Hinduism and Food

Hindu Festivity: Durga the Demon Slayer
Invocation of the goddess with a community dance. Photo: Partha Banerjee.

Invocation of the goddess with a community dance.

This week, for four days, we have our wonderful, colorful, fun-filled, music-filled Hindu religious festivities. The religious part is called Durga Puja, or invocation of Goddess Durga. But truly, for many of us, it's as much cultural as it is religious. The essence of the religious part is that Goddess Durga, the divine force with ten hands symbolizing ten directions and powers, vanquishes Asura the demon. As with many other Hindu religious observances, the idols and their manifestations are all symbolic. As Swami Vivekananda the great monk from India said it in America many years ago, we do not worship the idols. We worship the powers they symbolize. Our gods and goddesses and pujas and rituals are high art, as they almost always carry symbols, and metaphors and inner nuances. Plus, the way the artisans build the clay idols are purely celestial art. I guess, we celebrate the artists and their creations too. Indian religious festivities are also never complete without sumptuous food. In places like Bengal where I come from, we have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. On some days, we choose to go vegetarian. On some others, it's mixed with the sacrifice of a goat or lamb. But traditionally, we do not use onions or garlic to cook the sacrificial meat, on these days. And Hindus do not eat beef, nor they eat chicken or pork on religious days. But I am only talking about urban or middle-class Indians -- people and communities I am familiar with. A mixture of rice and lentils -- also known as khichri -- is an important part of the offering. All the food we take at the puja premises are food offered by the priest to the goddess first, before the worshipers and followers get to eat it. Because it is offered to the goddess first, we call it prasad (in Bengali or Hindi), or prasadam (in South Indian languages such as Tamil or Telugu). Durga Puja is also full of autumn fruits. And flowers too. This is the time when India is beautiful weather; fruits and flowers are beaming with beauty and prosperity. Monsoon has just passed, and Mother Earth is lush with bright sun, moderate temperatures, and clear skies. The famous mango and blackberry season has passed, and the cooler orange season has not begun yet. But fruits such as sugarcane, banana of many varieties, papaya, grapefruit, guava, apple, pear, pomegranate, coconut, ripe jackfruit, etc. etc. are abundant. Fruits and many different flowers would be laid out on freshly cut, dark green banana leaves, and that layout itself is a work of art.
Night-flowering Jasmine Nyctanthes arbor-tristes. Shiuli in Bengali. Abundant in autumn.

Night-flowering Jasmine Nyctanthes arbor-tristis. Shiuli in Bengali. Abundant in autumn.

When we were small, we did not know the significance of the religious aspects. We would chant the Sanskrit prayers sung by the priest in awe, without knowing the meaning. But we would be very much looking forward to the food and desserts that came after the offering was over. It was a mouth-watering experience. And talking about desserts -- no Indian festivities are complete without desserts. In the Southern parts of India, coconut is an integral part of much of the food and desserts too. In the Northern Indian states such as Bengal, Assam, Punjab, Bihar, Orissa or Uttar Pradesh, desserts are primarily made out of cow or buffalo milk. And it is true that sweets from Bengal are famous all across India. Our delicacies such as Rosgolla and Sandesh and sweet, homemade yogurt are items no Indians have the heart to refuse. And then, music. In places like Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi or Bangalore, all the biggest community pujas are followed by music festivals, where well-known or budding artists would come to sing, or play their sitar, sarod and tabla. Durga Puja is fun. Mother Durga destroys the evil forces in us, and renews our peaceful, pious beginning for a new year. She is the ultimate force who helps us to keep free of human vices. To the Mother, we pray for peace, resilience and strength. We say, "Jai Ma Durga."
Durga Puja in Albany, New York. Photo: Partha Banerjee.

Durga Puja in Albany, New York. Photo: Partha Banerjee.

Happy Breakfast on a Diwali Morning (and a special recipe)
Deepawali-festivalDiwali is here! Indian households will light up with clay lamps, candles and electric decorations. Fireworks will fill up the streets, and the sky.   And we will eat sumptuous Indian food to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Diwali, or Deepavali. _____ Indian households, particularly Bengali homes, practically spend their days and nights thinking about eating. At least, that’s how it used to be when we grew up.   The day begins planning for food: breakfast around 7 A.M., followed by lunch (around 10 A.M. on weekdays, and 1 P.M. on weekends), followed by afternoon snacks (around 4 P.M. when kids return from school), followed by evening snacks (around 7 P.M., when kids return from playground and the head of the household returns from work), followed by dinner (around 10 P.M.).   There are some Indian families where dinner is really late: around midnight. Believe it or not! Not good for health, though.   Of course, today, with more health consciousness and less available time, life has become “less exciting,” when it comes to having many meals and munches throughout the day.   Let’s talk about breakfast.   Breakfast used to be fun. Not like today’s routine cereal and milk, or toast and eggs -- in affluent, Westernized families; or no breakfast in a very busy, nuclear family where everybody would go out to work at 8 A.M. sharp. Laid-back were those days when we grew up. Father would work in government office, with a stable and peaceful lifelong job, and mother would stay at home. Father would plan with mother the night before what next morning’s breakfast would be.   Weekdays and weekends, just for the simple reason that one has more time than the other, would have different sorts of breakfast.   On a regular weekday, father would go out to work at 10 A.M. (and in my case, my mother would also go out to work more or less at the same time, unless she had morning duties at the post office where she worked all her life). Therefore, breakfast would be made between 7 and 7.30 A.M. Weekday breakfast would include leftover roti (handmade wheat bread) from last night; but in order to make it delicious, mother would fry it with ghee on a flat skillet. The roti would turn dark brown, but father would take special supervisory role to make sure mother would not over-fry it, so that it turned black. Once it turned even remotely blackish, it’s no fun to munch on it anymore. It’s bitter.   This ghee-fried, crispy and crunchy, golden brown roti would be savored with some cane sugar, sugarcane or date-palm jaggery, or for the less-sweet-toothed, Indian style mango relish or achaar, or even leftover curry, warmed up on the clay oven.   For the more Westernized but less affluent, French toast, but not with pricy eggs, but with a batter made out of chickpea flour of besan. Equally delicious and nutritious, but less harmful to heart. Eat a few pieces of besan French toast with a dash of salt and pepper.  
Luchi, or Puri.

Luchi, or Puri.

Weekend breakfast would be elaborate. Luchi (deep-fried white-flour, puffy bread), Paratha (triangular bread fried on a flat skillet with ghee or oil), served with very thinly sliced potato fries. Especially, in summer, fried Patol (a delicate vegetable of the cucumber family), or in winter, fried cauliflower. In families where they have health restrictions on use of oil or ghee, they would make a spicy curry with all of the above vegetables, with minimal oil (not mustard or coconut oil, both of which are high in cholesterol).
Fried Patol, or pointed gourd. Parval in Hindi.

Fried Patol, or pointed gourd. Parval in Hindi.

  No breakfast is complete without some sweets. In Bengal, Mohan Bhog (in Hindi, they call it Halva) would be a major treat for kids and adults alike. It is made out of semolina and ghee, with generous amount of cane sugar added to it. Once in a while, perhaps a few, mouth-watering Ras-Gollah, or Gulab Jamun.   Then, after breakfast, it’s time to ponder carefully about the lunch menu. Time for the family member who has time, to go to the local farmer’s market or bazaar, a very important, daily ritual for most Indian households, even today.   Here is a Mukti’s Kitchen recipe for you, a gift on Diwali.   Poha (Flattened Rice with cauliflower, cashews and raisins)   Poha is originally a Marathi-Gujarati dish (from the Western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), a popular vegetarian breakfast, with a fragrant nutty flavor. I made this in my in-laws house with the supervision of my father-in law. He travelled across India, and he introduced me to many vegetarian dishes. I still remember my First Poha making and getting nervous whether it would come out nice. Especially in your new home where people are watching over your cooking skills. You have to make sure your flattened rice is not sticky. It must be fluffy, and that is the trick.  
Poha, a delicious breakfast.

Poha, a delicious breakfast.

Poha (a Bengali modification)   Prep time – 15 minutes Cook time – 20 minutes Total time – 35 minutes Yield – 4-6 people   Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon of ghee (clarified butter)
  • 1 medium red onion, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons of cauliflower (very small florets about 1”/1” cut)
  • ½ cup frozen peas
  • 2 tablespoons of roasted cashew
  • 2 tablespoons of golden raisins
  • 2 cups of soaked flattened rice
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • ½ tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of roasted cinnamon, cardamom and clove mixture (directions in procedure)
  • Chopped cilantro
  Procedure   How to soak the poha  
  1. Wash 2 cups of flattened rice in cold water and add 3 cups of warm water. Give it a good swirl. Soak in warm water for 3-5 minutes, then drain the extra water completely, and let it sit for 4-5 minutes. This part is tricky to make your poha fluffy.
 
Indian spice box

Indian spice box

How to roast spices  
  1. In a clean pan, add two inches of cinnamon, 5 green cardamoms, 7 cloves. Let them toast in a medium heat until you get a nice aroma (hold up the pot to look for the fumes coming from spices, it should only take 10-20 seconds, it is important not to burn your spices.)
 
  1. Transfer the whole spices, and grind them in a spice grinder until granular.
  Now, the actual cooking process  
  1. Heat the oil and ghee on a large skillet on medium flame, and add the finely diced onion.
  2. Add ½ teaspoon of salt and cauliflower, then fry together for 3-4 minutes.
  3.  Add the peas and stir well, and fry for 1 minute. Cook until the vegetables are soft; then add cashews and raisins.
  4. Add the flattened rice and softly fold it (gently, not to mash the cooked vegetables and rice).
  5. Add 1 teaspoon of cardamom, cinnamon and clove toasted powder and sugar; mix well, then salt to taste.
  6. Serve a on a flat plate garnished with ½ teaspoon of toasted powder (cinnamon, cardamom and cloves), ½ teaspoon of ghee and chopped cilantro.
  Serve hot.   Happy Diwali to All.   happy-diwali-greetings  
Wonderful India, As I See It Now :-)
Delicious lunch in Rajpur, West Bengal.

Delicious lunch in Rajpur, West Bengal.

Dear Friends: I am in India now, and enjoying every minute of it. Next week, I'm returning to New York, with new cooking recipes, new ideas, and new energy. 🙂 It is hard to describe India in one or two short articles. India is a very beautiful, but complex country. The geography is complex. The food habits are very different from place to place. The cultures and lifestyles and languages are also very different. It's an enormously diverse country. You travel one hundred or two hundred miles in any direction, and you feel like you've come to a different country. That's how complex it is. Yet, in spite of all the diversity, there is an underlying theme of unity, whether you are in Calcutta on the east (where I am now), Delhi on the north, Bombay on the West, or Chennai on the south. Then, there are so many big cities and small towns and big villages and tiny villages across India: Bangalore, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar, Puri, Darjeeling... In all these places, however, regardless of the language, religion or food habits, people show some strong, bonding features that tie the country together. Care for the elderly parents at home is one such feature. The presence of a real society is another such feature. Cooking food at home and eating together at least once a day is perhaps a third feature. There are more. Recently, my husband and I had an opportunity to visit one of his surviving maternal aunts in a village-like small town called Rajpur. He went back there after four decades, and I went for the first time. A sister in-law and an uncle in-law took us there. It was such a wonderful experience that I cannot describe in words! Before going to her place, we visited a famous nearby Hindu temple of Goddess Chandi. Even though I went there for the first time every in my life, and my husband went back after so long, never we had the feeling that we were away from them. They embraced us so warmly that it felt as if we never left India. The love and affection were so real!
Her own artwork :-)

Her own artwork 🙂

The aunt, a widow for many years now, lives with her two sons, their wives and children. She has her own little room on the upper floor where she makes her own artwork, and writes her own poetry. She took me to her room, and displayed all her sewing, fabric work, and kantha (cloth) stitches. Incredible! I am sharing a photo here. She opened her iron trunk which was tucked away underneath the bed, and showed me the annual diaries she wrote for many, many years. All with a tender, affectionate smile for this daughter in-law she had heard of, but never seen! And then, she divulged some of her cooking secrets. Now she is very old and can't cook herself, but teaches her daughter in-laws how to cook her phenomenal dishes. The pulao (scented fried rice with raisins and garam masala), the fish curry, the lamb curry, the lentils with coconut, and a number of vegetarian dishes (Hindu widows are strictly vegetarian). Absolutely delicious! If I had the time, I would definitely go back to her at least once more, to ask some follow-up questions. But this time, it was not possible. I hope next time though, I return to Rajpur to sit down for some time with this wonderful woman, and learn from her secrets of Bengali and Indian cooking. Feel blessed. I shall tell you more when I come back. Sincerely, Mukti Mukti's Kitchen
Rajpur, a small town near Calcutta.

Rajpur, a small town near Calcutta.

Celebrate Diwali Today :-)
Goddess Kali the Demon Slayer. Art melts with religion.

Goddess Kali the Demon Slayer. Art melts with religion.

Celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights. This year, it's on Thursday, October 23. Be festive, be merry. Decorate your home, school and work place with lights. Small lights. Big lights. Anything that can lighten up and illuminate. Anything that can make the day bright and full of smiles. And then, celebrate the happy occasion with Indian food. Happy and healthy Indian food. And if you like sweets, have Indian sweets. 🙂 More...
This is a Very Sweet Time :-)
Indian SweetsThis is really the time for sweets. Indian sweets. Bengali sweets. Punjabi sweets. Delhi sweets. Bombay sweets. You name it. The time between Durga Puja in West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) -- in early October -- and Diwali in Punjab, Gujarat, Delhi and others parts of India -- in late October -- is the time when people visit their friends and relatives. We touch the elder's feet in reverence. They bless us by putting their palm on our forehead. Men and women of equal age embrace each other in affection and love. More...
Food, Fun, Festivity and Hinduism
The Deities and the Devotees.

The Deities and the Devotees.

Written by Partha Banerjee of One Final Blog _________ October is the season for our Hindu religious and social festivity. Durga Puja and Lakshmi Puja, followed by Diwali, Brother's Day, and many more. Not too many people know here in America. But it is truly a fascinating, colorful time for us. Because all of the religious celebrations and pujas are linked with food and fun. Food fun. And fun food. 🙂 And to me, it’s more about food and fun than religion and rituals. Hindu religious festivals are absolutely, brightly colorful with mouth-watering food. And what’s more, because it’s directly linked with the sacred events, the food is actually even more healthy and pious than the often-extravagant and spicy Indian dishes. And you can’t complain about good, delicious Indian food with carefully preserved health qualities, can you? More...
Goddess Durga and Godly Food
Jodhpur Park Durga Puja

Goddess Durga the Demon Slayer.

Goddess Durga with her ten hands and four children are here. She rides the lion and vanquishes the Asura – the demon. We celebrate her arrival on earth.

 

The four-day celebration has just begun. It’s that time when in India and Bengal and wherever we are, religion melts with social traditions, rituals melt with art, and fun melts with food.

 

Hindu Durga Puja is all about society and religion, fun and frolicking, and art and food.

 

And artistic food. You would miss out a lot if you didn’t know.

 

Let me help you to know.

  More...