An enduring legend associated with the festival of Holi is the story of Prahlad, an unfaltering devotee of Vishnu. The story goes that Prahalad’s father Hiranyakashipu, who was a self-proclaimed enemy of Vishnu, ordered his sister Holika, a demoness with the power to resist fire, to enter a burning pyre carrying his son in order to kill him. But it was Holika who got burnt to ashes, while Prahlad, protected by Vishnu, remained untouched by the flames – metaphorically depicting the victory of good over evil.

This Puranic tale is symbolically re-enacted the night before Holi with ritualistic bonfires, dubbed as Holika Dahan. But Sindhi Hindus recreate Holika Dahan through a unique culinary ritual. “Sindhis make roat, a thick roti of sorts, which is tied with strings and roasted on the fire,” said blogger Alka Keswani of Sindhi Rasoi. “While the roti is roasted and cooked through, the strings remain intact, untouched by the flames.” The roat stands for Holika, while the string represents Prahlad. Marwaris follow a tradition of roasting papad in the sacred Holika fire, says culinary consultant Abhilasha Chandak. “This papad is believed to imbibe curative virtues from the sacred fire, and even a small bite ensures immunity from diseases,” she said. Food surely has its own unique way of storytelling.

The origins of Holi, celebrated across the country with varying degrees of enthusiasm, cannot be restricted to a single narrative. It changes with regions and communities, as do the culinary rituals associated with it. BA Gupte, in his work Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials, posits that Holi is a saturnalia connected with the Spring Equinox and the wheat harvests of the Western part of India. He traces its origins in harvest festivities imported from Egypt and Greece.

Puran poli. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Puran poli. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In Maharashtra, the Holi tradition of making Puran poli – sweet, fried flatbreads stuffed with a filling of yellow gram and cane sugar or jaggery – perhaps points to the festival’s agrarian origins as a harvest festival. Holi falls usually around the time wheat, gram and sugarcane are harvested in India – the three prime ingredients that go into Puran poli. It only makes sense that the newly harvested crops would make for ritualistic offerings and celebratory meals of the season.

As A Whitney Sanford, a professor of religion, observes in Growing Stories from India: Religion and the Fate of Agriculture, “Holi festivities throughout India demonstrate its agricultural connections, but particularly in North India most devotees play Holi in the context of Braj devotion to Krishna, Balaram and Radha.” Arguably, no community celebrates Holi with as much gusto as the people of Braj, the region comprising Mathura and Vrindavan and adjoining areas. Braj is famous for its chaats, kachoris, peda and malpua – dishes that have become synonymous with Holi, not only in Braj, but across North India.

The culinary rituals around the festival are also indicators of seasonality. Holi, which falls in the month of Phalgun, is a celebration of the end of barren winters and the onset of fertile spring, which is symbolic of new life. During such periods of seasonal transition, the human immune system is believed to weaken. So, popular Holi must-haves are often items that help cool the body and improve gut health in general. Kanji, a fermented, deliciously tangy drink made with carrots that is known for its cooling and curative virtues, is a Holi staple in the North. Lentil vadas dunked in spiced Kanji makes for another immensely popular dish – Kanji Vada.

Kanji Vada. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Kanji Vada. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

“At my maternal grandmother’s, a fermented drink called Pallar is a Holi must,” said food blogger Vernika Awal of Delectable Reveries. “Pallar is made of kacchi lassi, tempered with a tadka of methi seeds, dry red chillies, hing and turmeric in mustard oil. My great-grandmother picked up the tradition during her days in Dehradun, which back then was still a part of Uttar Pradesh.” According to Awal, Pallar, a summer favourite in many regions of the state, is known for its cooling effect on the body and is often consumed after playing Holi in the March heat. This also perhaps explains the popularity of chaats and dahi bhalla, laden with probiotics-rich curd and chutneys made of tamarind or mint and coriander, and often finished with a sprinkling of rock salt, all potent digestives, on Holi.

The ubiquitous Thandai, the milk-based beverage enlivened with nuts and spices like fennel and cardamom, is unquestionably a wonderful cooling drink. That its delicious sweetness helps mute the bitterness of bhaang or hemp, making it an apt carrier for the intoxicant, is a bonus. But come Holi, what’s Thandai without bhaang? The hallucinogenic, referred to in ancient texts as a source of bliss, not only embodies the lack of inhibitions and the spirit of abandon that is at the heart of Holi festivities, but is also steeped in medicinal properties. The intoxicant’s association is perhaps also tied to the festival’s early links with ancient fertility rituals.

Thandai. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Thandai. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

But above all, Holi is a celebration, and every community drums up its own festive treats. Among many Punjabis, Phirni, rich with khoya and dried fruits and nuts, is a Holi essential. A particularly delightful Sindhi speciality unique to the festival is the Gheeyar – mammoth saffron-scented jalebis that are bright orange in colour. “Another unique seasonal specialty is Phragree – a layered, half-moon-shaped pastry stuffed with khoya and laced with sugar syrup,” said Keswani.

The Phragree is reminiscent of gujiya, another Holi essential, with a more pronounced Middle Eastern accent. Gujiya, varyingly stuffed with sweetened coconut or ground chana dal and enriched with dried fruits, seeds and nuts, is as ubiquitous as gulal during Holi. “In Andhra Pradesh, we typically make Boorelu,” said homechef Sumitra Kalpataru. A festive treat, Boorelu are sweet, fried dumplings made with sweetened coconut filling that are sculpted into balls, dipped into a rice and lentil batter, and then fried.

Gheeyar. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Gheeyar. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Holi food need not always be vegetarian. In his book, Gupte notes how during the festival, goat sacrifices were common in some places. In Bihar, rich mutton curry is a Holi tradition. In Bengal too, despite strong Vaishnav influences that advocate vegetarianism, especially during festivities celebrating Krishna, mutton curry is cooked in many homes during Dol, the Bengali equivalent of Holi. Interestingly though, even Vaishnav traditions in Bengal are a little lenient towards goat meat, perhaps due to its ritualistic use as sacrificial offerings in the region’s Shakta (related to the worship of Shakti or the divine Feminine) traditions.

Growing up, Dol at my home meant a late afternoon lunch of rich mutton curry and Dehradun rice that typically followed the hours of scrubbing, scraping and washing off the colours. Nowadays, the traditions are the same, but the menu has changed: it includes mutton biryani.

Pallar

Ingredients
1 bowl curd
1 tbsp mustard oil
A pinch of hing powder
1 tsp jeera
1 tsp methi seeds
2 dry red chillies
½ tsp turmeric powder
Salt, to taste
1 tsp red chilli powder

Method
Whisk the curd after adding some salt to it, and make it thin with some water.
In a wok, add mustard oil and once heated, add a pinch of hing, jeera, dry red chillies and methi seeds and let them crackle.
Add turmeric powder and chilli powder and turn off the gas.
Add this tadka to the curd mix.
Chill this beverage and then serve.

Recipe courtesy: Veronica Awal of Delectable Reveries

Gujiya

Ingredients
For the dough
1 cup refined flour
50 g unsalted butter/ghee

For the filling
2 tbsp salted butter
200 gm grated khoya
50 gm powdered sugar
2 tbsp dry fruits
2 tbsp desiccated coconut
Ghee or white oil for frying

Method
Take refined flour and unsalted butter in a bowl and mix these ingredients with water and knead a dough. Once the dough is ready, cover it with a damp cloth and keep aside for 30 minutes.
Take butter in a pan and add grated khoya and roast it for 5-7 minutes.
Let the khoya cool down to room temperature and then mix in the powdered sugar, dry fruits and desiccated coconut.
Roll round puris out of the dough carefully.
Apply some water on the edges of this rolled puri, stuff it with the filling and seal the edges, making sure there are no air bubbles.
Pinch the edge of the puri and pull it in with your thumb, giving a decorative pattern to the Gujiyas.
Take a saucepan and heat some oil or ghee in it. Once the oil is hot enough, fry the Gujiyas in it on a slow flame, till golden brown in colour.

Recipe courtesy: Abhilasha Chandak