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Fasting, feasting

Who said fasting can't be a gourmet affair? Come Navratri and regular food goes flying out of the fridge, only to be replaced with 'special' fasting foods that are as lipsmacking as anything else worth its salt. Or, in this case, rock salt

Nothing's really carved in stone," Manoj Shah, an affable Gujarati gentleman informs us, referring to the festival of Navratri and its various rituals, especially when it comes to food. His wife, Manisha Shah, proprietor of Melon Foods, elaborates, "There are those who will have a meal at lunch time, while others prefer to dine only after the evening Puja."

The couple, who has been fasting during Navrati for over six years now, point out that different Hindu communities eat different things too, during their fast. For instance, Manoj is fasting this season and will only drink tea and milk through the 10 days. Manisha, on the other hand, will include fruits in her fast. "Some people don't consume anything except fruits and milk or yoghurt during the festival, others eat a single vegetarian meal prepared with a specific list of ingredients only while still others will eat any vegetarian dish prepared without onion and garlic."

As Down to Earth attendant Rajni Behn stacks the shelves of this Tardeo organic food haven with Kuttu Ka Atta and rock salt,  she throws more light on the subject. "Purity is the central concept of Navratri. That's why we don't consume foods that have a sharp or lasting aroma. Also, traditionally, only rock salt is used in Navratri recipes because table salt may have chemical additives."

She may have a point about salt, but we believe otherwise about the dishes prepared at fasting homes. They're sharp, and they certainly leave a lasting impact on your tastebuds.

Rajgira Atta Puris
Completely gluten-free, yet a rich source of protein, fibre and assorted nutrients, this flour, made from the seeds of the Amarnath plant, offers such a healthy alternative to wheat flour that one wonders why don't we use it through the year. Puris made from Rajgira Atta have a slightly nutty flavour and a bitter aftertaste, but a much smoother and richer texture than wheat-flour puris.



An intrinsic part of the traditional Navratri diet, it's no surprise that these puris have been included in the menu of Rajdhani's Navratri thalis, which will be offered till October 6 at the restaurant's Lower Parel, Mulund and Ghatkopar branches. At Soam in Babulnath, a portion of two puris may be ordered for Rs 50. There's a special Navratri menu at Soam too, and many dishes, like the Srikhand and Batata Nu Shaak (Rs 175) for instance, come with a serving of Rajgira puris during the festive season.

Available at: Foodhall, Palladium, High Street Phoenix,
Call: 30264567
Price: Rs 47 for 500g

Carrot Kofta Kadhi
It's no surprise that khoya, paneer, yoghurt, cream and milk almost always feature on Navratri menus, because not only is dairy a good source of protein and calcium, but milk diets have, in fact, been an integral part of age-old yogic practises.



However, while a milk fast works to cleanse the system of toxins, consuming full-fat dairy products for your single Navratri meal may not be as much about health as it is about enjoying a good meal. But, when it comes to good meals, this rich kadhi recipe goes straight to the top of that list. Prepared with paneer and carrot koftas in a creamy, aromatic gravy that's slightly sweetish, this inexpensive dish is definitely worth sampling on at least one of the nine auspicious days. 

Available at: Melon Foods, shop no 32/33, Dun Shopping Centre, Tardeo Road
Call: 9833150738
Price: Rs 300 for a portion that serves 5

Singhare ka atta ka halwa
Wheat flour, rice flour, gram flour and white flour etc are typically avoided in Navratri recipes as they may, as Rajni Behn mentioned, "contain chemical additives." But since fruits even feature on the menus of strict adherents, Singhare Ka Atta or water chestnut flour falls comfortably within the list of approved ingredients. There are various ways in which this may be incorporated in recipes -- you can substitute the flour for gram flour in pakoda recipes or use it instead of wheat flour to make potato paranthas for instance -- so the inclusion of this ingredient widens the Navratri menu considerably.


Pics/Anjana Vaswani

In a simple recipe for homemade Halwa that we tried out at home, a cupful of the flour is first roasted in a pan with just 2 tablespoons of Ghee (though we used sunflower oil) and once the flour browns and its distinctive aroma fills the room, half a cup of sugar, two more teaspoons of ghee and two cups of water are blended in. Predictably, the hot mixture coagulates instantaneously. Keep stirring and within a minute you have a gelatinous mass that closely resembles Gurudwara Sheera.

Spread this on a platter, garnish with chopped dry-fruits and you've got a wonderful sweet accompaniment for your meal that, by the by, is also packed with potassium and associated with cooling and detoxifying properties.

Available at: Foodhall, Palladium
Price: Rs 99 for 500 g

Sakariya Chaat
Potatoes, Bhopla (pumpkin), sweet potato, arbi (taro root), raw bananas, water chestnut and suran (yam), are some of the few vegetables that are eaten during the Navratri festival. A good source of Vitamins A and C, Shakarkandi or sweet potato is also a favoured winter food because it's energising and contributes to the body's ability to insulate against cold naturally.



But while shakarkandi or sweet potato halwas are commonplace, here's a recipe you won't find everywhere. Prepared with the restaurant's secret spice combination (a special, Navratri-compliant masala), this chaat is a Navratri specialty you don't want to miss out on. With the spices deliciously complimenting the sweetness of the potato filling, the tangy recipe is a complete treat for the taste-buds.

Available at: Thackers, Birla Kreeda Kendra, Chowpatty
Call: 23649300 (prepared only with a day's notice and for a minimum order for 25 persons)
Price: Rs 165 per portion

Kuttu ke ate ke pakoras
That Buckwheat offers more protein than wheat flour and keeps your appetite satiated for longer may have been why it came to be favoured during Navratri.



But with numerous health benefits linked to the gluten-free flour that can be easily used to substitute wheat, barley and rye, in most recipes, one wonders why we don't use it through the year. At Thackers, the ingredient has been used to conjure a delicious preparation that looks like something right out of Masterchef. With light and mildly sweet Chutney drizzled over them, these crisp-fried potato pakodas are like an Indian version of Kung Pao potatoes.

Available at: Thackers
Price: Rs 150 per portion

Sitaphal ki sabzi
A popular dish off the streets of New Delhi, this simple recipe makes for a quick yet scrumptious Navratri dish. All you need is a cup of sitaphal (in Delhi, Sitaphal refers to Kashiphal, a watermelon-sized pumpkin, and not custard apple), half a cup of soaked channa dal, a teaspoon of methi (fenugreek) seeds and a teaspoon each of jeera (cumin) powder, cumin seeds and dhaniya (coriander) powder. Also add about half a teaspoon of amchur (mango powder), chilli powder and a pinch of rock-salt and turmeric powder (haldi).



After a methi-seed tarka, add channa dal to the pan and allow this to cook for a few minutes before adding the chopped pumpkin and assorted seasonings. Add some water. Cover the dish and cook till the pumpkin softens. Then, garnish with coriander leaves or grated coconut and serve hot. The northern recipe that's often listed as a Navratri speciality on menus in Delhi hotels and restaurants has a khatta-meetha zing to it. But the chief ingredient of this recipe -- Sitaphal or Kashiphal (which literally translates as "Fruit of Kashi," the pilgrimage destination in Uttar Pradesh that's now dubbed Varanasi) -- has special religious significance as it's associated with Sita and Shiva.

Available at: Your local vegetable vendor

Sabudana Puris
Sago is another alternative to conventional grains that are typically avoided during Navratri. But recipes that employ the rich carbohydrate source are, in fact, preferred even on other Hindu festivals and religiously significant days like Ekadashi, which occurs numerous times every year, but also on October 7th, the day after Dussera. The custom of consuming sago on Ekadashi comes from a mythological tale about Brahma, according to which beads of sweat that trailed off the deity's forehead transformed into a demon named Mura.



Brahma then had to find a place where this demon may reside and according to the story, Brahma urged the demon to occupy grains of rice every Ekadashi. Hence, especially on those days, rice is substituted with sago. Manisha Shah, proprietor of Melon foods, a health shop at Tardeo, opines, "It's possible that items like sago were included in the list of permitted ingredients because of their nutritional or dietary worth. Sago, for instance, boosts energy, so if you're only eating one meal a day, it just makes sense to include the item in it." Sabudana Khichdi and wadas are popular Navratri dishes, but if you'd like variety, try these crispy sabudana puris and sticks (Rs 36 per packet) with a bit of tamarind chutney.

Available at: Trupti, 12/B, High Street Phoenix, Lower Parel, Senapati Bapat Marg
Call: 24902211
Price: Rs 46 for a packet

Kachche kele ka Chaat
Raw banana chips, fritters and even koftas are popular Navratri treats, but if you want to try something really unique, this sweet and spicy raw banana chaat is a genuine delight. "Many masalas are not permitted in Navratri recipes," says the chef at Thackers, the decades-old pure-veg Gujarati cuisine restaurant at Marine Drive, "so for this preparation, we've taken care to ensure that only the permitted ingredients are used. We have a special secret masala recipe for these dishes."



We press our fork into a firm piece of the seasoned banana, a cashew and pomegranate seed and swirl this around in a small pool of yoghurt, chutney and tamarind sauce. It's absolutely delicious with textures and flavours complementing each other beautifully in this novel creation that's not on the usual menu at Thackers, but really ought to be. Even during Navratri this treat must be specially ordered, a day in advance. Otherwise, the restaurant's usual Navratri menu lists Sabudana Khichdi and wada, Kuttu ke ate ke dhokle, farali pattice, samo rice and kadhi.

Available at: Thackers
Price: Rs 150 per portion

Sukhi Arbi
Melon foods' Shah is fasting for Navratri too, but while she doesn't consume anything besides fruits and milk, she's happy to whip up special requests for dishes such as Sukhi Arbi (Taro root) for her customers. We've sampled Manisha's cooking before and it was excellent then, but this time, she's outdone herself.



The Arbi is wonderfully piquant and seasoned with just the right amount of spices. Seated at a desk in the health food shop out of which she runs a small kitchen that turns out homemade vegetarian recipes (they deliver from Worli to Churchgate), Manisha smiles from ear to ear when we compliment her incredible garlic-and-onion-less recipe.

"Some Marwadi and Gujarati families do follow a strict regime when it comes to the Navratri diet," Manisha suggests, "But many Gujaratis don't mind eating a vegetable dish such as this or doodhi, as long as it doesn't contain garlic, onions or spices such as Garam masala, Chaat masala etc."

Available at: Melon Foods, shop no 32/33, Dun Shopping Centre, Tardeo Road
Call: 6513888
Price: Rs 200 for a portion that serves 5 (1 day's notice is required)

Coconut Laddoos
The coconut has great significance in Hindu prayer rituals. The fruit itself is deemed to be symbolic of Shiva, with markings on its shell being representative of the Hindu deity's three eyes. Breaking a coconut is also reportedly symbolic of shattering the ego. A coconut placed atop mango leaves on a metal pot filled with water, forms what is known as a, "Purna-Kalasha," an intrinsic part of Hindu rituals, symbolic of, "the source of life," and which may represent Ganesha or his mother Gauri. 



Incidentally, one of Gauri's manifestations is Durga, the goddess whose 9 avatars or incarnations are worshipped individually over the 9 nights of Navratri. It was possibly an attempt to utilise each day's coconut prasad that led to the ingredient being included in many Navratri recipes. The ingredient can really be savoured fully in these delicious laddoos, whose recipe blends grated coconut with dry-fruits. Also worth sampling at this immensely popular Mithai store is its unmatched coconut barfi.

Available at: Tewari Bros Mithaiwala, Shop No 3, Purshottam Building, Opera House, MP Marg, Girgaum
Call: 23617465
Price: Rs 450 per kg (and coconut barfi for Rs 250 per kg)

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