What’s the festive season without good food? Whether it’s Lohri, Pongal, Bihu or Makar Sankranti, food is a central part of the harvest celebrations. Sesame, jaggery/gur, rice and millets are some of the mainstays, depending on the location: Tilguls (sesame laddus) and chiki (brittle) in Maharashtra and Gujarat, pithey (rice flour pancakes) in Bengal and Assam, the list goes on. Here’s a look at harvest festivals that celebrate the beginning of a new crop cycle and the food that represents the season’s abundance:
Lohri (13 January) marks the beginning of the harvest season of Rabi crops and the end of the winter solstice when the sun starts moving towards the northern hemisphere. It is celebrated in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. People across the region light huge bonfires, around which they dance and sing folk songs. Offerings are thrown into the fire to propitiate the gods and these include seasonal ingredients and sweets, including til, ladoos, peanuts, puffed rice and jaggery. Folklore meets bhangra by the bonfire and food forms an important part of the rituals. Meals typically feature the seasonal delicacy of sarso ka saag, a creamy, slow-cooked blend of mustard greens, spinach and bathua leaves and makki di roti, a flatbread made of maize flour. This is followed up with an assortment of sweets that include til ladoos made of sesame seeds, jaggery, dry fruits and coconut or the famous Punjabi pinni, a roasted sweet made with wheat flour and almond slivers, laced with pure ghee and edible gum. Gajak, a crisp biscuit with a chikki-like texture made of sesame seeds, peanuts and jaggery, is another Lohri favourite.
The four-day harvest festival (starting 14 January) in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh is a celebration of rice. The name literally means ‘boiling over’ and is a reference to the speciality of the festival, which is prepared from the new harvest of rice boiled in milk and jaggery. The ritualistic cooking of this dish involves it boiling over which is meant to portend abundance. The freshly made pongal is first served to the gods to mark the beginning of the festivities and then shared among other community members as well as domestic cattle. The dish comes in a few varieties, including Sakkarai Pongal, Venn Pongal and Puli Pongal.
Sakkarai Pongal is a sweet dish concocted from rice, milk, moong dal, jaggery and ghee. Venn is a savoury counterpart of Sakkarai made of rice, moong dal, ghee and spices such as black pepper, green chilli, curry leaves and cashews. Puli Pongal is prepared with rice, tamarind, chillies, mustard seeds, chana dal, turmeric powder and curry leaves. Besides Pongal, the payasam is another favourite treat made with milk, jaggery and semolina. Some also use moong dal, rice, sooji and millets. Other pongal delicacies include evergreen classics like tangy lemon rice and medu vadas
East India’s version of the harvest festival is called Bohag Bihu, and it falls on 21 January this year. Farmers from Assam thank the gods for abundance and healthy crops. The festivities span seven days and involve bonfires, Assamese games like pot breaking, egg fights, buffalo fights and more. While each day is celebrated with different activities, people feast on all seven days of the festival. Pitha, a sweet rice pancake or dumpling, is the star dish of the festival. It comes in many varieties—til (sesame) pithas, narikol (coconut) pithas, ghila (jaggery and sticky rice) pithas, tekeli (jaggery sugar and coconut are prepared by steaming in a kettle) pithas and many more. Another Bihu special is Laai Xaak Khaar, a sabzi made of mustard greens, khar (baking soda) and spices. Coconut sweets or larus and jolpan or mini meals comprising deep-fried sweet and savoury snacks are other bihu favourites. Main courses feature Xaak, a green leafy vegetable preparation made with colocasia leaves, fiddlehead ferns and more, aloo pitika (mashed potato topped with coriander leaves, onion and green chillies), masor tenga (tangy fish curry made with souring agents like local limes, tomatoes or the elephant apple) and mangsho (mutton curry) and payokh (rice pudding) are other Bihu favourites.
Makar Sankranti is celebrated on the winter equinox when the sun moves from the Tropic of Capricorn (Dakshinayan) to the Tropic of Cancer (Uttarayan), giving the festival its name in Gujarat—Uttaran. On this auspicious day, many devotees take a dip in the Ganga, light bonfires, fly kites and of course, feast on delicious food. Makar Sankranti is celebrated across the country with regional variations in food. In Gujarat, bajra no khichdo (a preparation of millet khichdi), undhiyu (a mix of seasonal vegetables such peas, unripe bananas, eggplant, grounded coconut, potatoes and purple yam), til ladoos (ladoos prepared with sesame seeds, jaggery, peanuts and desiccated coconut) and Surati gulab jamun are popular preparations. In Maharashtra, there is the puran poli (a a sweet preparation of rotis stuffed with jaggery and chana dal). Odisha eats akara chaula (a dish made by combining rice with jaggery, milk, banana, chhena and sugarcane) and in Bengal, there is a profusion of patishapta (pancakes stuffed with coconut and sugar), nolen gurer payesh (a thickened rice and milk pudding with date palm jaggery), and gokul pithe (deep fried patties of khoya, date palm jaggery and coconut).