As we bid adieu to raag Malhaar and dal vadas, as monsoon makes way for autumn, the great Indian festive season is upon us. Millets and lentils, roots and fruit which seldom appear on our tables become main course with much fanfare, of dhols, drums and dance. Even as we welcome the gods and make our peace with fasting and feasting during Karva Chauth, Dusshera, and Diwali, all the way till Guru Purab, Christmas, and Lohri, there’s unmatched celebration of colour, food and festivity. Culinary delights ultimately become the prefix, suffix and climax of every festival.
Delectable morsels of mithais, which turns into a cross between a snack, a dessert and a confectionery, move away from regular flour and milk, and get elevated to a superior level of culinary finesse as singhara malpuas and makhane ki kheer arrive on the menu. Popular ingredients such as condensed milk, lentils, semolina, chickpea flour, and vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins are transformed into dreamy flavours of laddoos, barfis and halwas, with a dash of kewra water, mildly spiced and fragrant, adding to the luscious mix. Then, taking the gourmet route could very well be ravioli with a filling of dates and pralines and fried to perfection and coated in melted chocolate with a dust of chilli sugar. However, staying on track with healthy options is challenging for chefs across the country.
Chandigarh-based Chef Manav Suri of Dastaan restaurant, who has in his pocket experiences of working in five-star kitchens and mom-and-pop boutique places in Goa, says, “Navratri has become a detox time for all, and we love the challenge of producing something tasty without hurting religious sentiments. Tomatoes, for instance, which is a taboo for some people, is a primary ingredient in many dishes. We use a mix of sun-dried and organically grown ones during this time. Taking inspiration from Saatvik cuisine, we aim at producing the taste by just hinting the flavour.”
Then there’s the ubiquitous golden fried mawa kachoris, with rich dry fruits and sugar syrup coating, which can satiate every sweet tooth. The soft texture of the interior complements the crunchiness on the exterior perfectly to make a dessert absolutely scrumptious. The legendary chironji or charoli, almond-flavoured seeds, in a burfi, a staple from Madhya Pradesh, has been a childhood companion during Diwali. But what’s interesting is how these grandmother’s delicacies co-exist with the noveau recipes of today. “We are planning an eight-course meal with each dish made of different ingredients served individually. The grand finale is a motichoor cheesecake which is a contemporary liaison between ancient Greece and the streets of Varanasi,” says Fateh Singh Grewal, a chef trained in Italian cuisine from Toronto, who runs a Pune-based culinary consultancy, Two Fat Knishes.
That food unites people is a given but there has been a paradigm shift certainly even when groups of women have a Navratri kitty or a Dusshera lunch or the legendary Diwali card party. “Everyone seems to be experimenting with food. It calls for research and brainstorming for months so that we can sustain the excitement. We now add ingredients such as quinoa, flaxseeds, barley pearls, puffed rice, and black chocolate, aimed at a bulls eye towards health and art,” says Delhi-based Prabhmeet Sethi, Co-founder and Head, R&D, EatWorks, a firm which supplies ingredients and sauces to chefs across the country.
Grewal doesn’t leave meat lovers out though. “My 2019 invention for the festive season is the Ossobuco Biryani, which is an Italian lamb preparation cooked in tomatoes and red wine that is infused with basmati rice,” he says. So whether it’s massaman curry, which is okra diced and garnished with pine nuts, or gond ke laddu, there’s ample scope for food to find new frontiers.