Across India in mid-January – as the harsh winter comes to a close, save the final cold spell, and it is harvest season – a celebration of nature’s generosity and the imminent arrival of spring is marked.
Celebrated as Makar Sankranti in some regions, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Maaghi in Punjab, Bhogali Bihu in Assam and Uttarayan in Gujarat, this is one of the most auspicious days of the Hindu calendar and indicates the first day of the sun’s transition into Capricorn. Each region has its signature rituals and unique festivities but the common thread across the country is a spread of delicious food that pays homage to the season and its bounty.
Seasonal and sacred
In most parts of India, til, or sesame seeds, are crucial to Makar Sankranti rituals. Religious scriptures stipulate six ways in which til must be used on this day, including oblation, charity and consumption as food. In his book, Faith & Philosophy of Hinduism, Rajeev Verma writes, “It is said that til emanates from Vishnu’s body and that [this] usage washes away all kinds of sins.” There is perhaps a more practical explanation behind the ubiquitous use of sesame seeds and jaggery for this festival – both help warm the body and are very curative during this period of seasonal transition.
From chikkis and laddoos to regional favourites like small pellets of whole sesame and jaggery called rewri; tilkut, which is a brittle made of pounded sesame; and gajak, a jaggery fudge that is perked up with roasted nuts, the til and gud appear in numerous delicious avatars.
In Karnataka, ellu-bella, which means sesame-jaggery, is a mixture of both these ingredients and of dried coconut squares, roasted peanuts and fried chana dal that is made in every home that observes Sankranti. “In some parts of Karnataka, the ellu-bella, along with sakkare achchu – colourful sugar figurines made with wooden moulds – and [sticks of] sugarcane are distributed among friends and relatives,” said blogger Smitha Kalluraya.
A particularly delicious “rendition of the til laddu, typically made for Lohri, calls for the addition of mawa and desiccated coconut,” said blogger Priya Shiva, a Tamilian from New Delhi, who is as enthusiastic about Pongal as she is about the Punjabi Lohri.
In Maharashtra, the customary Makar Sankranti greeting “til gul ghya ani god god bola” (eat sesame seeds and jaggery, and talk sweetly) is usually accompanied by exchange of til gul vadis, a sesame and jaggery fudge traditionally made in moulds. These are often flavoured with cardamom or nutmeg and topped with shreds of desiccated coconut. There are also more elaborate recipes like tilachi poli – thin discs of fried, unleavened bread stuffed with a cardamom-scented filling of jaggery, and sesame and poppy seeds, roasted together until deliciously fragrant and ground up.
In Andhra Pradesh, sesame-crusted, sweetened rice pancakes called ariselu; pakundalu – jaggery-infused rice flour and coconut fritters; and khoya laddus stuffed with coconut and jaggery are Makar Sankranti favourites.
While white sesame seeds dominate Makar Sankranti munchies in Assam, the most iconic of them, the Bhogali Bihu dish or the til pitha, uses black sesame seeds. A pitha is a thin pancake and this version is typically made with the glutinous bora saul (rice) and stuffed with a mixture of ground black sesame seeds and jaggery before being rolled into slim cylinders.
However, come Bhogali Bihu, it is the unique local varieties of rice that take centre stage in Assamese kitchens, mostly in the form of pithas like sunga pitha – soaked bora rice stuffed into bamboo stalks and roasted on the fire; fennel-scented ghila pitha made with a jaggery-infused batter of rice and wheat flour; or the unique kholasapori pitha, savoury pancakes trumped up with rice flour, chopped onions and night jasmine flowers. A favourite Bihu breakfast is a traditional jolpan of puffed, flattened or pounded rice, warm milk and jaggery.
In Bengal too, Makara Sankranti is synonymous with pithe, and payesh, so much so that the festival is also called Pithe Sankranti. Originally a rural tradition, making pitha is not only a cherished winter ritual, but also a token of domestic prosperity. Newly harvested rice, moong dal, sweet potatoes, an abundance of coconut and the deliciously fragrant nolen gur or date palm jaggery, which is a winter staple in rural Bengal, are put to use to turn out a range of pithe.
From common favourites like the patishapta, thin rice-flour crepes stuffed with coconut that is either cooked with jaggery or folded into condensed milk or kheer; and the puli – rice-flour dumplings with a coconut-jaggery stuffing that are steamed, fried or stewed in cardamom-scented, sweetened milk; to more elaborate ones like the intricately designed moong pakon pithe made with yellow moong and rice flour; ranga aloor pitha which are sweet potato dumplings; and syrup-soaked gokul pithe – a deep-fried dumpling stuffed with khoya and coconut; the list is inexhaustible.
While the pitha puli ritual is fast disappearing from urban kitchens, iconic sweet shops in Kolkata now stock up on patishapta, puli and gokul pithe which were once unique only to grandmothers’ kitchens.
And then there are certain dishes that are offered as oblation. In his book The Cult of Jagannath, Kanhu Charan Mishra wrote, “During the Makar Sankranti day, in the month of Magha...the deities are offered Makara Caula (i.e. fresh uncooked rice, well moistened, mixed with milk, ginger, black pepper, candy, coconut, cheese, camphor, raisin, ripe banana, etc.)” In fact, most households in Odisha prepare the Makara Chaula with rice – ideally from the fresh harvest – that is soaked overnight and coarsely ground, mixed with fresh grated coconut, ripe bananas, small bits of sugarcane, milk, sugar, fresh cottage cheese and assorted fruit, as a ritualistic offering to the sun god. In Bihar, on the other hand, dahi chura – a muddle of yogurt, flattened rice, milk, jaggery and some fresh seasonal fruit – is a must.
In Tamil Nadu, Makara Sankranti coincides with Thai Pongal, the second and most important day of the four-day long harvest festival, Pongal. On Thai Pongal, the sun is honoured for an abundant harvest with an offering of the eponymous pongal – newly-harvested rice cooked in milk that is sweetened with jaggery. It is considered auspicious and a marker of prosperity and abundance for the milk to boil and spill over.
In most households, it is customary to make two different kinds of pongal with the new rice and moong dal – the ghee-laced shakkarai pongal enriched with nuts and raisins and savoury ven pongal tempered with mustard, ginger and asafoetida. “Besides, we make and exchange laddus made with peanuts and sesame, or foxtail millet laddus, on Makara Sankranti,” said Suguna Vinodh, who is better known as Kannamma, after her popular blog.
And it’s not just in Tamil Nadu that the harvest festival borrows its name from a dish. In Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar, Makar Sankranti is also known as Khichdi Parv after the one-pot meal that is offered to the sun god. The typical Makar Sankranti khichdi, made with rice, urad dal and a colourful medley of winter vegetables, is flavoured with warm aromatic spices like cumin, cardamom and cloves, and topped with a generous splash of pure ghee. Also, in many households in the Kangra region of Himachal, a khichdi made with rice and mah or kali dal (black split gram) and the quintessential winter fruit – amla or Indian gooseberries – is a must on Makar Sankranti, said cookbook author Divya Sud Qureshi. The vitamin c-rich amla helps fortify the immune system and help the body warm in winter.
The natural bounty
In Gujarat, an typical Uttarayan meal comprises of piping hot pooris, crisp jalebis soaked in syrup and undhiyu – a robust dish made with an assortment of winter vegetables such as papdi, baby potatoes, green peas, baby aubergines, sweet potatoes and yam, unripe bananas, and deep-fried dumplings made with fresh fenugreek leaves and besan, cooked in a piquant masala of coconut, garlic greens, fresh coriander and spices.
Traditionally cooked in clay pots placed upended in an underground pit under a fire built with dried leaves, it’s quintessentially a rustic, winter dish that best showcases the season’s bounty and feeds large crowds. “We would munch on ponk – green jowar [sorghum] – roasted in the fire and mixed with different kinds of sev, and typical winter fruit like Indian water chestnut and jujube,” said Mumbai-based Chetna Desai, recalling her trips to her native village in Gujarat.
Culinary consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal fondly remembered the spicy fada ni khichdi (made of cracked wheat) and its sweeter version, the fada no shiro, which would be prepared at her mother’s home every Makar Sankranti in huge quantities. “All our friends and relatives typically gathered on the roof of our house, the tallest on our lane, to fly kites. The khichdi and shiro would be brought to terrace for lunch alfresco,” she said.
In neighbouring Maharashtra, Bhogi – the day before Makar Sankranti – is celebrated over crusty, sesame-studded bhakhri, a roti preferably made with bajra or pearl millet, and piping hot bowls of rich bhogichi bhaji, a wholesome mix of seasonal vegetables – everything from carrots, beans and green peas to Indian jujube and green chickpea – cooked in a sapid gravy made with desiccated coconut, peanuts, roasted sesame seeds, jaggery and a host of ground spices.