Sunday, July 23, 2006

Unedited version of Fasting Feasting - article that appeared in Savvy Cookbook Issue of August 2005

Fasting Feasting (The Concept of Shravan or the Fasting month as it is observed in India)

August, along with being the peak of the monsoon season will also bring with it the month of Shravana, the fifth month of the Hindu calendar that begins from Chaitra. Shravana is also the most auspicious month of the Hindu calender. On the Purnima or full moon day of this month and during the course of the month the star 'Shravan' rules the sky which is why the month is called Shravana. This month is full of innumerable religious festivals and ceremonies and almost all the days in this month are auspicious. The entire month of shravan is observed as one fasting, in which all tamasic or “heaty” foods are shunned, including non-vegetarian foods. This is mostly because digestion is considered sluggish during this season.

While fasting in some form or the other manifests itself in all religions the Hindu religion has various days of fasting throughout the year. For Hindus, fasting is also prompted by the seasons, time of day, and solar and lunar cycles. In this regard, fasting takes on an aspect of health as well by maintaining the body's equilibrium with that of the larger forces of life. Most festivals involve some form of fasting as well, which again goes some way in nullifying the excesses of celebratory feasting.
I remember as a child looking forward to my Grandmother’s fasting days. On those days she would sit apart from the rest of the family for her one meal of the day. We were not aware of the religious connotations of these days then. We just waited for her to be done so we would get to finish the leftovers. There were a host of “treats” we grew to love and look forward to at those times.

There was the deliciously textured Sabudana khichdi - soft globules of sago, steam-cooked to perfection so each particle was separate, with surprising chunks of savoury potato and bits of peanut that caught between your teeth to surprise you. As delicious and my personal favourite was the Morio. This is a dish made from a granular flour called Morio by the Gujaratis it is called Veru Arisi in Tamil. It was cooked like a khichdi in sour yogurt with potatoes and peanuts and seasoned with green chillies. It retained it’s grainy texture on cooking an the chunks of potatoes that were cooked with it absorbed the sourness of the yoghurt and he spiciness of the chillies most deliciously!

What we did not know then was that these things we looked forward to as treats actually had a religious connotation, that they were meant as a form of prayer and self-sacrifice in an attempt to get closer to God. The very word for fasting “Upvas” means to get closer to God. Fasing for eons now has been a penance, a process of purification, physical, emotional and mental, and is accompanied by pursuing good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

The original concept of fasting entailed a deviation from one’s normal lifestyle and devoting one’s day to introspection. The fasting person was supposed to distance himself from the trivia of day-to-day life and think only about God. As any worldly pleasure would distract him from this purpose, he was supposed to follow a simple routine. Hence, rich food was avoided and a simple diet was taken to sustain the body. The intention was neither to starve the body nor to indulge it.

Not only are there many days and reasons to fast in the Hindu Calender, there are also various fasts. At it’s simplest a fast merely entail avoidance of certain foods for a period of time. Meat eating Hindu factions might avoid meat or vegetarians might give up tamasic (heaty) foods. A more moderate fast might involve imbibing of only liquids. Fasting at it’s strictest would involve taking only water for a number of days and requires a cessation of most external activities. The essence of fasting is to eat simply and only enough to sustain oneself for the period of fasting.

The most prevalent method of fasting in the Hindu religion has been that of phal aahar. Charaka and Sushruta two of the major authors of the Ayurvedas classified edible plants into seperate groups and the Phala varga is that of fruit. The word Phala when combined with ahaar which means food or diet comes to mean a diet of fruit but over time it has grown to encompass in a larger sense all foods not raised with a plow or cultivated in contrast to “anna” or cultivated foods. This was the traditional diet ascribed to ascetics hermits and householders who were fasting.

What is 'allowed' during a fast and what is not is mostly a question of perspective but Foods such as grains, lentils, radish, onion, garlic, all salt other than rock salt, hing, red chilli, fenugreek, (methi seeds), jaggery, turmeric, mustard seeds, sesame, betel leaves, maize, rice in all forms, vegetable oil, any thing spoiled, or remaining from a prior meal are proscribed. They are believed to be either tamasic (heaty) and not to be consumed on the day of a fast.

Allowed foods include milk, and certain milk products like yogurt, butter milk, butter and ghee. Vegetables include some gourds like the Dudhi and Parval, Root vegetables like Potato, Suran, Ratalu Kand), Sweet Potato, Arbi and spices like the Green chilli, Coriander, ginger, Dried ginger, (sonth), Lemon, Fruit, Cumin, dried fruit and nuts, sago, (tapica, sabudana), rock salt, (sendha namak), sugar, rock sugar (misri), black pepper, clove, cardomom, rajgeera, coconut, peanut, Shingara, Buckwheat, Arrowroot. Whatever their origins, all of the items of it is harvested from existing sources rather than cultivated. In fact I recalled my grandmother used to source one kind of grain for fasting days. This intrigued me, as all grains cereals and pulses are prohibited on fasting days. On doing a little research I found out that a foodgrain called Shyamaka also known as Apasthamba WAS in fact allowed to ascetics. Just goes to show how innovative one can get in the search for flavor!

The Upvas meal that I recall, was a full Thali. , There was a Kadhi made of made up of Yoghurt thickened with Shingare ka atta or flour made from Water Chestnusts, The vegetable would usually be a spicy potato subzi, Pooris would be made from Rajgeera flour and in the place of rice there would be Samwat ke chaawal or Parsai ke chaawal. There would also be a Khandvi made from Shingare ka atta or a potato pattice stuffed with coconut and coriander or crushed peanut. Dessert would be a kheer made from Sweet potato, Shingare ka atta or Sabudana!

Shravan food in Mumbai

My grandmothers Shravan recipes.

Glossary of Ingredients

Singhare ka Atta is flour made from Waterchestnuts. Water chestnuts have been a part of the culinary annals of India for eons. This flour qualifies as a fast ingredient because the Shigara occurs naturally and is harvested when in season. About 2/3 of the plant floats just beneath the water surface, with only its upper leaves floating on the surface, it has white flowers that submerge after pollination to facilitate fruit formation. The plant bears edible nuts in hard-shelled fruits which resemble the head of a water buffalo with two large curved horns hence the name Shingara and it is these nuts that are made into flour that is used as a staple during fasts, to make chapattis, paranthas, sweets vadas and also as a binder or thickening agent.

Morio, Veru Arisi, Vari che Tandul Sama or Khodri is a wild grain which is ground into flour. The seeds are sun-dried, then threshed to remove the husks. When roughly ground it is cooked like rice, in salted water. The fact that is found wild and harvested and also considered a 'cool' food makes it a viable choice ion fasting days.

Samwat ke chaawal or Parsai ke chaawal are tiny, white, round grains almost like a mini Saboodana. They do not separate on cooking but stay a bit soggy and can replace rice in any recipe.

Kootoo ka Atta is dark in color, but quite tasty and known rich in fibre. It is used in much the same way as the Singhare ka atta, though slightly rougher in texture.

Sendha Namak / Lahori Namak or Rock Salt is considered light and calming in nature as compared to sea salt which is considered slightly heaty. It has no distinct flavor of it’s own so one does not miss ordinary salt and it can be used in the same quantities as ordinary salt. This along with the fact that is harvested from open mines makes it a viable substitute for salt in Fasting food.
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