with meat, hearty lentils and fish, but also in the form of pickles like the ever addictive shalgam, gobhi and gajar and the choice in dal moving to heartier versions like urad and chana,” says Zest’s culinary director Vikas Seth.

The story is similar in the mountain regions as well where, says RahulWali, an expert in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, “there would be an array of dishes made withshalgamand German turnip— be it asRajma Gogji,Shalgam Gosht or theHaakthat uses the leaves of radishes tempered withhingand red chillies. In fact,even in areas that are soon to be under the cover of snow, the food cues that are available during the time can range fromHokh Syunor sun-dried vegetables likeAlle Hutch, Tamater Hutch, Wagun HutchtoHarissa, a mutton-based breakfast porridge, a favourite among the hill dwellers, to lime and mustardmarinated Himalayan Trout curry or dry fish preparations.”

The use ofmethiand the frequency ofsaagisn’t only in higher altitudes but even in Punjab where, “thesubtle changes begin with the arrival ofmethiandbathuafollowed by the usage of spiced jaggery. Eventhe tea we have is made with a specialmasalathat has ginger, blackcardamom, pepper and cinnamon in it. As for the food, the shift is gradually towards millet, especiallybajraandmakai, and indal, chana,”says Executive Chef Anupam Gulati of Ritz Carlton, Bengaluru. This, along with Madra, made both savoury and sweet, starts becoming a constant on the table, even forregions that move more towards mainland India. Take Garhwal for instance. NivendanKukreti, GM, Anandkashi By the Ganges says, “mandua ki roti and swala remain a constant during this time but what changes is the use of hearty grains, lentils and spices. Take for instance the dal, whilethe preference would be between urad and Gehet or Kulath Dal, there would be a hara moong preparationofmethi leaves with a tempering of jeera and fresh garlic; or the use of Kali Haldi in food, and amongfruits Ramphal and Timula or wild figs. Likewise, for the flour, corn, dried during summers, would be used to prepare chilas and soup. Or the til and masoor khichdi that would be served with uraddal ki pakodi, and gulgule, a banana-raisin sweet treat made to round off the meal.”

In fact, it is a time, say Chef Seth and Chef Gulati, “where maa ki dal becomes commonplace. Every household makes its version. And the beauty is, none of them use any fancy ingredients except garlic and onion to give it that unforgettable taste. Along with that is a pulao made with chana dal and of course, matar, which, “is something that resembles dry peas in appearance but is more of a savoury snack that works as a fantastic small bite as one gets into the cold weather much like the Roth Ki Kheer that is made with fresh sugarcane juice,” adds Chef Vikas Seth.

One-pot treats

The move over to millets and urad dal and the usage of green leafy vegetables is not limited just to the extra cold experiencing regions of the North but becomes a theme across all regions including Nepal and the tea growing regions of Darjeeling. Here, says culinary expert Yangdup Lama of Lungta Cafe, “the period is ofcelebration starting from Dashain, which is our Thanksgiving. And although it is a time when the Newari community celebrates as a meat fest, vegetables, tubers and squash are an equally important part of the table too. So you would see a lot of saag and pork dishes and the use of tapioca as well. But the one ingredient that is celebrated on the table around the time is Iskush or Squash. We simply love the vegetable and use every part of it, starting with the fruit itself which is had around Dashain to Purnima, which is Deepavali, and then the leaves and then the root during peak winters.

Cousins of squash, green leafy vegetables, banana flowers and yams are a common theme in Eastern and Western India as well where the equinox time means the flourishing of one-pot treats as well. While in Odisha and Bengal, says Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti of Calcutta Retro, “the season kickstarts gourmet style saag dishes like the Chhodo Saag that uses upto 14 different types of leafy greens including radish greens, mustard greens, Malabar spinach among others with dried or fresh shrimp as tastemakers occasionally, and a paella kind of portal delicacy called Mundo Ghanta (or Mudhi Ghanto in Bengal) which is a fish head and mixed vegetable and tubers, for the West side, the abundance translates into thelikes of Undhiyu or Umbadiyu and, says Konkan cuisine specialist Chef Ananada Solomon, “popti, which is a post-harvest special that has chicken, egg, seasonal produce, greens and tubers. In other words, everything that has come from the backyard garden at the time. The mixed vegetable dishes are also common among the Sindhis who call it sata bhajyun (“seven vegetables”). It is made of crunchy andfibrous lotus stem, taro, and kachiri, which is also used in Rajasthan around the time.

A hearty celebration

Meat with vegetables is a recurring theme in Southern India, especially Karnataka where the festival takes on a larger-than-life celebration. While sweets are central to the celebration, meat, and vegetables are a core part of the feast, especially among the Telugu Chettiar community who love their meat along with Thattu Vadai and Omapodi.

Poha or fau takes centerstage for the Goan Hindus who cook it in both sweet and savoury ways through this period. While the one with potatoes and a temperingof curry leaves, lentils and mustard seeds is called batatte fau, the sweet and spicy kalayile fau is prepared by mixing the poha (by hand) with a fiery spice blend, grated fresh coconut and a hint of jaggery for sweet relief. The doodhatlye fau is a simple, delicate dish of flattened rice in milk; the rosathle fau is poha prepared in cardamom-infused coconut milk. Each is served with dried pea curry called Vatana Usal.

Poha or chivda is a constant among Gujaratis as well for whom this period is also a sign to curate their munchies bag starting with gond ke laddoo also called kali miri, says culinary archivist Chef Neha Deepak Shah, “to pak made from different dals and kachri to Bajra Methi Dhebra that is often had with tea. Much like in Rajasthan where bajra and jowar become a staple for creating comfort food likeraab or khichdi that is served with mogri, a bean-like vegetable in Gujarat too, certain dishes mark the beginning of winter like the lehsun ma kachri which is made with green garlic and ghee, and is often used as a compound butter to add flavour to the meal, likewise for Katlu Pak that is made with a herb called pipramul that works like an antidote against the changing weather. Then there are ceremonial dishes like the alu pyaaz and lehsun ki sabzi that is often cooked with a lot of fanfare and is a favourite around the time much like alu puri.” Another interesting theme around the time is the creation of what India collectively recognises as farsan. From simple chivda, says Chef Bhatia, “to the Odisha-style mixture and the UP-style makhana to murukku and other forms of fried goodness happen in this brief time along with badis in the East, which are used extensively for tastemaking in winter cooking.”

Executive Chef Dirham Haque of Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts adds, “it isn’t just the choice of key ingredients that change, but also the spices. While the use of spices as masala leans more towards garam and khada masalas that have the aroma to match, the tempering spices are a mix and match of those that aid in digestion while lending each dish the right amount of flavour play like mustard, asafoetida, black pepper, fenugreek, and ajwain. The best part this combination isused across the board whether one is cooking lentils, grains, vegetables or meat. In fact, if there is one ingredient that is loved as much as cinnamon during Christmas, it is garlic, especially when it comes to the greens.”

Making the switch

But why does such a change take place? Seasonality, says Chef Solomon, “could be an easy explanation for it. After all, our food system was designed in cue with nature. However, that is one part of the story, the other is the need to prep the body for the final seasonal change of the year.” The time between Dasara and Deepavali, says culinary anthropologist, Sabyasachi Gorai, “is marked both by solar and lunar changes, which means our body is under duress and exposedto ailments that come along. The changing food on the table along with the holiday cleaning and rituals are a way to keep us occupied and happy so we do not feel the stress building on us. One way that food does it is by introducing dishes that have both high and low GI. This way there can be a constant supply of energy to keep up the mood. Thus for every laddoo that is made for taste, there is a prasava legiyum like pinni to take care of the health followed by a bajra ki khichdi or ponkh to nourish and keep us full.”

(The author is a seasoned food columnist and curator of experiential dining experiences, pop-ups, and retreats for chefs.)

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(Published 11 November 2023, 21:46 IST)

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