Celebrating harvest festival with delicious food from the Northeast and beyond

13 April,2024 07:17 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Phorum Pandya

New Year calls for hope, cheer and unique food traditions, especially from the Northeast and across the border. Sunday mid-day samples some fresh starts

Representation Pic

Long before affirmations and gratitude journals became fads, Nature made farmers honour the lay of the land. This weekend is the turning point to sow the seeds with hopes of a great harvest - Baisakhi in Punjab and northern India, Vishu in south India, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Thingyan in Burma, and Songkran in Thailand. We stop at each festival, spoon at the ready.

Oh no, a tamarind drink, served in traditional lacquerware, made with jaggery, fresh coconut water, shaved coconut, rose and pepper

‘Holi with water and flower petals, and greeting with thanaka'

As a welcome gesture, Ankit Gupta, co-founder, Burma Burma, slathers our face with thanaka, a pale-yellow face paint with medicinal properties obtained from padouk trees. It has an instant cooling effect.

"This is how we celebrate Myanmar New Year. We play Holi with water and flower petals, and greet each other with thanaka, which is also used round the year as sunscreen," his mother, Urmila (65), who lived in Prome or modern-day Pyay from 1953-1975, explains.

Next, Ankit dips a betel leaf into water from Burmese silverware fragranced with thanaka and washes our hands. Food traditions ensue as we bite into a jaggery dumpling made of sticky rice flour and topped with black sesame. It is similar to an Assamese pitha or a Maharashtrian modak. Thingyan is the build-up to Myanmar's new year and is celebrated over four days, starting April 13. "On the first day, locals offer prayers at the temples and care for their elders by washing their hair," shares Ankit.

Thanaka, a pale-yellow face paint obtained from padouk trees. Pics/Shadab Khan

"On new year day, which falls on April 17 this year, Buddhist monks are invited home to chant and bless the family," Urmila, who learnt the nuances of Burmese cooking from her friends," explains. This encouraged Gupta to start Burma Burma in Fort, which completes 10 years next month.

Ankit Gupta applies thanaka on his mother Urmila on the occasion of Thingyan

To give us a feel of the street food mood of the festival, they have prepared a vendor's tray with buddhi chow (bottle gourd fritters), plum rubber, slivers of star fruit, marian plum and plum mango. We dig in, coating the fruits with a tangy seasoning.

Thingyan thali with om thame, pumpkin curry, budhi chow, tamarind chutney, sanwin makin and mete sebai

Her Burmese lingo may be fading, but her love for her home country runs deep. "When I visited last year, fond memories came rushing back. I met my old school friends after 50 years. I remember how, along with making Marwadi food at home, we also integrated Burmese cuisine into our lifestyle. Food in Burma is colourful and textured, and it makes you so happy," she says, serving us a traditional thali.

During festivities, vendors sell budhi chow (bottle gourd fritters), plum rubber, slivers of raw mango, star fruit and tangy marian plum or plum mango on the streets

Over stories, we are in for a wholesome treat of om thame (coconut rice), which we mix with mete sebai (peanut chutney with onion, tomato, garlic) and pumpkin curry. For a sweet ending, there's sanwin makin, of a rawa-halwa consistency, made with strawberry, coconut, and semolina (suji).

‘101 greens to ward off Bordoisila'

Kasturi Barua, who ran Kasos Kitchen in Mumbai and moved back to Guwahati in 2023, explains that the biggest of all Bihus (harvest festival) falls on April 15, celebrating lives and a lot of feasting. It is preceded by Goru Bihu, where the cow is honoured as a symbol of a good harvest - bathed in the rivers and ponds, and fed vegetables.

Kasturi Barua shares picture of a family table with Assamese delicacies

A rural practice is to make a concoction out of 101 herbs believed to have medicinal properties that keep you healthy all year round. "These leaves are also used in dishes as a souring agent or an ingredient that adds a distinctive flavour. A mythological female figure, Bordoisila, flies throughout Assam, causing storms and rain just before Bihu. Drinking this keeps water and dust-borne diseases away," says Barua.

On April 15, New Year's Day, families make Assamese sweets called pithas, visit close family and exchange gamusas (something to wipe the body with). We make Jolpan, the celebratory Bihu dish made of flattened rice and jaggery topped with curd or cream in a bell metal (kansa) vessel, and my favourite is the gheela pitha. Jaggery is stuffed into a batter of freshly pounded rice powder and fried in mustard oil. Our family's secret recipe is to add a little orange zest to it," she tells us.

‘Time for til pitha'

Dipannita Sharma whips up Jolpan, made of overnight-soaked flattened rice with yoghurt and jaggery. Pic/ANURAG AHIRE

For actor and model Dipannita Sharma, Rongali Bihu is time to indulge in sweets. "I love the sesame pithas made of white rice powder wrapping and folded with jaggery and til. I used to love watching mom and my aunts make it," says Sharma, who grew up between Guwahati and Duliajan where her father was posted as a doctor in the Oil India town, and spent time in Jorhat and Tezpur between her maternal and paternal grandparents.

"Clearing out one myth: Though Assam is the land of the spiciest chilli, bhut jhalokia, the locals don't consume as much spice. "We take the bhut jhalokia on the side just to bite into for a gentle zing. Or, we make pickle out of it and use it sparingly," says Sharma. Jolpan is something she makes for herself on the festive day. "It's a three-ingredient mix of soaked flattened rice with yoghurt and jaggery. Another delicacy is the tekeli pitha, where a kettle pot used to steam the pitha is placed on the mouth of the pot."

‘Bihu brings in the folk singers'

Musician and composer Joi Barua's eyes light up when he talks about Rongali Bihu. "I grew up in Jorhat, an army town in central Assam, with the Brahmaputra on one side and Nagaland on the other. Tea gardens surrounded us," he smiles, his voice softening. Food was less fried, packed with dal, chicken, mutton and lots of fresh water catch from lakes and rivers such as rohu, catla and hilsa, along with smaller fish like ari.


"As kids, we would fish in the lakes for koi. Mum would make a fiddlehead fern dish with potato and onions and sour it with lemon. For festivities, we would have kichuri with duck egg curry. My favourite was the narikol ladoo and til ladoo. I also enjoyed the chivra, cold dahi and jaggery. Our Bengali neighbours shared patisapta pita with a cream filling," he says, remembering how, as a child, they loved to bathe the cows.

Rongali Bihu also marks the onset of the music season where musicians from interiors and villages, sing songs in open fields, under the trees. "It becomes their livelihood of They arrive in trucks with musical instruments: khol (drum), dhol, flute and the buffalo horn (hornpipe)." Barua translates a line from a song: Don't mourn or bury me, just drag me and put me by the Brahmaputra, and let the river float me away. "Today, the festival is a dominant force for all musicians," he adds.

‘My Eurasian grandmother taught me all the traditional dishes.'

Bangkok-based Phyu Cyn, known as Lady GooGoo on Instagram, is a nomad chef who cooks Burmese food across Asia and Europe. "I lived in Burma until the age of 16, and learnt to cook Burmese and Anglo-Burmese delicacies from my late maternal grandmother, who was a Eurasian with English and Karen (an ethnic group in Myanmar) roots," GooGoo tells us over email, parroting the foods made during Thingyan, from Mont-Lone-Yay-Baw (glutinous rice balls with a jaggery centre and rolled in grated coconut) and Shwe-Yin-Aye or Golden Heart Cooler (Burmese lod chong with coconut milk, pandan noodles and sago pearls).

On the first day, we stay home and share salads or cooling desserts with neighbours. In the following days, youngsters splash water on each other! During the new year, we clean and polish our shrine and Buddha statues, followed by the spring cleaning of the house. In the evening, we pay respect to our elders and donate meals to the less fortunate at the local monastery or community centre," says GooGoo, adding, "It usually consists of a carb, a vegetable in season and lots of chilli flakes for me!" She recalls how her grandmother would mix all the ingredients in a large bowl for everyone and the family members would queue up for their share," she adds.

‘There should always be a good tom yum and steamed whole fish.'

Chef Seefah with her mother cooking together

April is a hot month in Thailand, and what better time to get wet? "You welcome people by throwing cool water on them," Seefah Ketchaiyo giggles on a call. Chef partner at Seefah has lived in Mumbai for 13 years and misses the festival. The different regions of Thailand make their homestyle food.

"But, there should always be a good tom yum and steamed whole fish," she says, adding beef, pork and omelette. "There are many traditional, old-school recipes that are being forgotten. The elderly in the family would make them, such as the Thai pineapple fried rice," she adds.

‘A festival to respect elders and drench loved ones in water'

Suksan wan Songkran (Happy Songkran Day) is how wishes are exchanged on Thai New Year, which is all about showing respect to the elderly, spending quality time with family, and playing with water to beat the heat. Garima Arora, chef-owner at Gaa has lived in Bangkok for eight years.

Ling (left) with a serving of lod chong, along with chef Garima Arora (right)

"It's usually a working day. We greet each other Sawadee Pee Mai (happy New Year in Thai), spray water guns and dig into my favourite desert, lod chong (creamy coconut milk and pandan noodles), made by our housekeeping team member, Ling," says Arora, adding "During Songkran, we eat something that helps cool you down during the hottest time of the year. A traditional Thai dish, exclusively available during this season and difficult to find elsewhere is kao-chae (aromatic rice soaked in iced water) with savoury condiments. Initially reserved to the royal family, it is now available for the public and is enjoyed by people from all over Thailand," she explains.

April 13-17

April 14-20

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