Food and culture

Forget mithai. For Kayasth families, traditional Diwali food is the humble elephant’s foot yam

Writer Anoothi Vishal recounts the memories of Diwali spent with her beloved Barima.

Along with celebrating the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, the festival of Diwali also celebrates every community’s love for food. Deep-fried goodies made from chickpea, lentil or rice flour, to sweets like halwas, barfis in an assortment of shapes and laddoos are enjoyed on this day. While in Andhra Pradesh teepi gavvalu (sweet shells in Telugu) is eaten on this auspicious day, karanjis reign supreme in Maharashtra.

Writer Anoothi Vishal writes about her memories of the festival in her book, Mrs LC’s Table, in which she explores the history of Kayasth cuisine through the one person who defined her palate for years – the woman she called Barima, or grandmother. In the chapter “Feasting, Fasting”, Vishal writes about how she and her cousins would spend Diwali together and how zimikand, or the elephant’s foot yam, simmered in an onion and yogurt gravy, was synonymous with the festival in their household. An excerpt:

“Papdi was a snack to be feasted upon during the winter festivities of Diwali as well, the other major festival of our world. Like everything else, the festival of lights came with its own carefully calibrated rituals of feasting. On the day of the main Lakshmi Puja, before the crackers gifted to us by our grandparents could be burst, Barima would gather the family for a puja of sixty-four lit diyas. This was different from how we had worshipped the unlit, ‘cold’ lamps a night before, on Chotti Diwali, before settling down to games of teen patti, the only time the children were allowed to play cards. On Badi Diwali, the main night, mustard oil was filled in each earthen lamp and they were all lit. Kheel and batashas, puffed rice and sugar confections, were the ritualistic offerings made to these lit lamps – perhaps a homage to the bounty of the earth, both rice and sugar cane being freshly harvested in autumn in northern India. And then Barima would tell us the Diwali story.

It is a myth retold through generations. I am not sure how old the story is but it is likely that this is a version that emerged relatively later, with the cult of the misogynistic Tulsi Ramayana and other texts, where older rituals and stories became mixed up with morality tales and social commentary rooted in an increasingly aggressive and reactionary feudal order. The story goes like this: one Diwali night in Ayodhya, Lakshmi finds only a single house unlit. So instead of visiting the other shining mansions, she decides, for a change, to visit the poor old man’s darkened hut. As she is about to step inside, the wily old man blocks her way, kicks her away. On being questioned by the goddess of wealth, he abuses and kicks her, calling her a whore who is fickle in her affections. Only when Lakshmi promises to stay in his house for seven generations is she given permission to enter. The story ends with the family praying that, Lakshmi favour their home too for seven generations like she did the old man’s household.

It’s an offensive, violent story. But as children, we not only accepted it as a ritualistic piece but also found the profanities coming out of my grandmother’s mouth entertaining. There was never any questioning of the misogynistic morality tale; the abused Lakshmi tamely stayed put in our home, and we wound up the Diwali festivities. Not with fireworks – that was just the interlude – but with a late dinner of yams and pooris. Zimikand, or yam, curried in a thick gravy, was a must-eat on Diwali night – even more than the assortment of rich sweets and savouries, kaju katli and besan papdi that had been prepared at home for the festival. The zimikand would be diligently scraped clean, fried – lest a rogue piece cause the throat to itch – and then slow-cooked in yoghurt before being simmered in a thick onion-based gravy. Almost meat-like in its texture, it was eaten with pooris.

This was the dish we associated with the night of Lakshmi Puja – a ritual dish consumed because it was believed that Lakshmi resided in the plant, a hardy tuber that propagates easily and hence associated with fertility and wealth. Eating a food to imbibe its ‘magical’ properties is, of course, an ancient ritual across communities, particularly agrarian ones. Gold and silver varq, for instance, coat several sweets in India even today, in a continuation of an ancient trend where bits of these noble metals were added to foods across cultures, including the Chinese and the European (during the Renaissance) to provide vitality, offer protection from disease, and ensure affluence and authority to the people who ate them. Coconut and betel are symbols of fertility and hence consumed during weddings and similar rituals. We children, of course, did not understand the symbolism behind zimikand. We just knew the ritual of eating it every Diwali night. In any case, it was a delicious preparation. Everything was polished off, both the food and the stories.”

Excerpted with permission from Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture, Anoothi Vishal, Hachette India.

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