When is a fast as good as a feast? During Shravan, says Kunal Vijayakar
There is something about this season that brings out the honesty in me. Maybe it’s just an enormous relief that the sweltering heat has given us a month or so off. Or maybe it’s that the city looks like a hot and sultry beauty that has just come out of a long shower, looking even more flushed and radiant.
In the city the skies turn dramatic, the greens turn greener, and the cobalt tarpaulins look more like plastic than ever before. The smells of sweat, grime and decaying garbage are replaced with petrichor. There’s something quite primitive and primal about that smell of wet earth, often called ‘matti ka attar’ in the North. In Mumbai we call it, the smell from the potted plants in the balcony. That’s if you haven’t already enclosed the balcony of your tiny flat.
The streets are full of tiny rivulets that turn into gushing torrents, and you can finally dip your feet in without worrying about the source of the muddy water. I know this might all seem like I don’t like the monsoon, but that’s far from the truth. Compared to the heat, I love the monsoon. Anyone who says that sunshine brings happiness, hasn’t danced in the rain. Not my words, but I couldn’t have said it any better.
This is indeed the season of romance, festivals and great food. In the coastal states of Maharashtra Goa and Karnataka, fish-loving Hindu communities turn vegetarian for a month. They say its because, in this season, the seas are too rough for fisherfolk to venture out. Also it is believed that this is the time of year when fish spawn. The idea is to leave them alone and let them breed, so that there is more fish to eat at the end of the month, when the fishermen, after Narali Purnima, head back into the seas.
Even my meat- and fish-loving community of the Pathare Prabhus eat vegetarian food, limited of course, only to Shravane Somvar and Shravane Shanivar which is Mondays and Saturdays. This Pathare Prabhu bi-weekly tryst with vegetarianism was quite a ceremony when we were little. With the cook and the rest of the staff working under her watchful eye, my grandmother would organise the lunch.
A word about my grand-mom. She would have been 99 this year and she loved her kitchen. Even in her 80s, she’d sit on the floor in her nine-yard sari, astride a vili or morli (a short wooden stool with a sharp, curved perilous looking blade attached to it). At the end of the blade was a serrated disc on which you could grate a coconut. This way both her hands were free to hold the pomfret, leg of mutton or vegetable and deftly cut it the way she wanted to.
But getting back to our purely vegetarian Shravan meals, thalis and cutlery would be dispensed with and banana leaves procured. We’d sit in a long row, with one large leaf spread out in front of each person. The air would be filled with the fragrance of flowers, incense and food. And the older ladies of the house would serve.
The kids would be the first to eat and it would be a special menu. On Shravane Somwar, the taat (thali) would start with a pinch of salt, a slice of lemon, green chutney and Khamang Kakdi (a mildly flavoured salad of finely chopped cucumber garnished with peanuts, green chillies and coconut). Then Varan Bhaat, which is common among most Maharashtrian communities. It’s steamed rice with a daal made of tur or pigeon pea flavoured with turmeric, cumin, and asafoetida. It’s simple comfort food, and is always had with homemade ghee.
Then the veggies — Shirale Vataanyachi Bhaaji (ridge gourd with peas cooked with green chillies and turmeric), and since no vegetarian meal in our home could ever be complete without potatoes, Batatyacha Bhujane (potatoes cooked in garlic, onion and masala with chopped coriander), and a coconut curry, usually a Methi Alucha Sambare (a fenugreek and colocasia curry with coconut milk) or Shevlacha Sambare (coconut curry made with Zaminkand or Dragon Stalk Yam). 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 rotis, the Kajuchi Poli (puran poli made with a stuffing of cashews instead of besan) and Guroli (sweet semolina puris).
Accompanying the Shravan meal we had to have something deep-fried. So there was Pathwad (also known amongst others as alu-wadi, a roll of colocasia leaves smeared with besan, steamed and then fried). This would be the Monday Menu.
Saturdays were more festive, since more family members were free to come to lunch on the weekend. The Varan Bhaat made way for a spicy Green Pea Khichdi, which is more of a pulao. There would be Godee Batatee, a typical Pathare Prabhu recipe of potatoes cooked with shallots and double-beans (lima or butter beans) in oil and spices, in a deliciously thin gravy. A cool and mild cucumber and coconut curry, Kaakadiche Sambare, flavoured with turmeric, garam masala, and asafoetida.
Since no wheat is supposed to be consumed on this fast, instead of chapatis or pooris, the menu had Vade (deep-fried pooris made from a dough of rice and urad dal mixed with a masala of green chillies, coriander, turmeric and chili powder).
Now for the fried savories. Potatoes, onion rings and ova (ajwain) leaves all dipped in besan and deep-fried made for a variety bhajiyas. Also Umbar, sweet fried chips made from rajeli or cooked bananas, each sliced dipped in rice flour batter and fried. They come out with a crunchy crust and a soft, sweet inside, and are a super accompaniment to all the spice.
Along with that another banana speciality: Keravlya (yellow bananas steamed, mashed, mixed with fresh coconut and dry fruit and deep-fried). And finally, my favourite Pathare Prabhu sweet, Appey. This dish is made by soaking semolina in warm milk to make a batter with ghee, sugar, poppy seeds, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder and fried raisins. This batter is then deep-fried in ghee in a cast-iron vessel with semi-spherical depressions. The Appey come out like little balls, a bit like Paniyarams, only crisp and sweet. There is no better way to end a good Shravan feast Pathare Prabhu style, unless of course you want to end it with a glass of sherry.