By-Baya Agarwal (Lonely Planet Author)
When we talk about festivals in India, due attention must also be given to the plates and plates of scrumptious food available during this time. The riot of colours called Holi, is no different. Here we venture a look at all the food that makes Holi so much more special, and why we remember it for more than just its colours.
As a kid, I remember my mother preparing days in advance for the festival. The food spread during Holi was one of the most interesting and awaited throughout the year. In the small town, where I lived there was no access to big brands serving Indian sweets, on demand, round the year. Suffice it to say, exclusivity of festival-specific food remained intact. Take for instance how sweet boxes only came in after marriage functions and not like an everyday parcel.
What came out annually around this time from the cupboards were wheeled cutters to create the edges of gujiya, a sweet delicacy made only during Holi festival. Gujiyas are made of maida and carefully filled with just the right amount of khoya, dryfruit and coconut shredding. The art lay in folding the gujiya. My grandmother was an expert in this culinary art; the skill somehow eluded the hands of my mother and, therefore, unlike many other neighbours, my mother preferred to use her brass, wheeled-spoon cutter to finish the rough edges of the gujiya to create a neat design. Where my mother used the wheeled spoon, most others resorted to the plastic gujiya boxes for the final make and shape before it was poured into the kadhai.
Now, gujiya would only be just enough to serve to guests on Holi. The rest, if any, was left for some post-Holi indulgence by the family. The dish that came to the rescue during this time, and one made by several households, consisted of small sweetened maida delicacies, lovingly known as shakkar paare.
Back in the day, momos and French fries were a rarity, so during festivals such as Holi, pakode would serve as the most common finger food. Some even made special bhang pakode on the occasion of Holi, but sadly we never got to taste those as we were always under the vigil of parents. But these pakode had and still have a special place on the Holi menu.
Although not a dish, it deserves a mention on this list. Beetroot, otherwise an always ignored vegetable in the local market, would come home a week before Holi. My mother would carefully slice the beetroot and carrot and add powdered mustard seeds, red chilli, salt and water and then seal the lid of the martbaan (jar) and keep it in sunlight. The result would be kaanji, a dark, vine-coloured, tangy drink ready to quench the thirst of many during Holi. It was usually only after four to five days that we were allowed to take our first sip of the drink. But the wait was always totally worth it!
Another item not to be missed is dahi vadas. Though this dish may be common today, it was earlier sought for its cooling effect on the body.
Apart from the mythology associated with the celebrations of Holi, there are scientific reasons, too, behind some of the food and drinks made available this time. Holi ushers in the spring and is celebrated around the time when spring equinox is approaching. Interestingly, our predecessors seemed to be aware of this and that is how on the elaborate spread of Holi menu, a cool and rich dry-fruit laden milk drink called thandai, finds its place.
Bhang (prepared from the cannabis plant) is a vital ingredient in many Holi-special food items. The closest I got to tasting Bhang was almost a decade ago when during a temple visit with family after Holi, we were served Bhang thandai. What followed was a collection of random thoughts and slow movements. Perhaps that is why bhang is included in the menu – after an action-packed Holi, it allows one to slow down and just be!
Almost all the food on this list illustrates one amazing fact – that in olden days, food for every Indian festival was chosen and made after considering factors ranging from convenience, taste to weather changes.