Hello from the other side: Vegetarian feasts with Kunal Vijayakar
Ganeshotsav holds fond memories for The Foodie, of going from home to home collecting prasaad, and lunching on the most elaborate thalis.
What started off as a cover-up story is today a zealous, indefatigable, pulsating and cacophonous ten days of celebration in Maharashtra. I’m talking about our beloved Ganeshotsav. We all know the story. How Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in 1892-93, espoused this festival as a means to bind all the fragmented Hindu communities and circumvent the colonial British government’s ban on public gatherings. And how the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav became a platform for social message through song, dance, revues and discussions.
This year I visited many pandals, from Girgaum to Lalbaug. And while there is still unwavering faith, there’s also crept in commercialism, one-upmanship, flash, glamour and a lot of traffic.
I tend not to complain and chastise. I have many fond childhood memories of Ganesh festivities, including good family flocking and good food, and it is a festival that remains close to my heart.
I grew up near Chowpatty Beach, the outer precinct of the traditional Maharashtrian stronghold of Girgaum, and the main thoroughfare for Ganpati visarjan. My community, the Pathare Prabhus, though permissive and outward-looking, remain fairly devout when it comes to certain festivals. Ganesh Chaturthi is one of them.
Traditionally, even the idol of the deity would be sculpted at home. My aunt made the idol for her family and I learnt the art from her. Once our puja was done at home, we would go house-to-house for darshan, visiting distant family members and collecting delectable prasaad as we went along. There were all kinds of prasaad. Brown burnt milk Pedas dusted with sugar, Batashas (aerated, light sugar confections that look like meringues without the egg), a version of Mysore Pak (Mysuru Paaka) that we called Maysoor (a crisp and dark brown honeycomb only available at Phutanibai Mithai in Bhuleshwar), and then there were the Modaks. Fluffy rice dumplings with a viscous, desiccated and dense filling of coconut cooked in sugar syrup with saffron and cardamom. Perfect to be later filled with spicy mutton mince and sultanas; never on the day that Ganpati was in the house, but often the minute his idol left our home for immersion.
During Ganeshtosav, we were pure vegetarians. But it was vegetarian food prepared in our Pathare Prabhu fashion, which I’ve written about in an earlier instalment when reminiscing about the month of Shraavan.
The standard vegetarian festival menu in my grandmother’s house began with a salt, lemon, green chutney and Khamang Kakdi (finely chopped cucumber with peanuts, green chillies and coconut). Followed by a staple Varan-Bhat (yellow daal and rice) dripping in toop (ghee), or rice with Ananasache Sambare (pineapple and coconut curry), or when in season Shevlacha Sambare (coconut curry made from a tuber commonly known as zaminkand or dragon stalk yam). There would be two or three kinds of vegetable, often Shirale Vataane Bhaaji (ridge gourd and peas cooked with green chillies, turmeric, jeera and salt) and Sukha Vatana Bhaaji (dry black peas with ladies finger).
Since no vegetarian meal in our home could ever be complete without potatoes, the next course would be Godee Batati (potatoes cooked with full shallots and double or butter beans, in spicy sambhar masala) or Batatyacha Bhujane (potatoes cooked in garlic, onion and masala with chopped coriander). To wipe all the masala and gravy up, and to create an unusually deadly combination of sweet and spicy, we always had the epitome of all puran polis, the kajuchi poli (made of maida stuffed with cashews) and Guroli (sweet semolina puris).
Now we needed some deep-fried savouries. So there was Pathwad (known as alu-wadi in most other Maharashtrian communities), a roll of colocasia leaves smeared with besan, steamed, sliced like patrel and then fried, or Umbar (bhajiyas of banana and rice flour). The meal ended on Ganesh Chaturthi with Doodh Sev, a homemade dessert of steamed rice vermicelli in sweetened, slightly condensed milk.
With the women of the house generally having slaved over this elaborate meal, the day after Ganesh Chaturthi involved fewer hardships. That day is celebrated as Rushi Panchami, a day when you worship seven sages. On this day most homes in Maharashtra cook a mixed vegetable dish called Rushichi Bhaaji. Old traditions say that the vegetables must be chosen from fields where no oxen have worked. So no rice, wheat etc; just leafy vegetables, tubers and roots. A typical recipe will contain shirale (ridge gourd), bhopla (yellow pumpkin), suran (elephant foot yam), unripe banana, alu (colocasia leaves and stems), corn on the cob, peanuts, coconut, green chillies etc. This is all cooked without any spices, onion or garlic, and tastes unbelievably refreshing and light.
The festival isn’t over yet, and there’s more food to come. A couple of days into the 10 days of Ganeshotsav, Gauri (in Maharashtra, Ganpati’s sister) comes visiting and has to be pampered. This menu is in complete contrast to the austere Ganpati Puja menu. Gauri is a warrior and a forest goddess. Our family makes the famous Pathare Prabhu Ghada in her honour (a spicy mixed vegetable dish that is a bit like an Undhiyo), and non-vegetarian food like mutton, prawn, crab and bhakri is also served in some homes on this day. Since non-veg food is served for Gauri, and Ganpati is a pure vegetarian, the two idols are never kept in the same room.
As soon as the indulgent Ganesh festival ends, we enter Shraadh, a month of penance as a mark of respect and gratitude to our ancestors and forefathers. This is the calm restraint before the big bang of Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali… which bring with them, joy, gaiety and more food.