In Bengal, Saraswati puja, which is celebrated on Vasant Panchami, is followed by another unique celebration the very next day called Sheetal Shashti, which translates to Cold Sixth. The festival is primarily observed by Bengali mothers to solicit the benediction of Maa Shashti, the protecting goddess of children and childbirth, for their offspring. On this day, no hot food is consumed, nor is the kitchen fire lit. Only cold food, a typical assortment of dishes prepared the night before is eaten.
In many Bengali homes, an absolute must on this day is the Gota Sheddho (whole boiled) or simply gota. A medley of seasonal vegetables – typically baby potatoes, baby brinjals, flat beans, tender spinach tips, green pea pods and sweet potatoes – is cooked whole, skin and all, along with whole moong dal. The dish is seasoned with salt and finished with a splash of pungent mustard oil. The recipe varies from house to house. At a friend’s place, gota is an elaborate one-pot dish spiced with cumin, coriander and dried whole red chillies. They also add chickpeas and black gram to the lentil and vegetables.
The gota is circumscribed by ritualistic stipulations, which again vary from one house to another. For instance, six kinds of vegetables must be used in the dish, and each vegetable must be added in sixes, multiplied by the number of children in the house. “So, if a woman observing the ritual has two children, she would add 12 each of the six kinds of vegetables,” explained my aunt, who is responsible for the cauldron of gota made at our family home every Vasanth Panchami. She makes enough for the entire clan and for neighbours whose homes don’t follow the mandate of making gota.
The gota sheddho is part of a more elaborate spread, all of which is cooked on Vasant Panchami, and consumed cold the next day for all meals. The other mandatory items are Panta bhaat or fermented rice gruel, yoghurt, and the seasonal Topa Kul’er Chatni, a panch-phoran-scented chutney made with tart Indian jujubes. Several other dishes are cooked too – unctuous aloo posto, sweet and spicy cabbage curry, fritters or deep-fried vegetables and stacks of luchi. It is a feast, albeit cold and slightly stale.
This practice of eating day-old food at the onset of spring is more than simply a religious observance or a folk festival. Shital Shashti in Bengal is observed right when winter makes way for spring or basanta, as it is known in Bengal. During this time of seasonal transition, our immunity tends to weaken, making the body prone to infections and diseases. This is also the time that chicken pox, called basanta in Bengali after the eponymous season, is widespread. Keeping all this in mind, the Shital Shashti spread is constructed to cool the body and fortify the immune system.
Similar traditions and customs of eating cold food are observed in many other parts of India, especially during times of seasonal shifts. “The food is typically kept overnight at room temperature and often tends to become a little sour,” said food and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna. And that’s the point. “This practice is a great way to introduce the body to the approaching season’s probiotic as well as pathogenic microbes through the food that has been allowed to lightly ferment overnight,” she said. “The probiotic bacteria help strengthen immunity and boost gut flora, while the inoculation with pathogenic bacteria in small numbers prepares the immune system for seasonal illnesses.”
The scientific rationale aside, these practices are often defined by legends. One such enduring legend is associated with the folk deity Shitala – the one who cools – dubbed as the goddess of pox, measles and other such diseases. In Rajasthan, the custom of eating basi or stale food is observed eight days from Holi on Shitala Ashtami, also known as basoda. In parts of Uttar Pradesh, the festival is called Sili Sat. In Gujarat and a few other places, the festival is celebrated in the month of Shravan as Shitala Satam.
The day before Shitala Satam is known as Randhan Chhath, when women of the house cook numerous dishes to be consumed cold the next day. Land and People of Indian states and Union Territories, edited by SC Bhat and Gopal K Bhargava, provides a detailed description:
“In the evening, the fire in the hearth of every Hindu house is extinguished. It is then plastered with cow dung and a cotton sapling is planted therein. Some curd is then placed in it. The hearth is not lit the next day because it is believed that the goddess rolls in the cold ashes of the hearth on the day, and it must be kept cold so she wouldn’t burn up.”
In Maharashtra, people make “extra bhakris the night before and eat them on Shitala Saptami with milk or buttermilk”, said Saee Koranne-Khandekar, an author and culinary consultant. “In modern parlance, this could be viewed as a probiotic meal eaten around the change of the season to balance one’s digestion,” said Koranne-Khandekar. Among Sindhis, rice mixed with curd and mustard powder and fermented overnight is a must on Thadri, which is celebrated a week after Rakshabandhan in honour of the goddess Jog Maya (the Sindhi counterpart of Sheetala). “Known as Khato Bat-uh, it is eaten topped with more fresh curd and mustard powder,” said blogger Alka Keswani. Curd and mustard are both preservatives that avert spoilage and help in fermentation.
Likewise, across communities, dishes cooked on such festivals are usually ones that would not spoil easily, often fortified with ingredients that act as natural preservatives while allowing some fermentation. These cold spreads are celebratory and often feature a delicious assortment of dishes and some of the season’s best produce. The idea is to cook up a storm, so that there’s enough food to go around the following day.
In Rajasthan, Basoda means feasting on a mindboggling assortment of delicacies that take a day to cook and are mostly cooling for the body. “In our house, a typical Basoda thali comprises Dahi Vada and Kanji Vada, Bajra ki Raab (a thin gruel made with pearl millets), plain and spiced bajra rotis, Bewdi puris, Khasta Kachori, tamarind chutney and Aata ka Seera (a type of halwa),” said food consultant Abhilasha Chandak. “The meal is an introduction to the changing dietary needs of the next season and a way to cool the system.”
The Thadri spread is also an elaborate affair – there’s everything from an assortment of flat breads like Koki and Besani to deep-fried fritters paired with piquant chutneys, spicy, dry curries and vegetables stuffed with masalas. “A mandatory dish made on Thadri is the sweet Lolo – an unleavened, crusty, fried flatbread sweetened with cardamom scented syrup,” said Keswani.
Again, in Bengal, some households celebrate the twin festivals of Ranna Puja (worship of cooking) and Arandhan around late monsoon to appease the snake goddess Manasa (a folk deity who gained popularity in the middle ages in Bengal) in the hope that she would protect their families from snake bites.
Quintessentially a rural festival, the common reasoning behind the celebration points to how the rains bring snakes out of their holes, and they often seek refuge in the warmth of kitchens in village homes, making people wary. “The all-pervading belief is that if the snake goddess has been propitiated and all the rules of Arandhan have been observed in letter and in spirit, the food does not go off the next day,” wrote Meenakshi Dasgupta, in her celebrated The Calcutta Cookbook. Monsoons are also when the immune system is weak and susceptible to infections and disease.
Food is pivotal to this monsoon festival. At a neighbour’s house, the Arandhan spread comprises Panta bhaat, Kochur shaag (taro leaves) cooked with the head of the Hilsa, Radhuni-scented Khesari daal, Malabar spinach cooked with small prawns, fried Hilsa, an assortment of deep-fried vegetables, chutney made of elephant apple (also in season), fried and steamed pitha and payesh. “The rice offered to the goddess is still cooked in a clay put and stirred with a banana stem,” the matriarch of the household told me. “There are many strict rituals, not to be trifled with.”
The ritualistic prohibition of cooking on festivals like Arandhan or Sheetla Ashtami also mean that the women of the household get a day of respite from everyday kitchen chores. Arandhan, it is believed, emerged first as a form of protest against the British authorities during the freedom struggle. To protest and mourn the partition of Bengal in 1905, Bengali author Ramendra Sundar Tribedi called for Arandhan, just like Tagore had called upon Hindus and Muslims to celebrate Rakshabandhan as a symbol of unity.
Sometimes, such customs have a more homely rationale. On the last day of Durga puja, many homes serve Shital Bhog or cold food to the goddess. Anthropologist Tarak Chandra Das, in his 1931 book The Cultural Significance of Fish in Bengal, wrote about a meal comprising “boiled rice kept overnight immersed in water” and “chutney prepared with lotus stalk and the soup of boal-fish (Wallago-attu)” that would be served on the final day of the puja in the Dacca district of erstwhile East Bengal. The sentimental Bengali reasons that saddened by their beloved Uma’s departure, no one is in a mood to cook. Others argue that since Durga is in such a hurry to return to her husband Shiva in Kailash, there’s no time to cook a fresh meal.
At times, a longstanding belief lies at the heart of such customs. For instance, on Sharad Purnima, many North Indian communities follow a unique custom of placing a bowl (ideally silver) of kheer or rice pudding in the light of the full moon. This practice, it is believed, imbues the kheer with medicinal properties. “This kheer is eaten the next day and tastes divine,” said Chandak. In her book The Essential Delhi Cookbook, Preeti Narain wrote that “Among the Khatris, the cooked kheer is stirred in the moonlight on Sharad Purnima, the full moon before Diwali. The light of this particular moon is considered the most cooling and beneficial for the brain and eyes. The Kheer when stirred supposedly absorbs these properties, and imparts them to the person who eats it.”
While the magical properties of the Sharad Purnima moon might be debatable, kheer, in any case, tastes best the day after. Over that there is no debate.