As a child growing up in Kolkata, I waited eagerly for the eve of Kali Puja – the dark autumnal night when ghosts, demons and evil spirits descend upon earth. I spent the whole day in mild trepidation, refused to guard the firecrackers laid out to sun on the terrace alone (otherwise a cherished task), and generally stayed vigilant.

It was only in the evening, when the choddo pradeep (14 clay lamps) were lit and placed in various corners of the house, did I relax a little. These were supposed to keep the evil spirits away. Of course, I would later learn that the lamps were actually lit to honour 14 generations of our ancestors who come visiting on this day (no less scary).

Lunch a day before Kali Puja was equally a nightmare. Before I could move on to the fritters and fish curries, I was required to swallow at least a few mouthfuls of Choddo Shaak, a preparation made of 14 leafy greens. “Na khele bhoote dhorbe,” the elders would say. If you do not eat it, ghosts will haunt you. I obeyed grudgingly, to save myself from an encounter with the one-legged Ekanore, or much worse, the vicious Shakchunni.

Nowadays, I look forward to it – Choddo Shaak, I mean, not spooky encounters.

Choddo Shaak is a must on Bhoot Chaturdashi, the second day of Diwali, which falls a day before Kali Puja. When I was a child, early in the morning, my grandmother would rattle off the names of the 14 leafy greens without stopping to catch a breath, while someone quickly jotted them down on paper, before handing over the list to the one in charge of the day’s shopping.

The usual entries were laal (red amaranth), kalmi, palang (spinach), kochu (taro), notey (amaranth), kumro (pumpkin), mulo (radish), lau (bottle gourd), paat (jute), motorshuti (green peas), methi (fenugreek), palta (pointed gourd leaves), betho (bathua), and Shorshe (mustard) shaak. It was imperative that my grandmother inspected the greens once they arrived, to ensure nothing was missing. Nowadays, a ready-to-use mix of the assorted greens, chopped and all, is sold in packets at the bazaars across Kolkata.

Traditionally, Choddo Shaak is first washed and soaked in water, before being drained out for cooking. The water is sprinkled around the household, before the greens are cooked. There is no fixed recipe. Most households make a quick stir fry with a couple of dry red chillies thrown in, and serve it with a sprinkle of posto dana (poppy seeds), while others make a mushy chochchori with some diced brinjals, young radish and potatoes, topped with crushed, deep fried bori (dried lentil pellets).

Mythological tales

Culinary rituals such as this are part of festivals and religious ceremonies in India, and Diwali is no exception. Across the country, Diwali celebrations mean a mindboggling range of sweets and savouries, such as the karanjis stuffed with coconut and dried fruits, shakkarparas, anarsa laced with poppy seeds, and saffron-tinted kheer. But apart from these, there are also dishes circumscribed by religious mandate or time-honoured traditions that come with a tale to tell.

Often, such culinary rituals are commemorative of mythological tales that are at the core of the festival. Take, for instance, the slaying of demon Narakasura by Krishna. The legend is immortalised in symbolic rituals in various parts of the country during Diwali. In coastal Maharashtra, and especially in Goa, effigies of Narakasura are paraded on the roads and burnt, and a small bitter fruit called Karit is crushed under the toe to symbolise the destruction of Narakasura. According to one account of the legend, when the victorious Krishna returned home after killing Narakasura, he was offered his favourite meal comprising poha (flattened rice). Among Goan Hindu households it is mandatory to eat poha during Diwali.

Usually, five different dishes are prepared with the poha, or fau, as it is called locally. There is the bataat fau, which is poha cooked with potatoes and a tempering of curry leaves, lentils and mustard seeds; the sweet and the spicy kalayile fau, prepared by mixing the poha (by hand) with a fiery spice blend, grated fresh coconut and a hint of jaggery for a sweet relief. The doodhatlye fau is a simple, delicate dish of flattened rice in milk; the rosathle fau is poha prepared in cardamom-infused coconut milk; and the dhayatle fau is a simple sweet poha prepared with curd or buttermilk. The pohas are usually served with dried pea curry, Vatana Usal.

Then, there is Govardhan Puja, also known as Annakut (anna is rice, kut is mountain), performed on the fourth day of Diwali. Govardhan Puja immortalises Krishna’s lifting of the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger, to shelter the people of Vrindavan from the ravages of torrential rains that threatened their lives. As a symbolic offering of gratitude, a vast array of vegetarian delicacies and sweetmeats, referred to as chhappan bhog, are offered to Krishna, arranged around a mound of rice that represents the Govardhan Mountain.

In some homes in Uttar Pradesh, sooran (elephant foot yam) is an indispensable element of Diwali menu. A friend’s mother usually turns out spicy curries, koftas drowned in rich gravies and spicy tikkis, or she simply mashes boiled yam and jazzes it up with some salt, lime juice, finely chopped green chilies and drizzle of pungent mustard oil to make a traditional chokha typically served with pooris. Sooran, the friend says, is considered auspicious.

“Eating sooran on Diwali invokes Lakshmi’s blessings,” her mother had said.

Ritualistic practices

This explanation may have a more realistic basis. The sooran is a robust tuber that grows easily and in abundance, even in adverse conditions. Plus, tubers do not perish easily and can be stored for long. Naturally, it is seen as a symbol of lasting bounty, leading to the myth that the goddess of prosperity resides in it. In a sense, the tradition is also rooted in a celebration of seasonality – it is during the months of October and November that sooran is harvested.

The ritualistic significance of yam is not restricted to Hindu traditions. The cultivation of yam is often accompanied by complex ritualistic practices in several African and South American cultures. In Papua New Guinea, yam is associated with sacred spirits of ancestors, just like in Bengal the tradition of eating 14 leafy greens is associated with honouring 14 generations of ancestors. There is of course a more matter-of-fact explanation for the Choddo-Shaak ritual: the leafy greens and herbs that go into the mix have medicinal virtues which help boost the immune system during this period of seasonal transition, when one is prone to infections and diseases.

Seasonality is an important aspect of these food rituals. In many Sindhi households, for instance, a rich curry made with at least seven different kinds of vegetables is a mandatory part of the Diwali feast. “The dish is called Chiti Kuni or Saat Saaghi, and mostly uses root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and collocassia, lotus stem and leafy greens like spinach,” said food blogger Alka Keswani of Sindhi Rasoi. “I do not know of a religious connotation, but the tradition appears to be a celebration seasonal produce.”

Another Diwali must in Sindhi households is chikki made with puffed rice and sugar syrup. “These are called Tulashakri or Phulan ji lai, and must be offered to goddess Lakshmi on Diwali,” said Keswani. Though not a ritualistic offering, another delicious sweet turned out in many Sindhi households during Diwali is the fudge-like winter treat Majhun. “It’s prepared by first roasting poppy seeds and flour in ghee, and then cooking it for hours with dried fruits, khoya or full fat milk, and sometimes spices like cardamom, coriander kernels and nutmeg,” said Keswani. The Majhun helps warm up the body during the approaching winter.

Health reasons are also behind a tradition in Tamil Nadu, where a concoction of ingredients – carom seeds, poppy seeds, dry ginger, dry grapes and dates, honey, jaggery, nuts, and ghee – must be consumed on Diwali. Old recipes also call for ingredients like dried licorice root and finger root, as also dried medicinal herbs like sirunaga poo and parangipattai. Known as the Deepavali Legiyum (Diwali Medicine), it aids digestion, and essentially ensures your stomach can handle all the calorie-laden goodies you stuff yourself with during Diwali. Good thinking, isn’t it?