Bhubaneswar: As the new moon waxes in the October sky, days are marked by fasts and feasts across the subcontinent’s northern belt. These dietary rhythms are reflected in the platters or thalis served during the auspicious nine-day period.
They become little microcosms of the country’s diverse culinary traditions and regional identities. From the first dash of oil that hits the pan, the spices that crackle in a tempering pot, the ingredients that fuse to create sumptuous mouthfuls and the subsequent mapping of these dishes on the thali — all allude not just to each region’s climatic subtypes and food habits but also to the similarities within our differences.
As Durga devotees dig into their favourites — maachher jhol, kosha mangsho, luchi, chholar dal, aloo posto, daab chingri, rosogulla and payesh — with greater gusto, the western and northern regions adopt a more austere approach to cooking . The story goes, says Prem K Pogakula, executive chef, The Imperial, Delhi, “When goddess Durga lived in the cave for nine days before killing the demon, she didn’t eat anything. So, we follow a restricted diet during these days. Those who fast, therefore, switch to lighter food items as a way to strengthen willpower and move closer to god.” Typically, the Navratra thali comprises simpler victuals such as jeera aloo, paneer ki bhurji, kuttu or singada ki poori, samak ke chawal, sabudana papad or khichdi, cucumber raita and sabudana or samak ki kheer.
The Bengali bhog thali, however, says Ayandrali Dutta, Delhi-based home chef and blogger, “is a simple gruel of dal and rice with a tempering of ghee and cumin seeds, and the magic ingredient of most Bengali dishes, sugar. It also includes labda, a medley of vegetables, and a tomato chutney. Even those Bengalis who don’t consume non-vegetarian during the pujo days, relish fish on Dashami.”
Thali derives from the word sthali, a ritual cooking pot used in the Vedic kitchen to boil rice. But today, “a common method of serving food is on a thali — a round metal plate about 35 cm in diameter with slightly raised edges. Once used mainly in northern India, thalis are now popular throughout the country in homes and restaurants… They can be made of silver and gold for the wealthy, bronze, kansa (an alloy of copper, tin, zinc, iron and mercury) and even styrofoam, with indentations instead of bowls for larger informal receptions,” writes Colleen Taylor Sen in Feasts and Fasts, A History of Food in India ( 2014).
Traditionally prepared during festivals and on special occasions, these elaborate platters are not the purview of north Indians alone. Kerala’s Onam, celebrated to commemorate the asura king Maveli (or Mahabali), whose rule is thought of as the golden age and whose spirit is believed to visit the state at the time of the festival, calls for the preparation of sadya — a vegetarian meal eaten for lunch. “It can include up to 26 dishes, including yam or banana chips, pachadi (pineapple in yogurt), erissery (mashed beans and pumpkin in a coconut gravy), avial, kootu curry (black chickpeas curry), rasam and sambar, with boiled rice in the centre and a banana at one side. All of this is washed down with buttermilk. Tradition has it that onion and garlic are not used in the sadya,” says Vetri Murugan, head chef at Zambar, Gurgaon. “The folding of the leaf is significant too. If it’s folded toward the guest, then it denotes a certain amount of satisfaction with the meal but the folding of the leaf away from them, means that they didn’t like the food.”