Til Pitha or Makara Chaula, Pongal or Paramannam, Rewdi or Til Laddoos—Makar Sankranti celebrates the united flavours of a good harvest across India and is our very own rich, native culinary legacy
Move over, Christmas plum cakes, gingerbread houses, and English New Year celebrations. It is that time of the year when India, as one nation, celebrates the advent of its very own new year based on the Hindu calendar. The Makar Sankranti festival marks the transition of the sun from the zodiac sign of Dhanu, or Sagittarius, to Makara, or Capricorn.
Call it Makar Sankranti (Odisha, AP, Telangana, Karnataka, and Maharashtra), Poush or Mokor Sonkranti (Bengal), Uttarayan (Gujarat), Pongal (Tamil Nadu), Lohri (Punjab), or Bihu (Assam). The wealth of a bountiful harvest, whether rice or wheat, is celebrated with great merriment across India.
Growing up in Odisha, I used to look forward to my grandmother's Makara Chaula, which she made in the early hours of the morning on Sankranti. Freshly harvested raw rice, either from the local "haat" or our village (if we were lucky), would be washed and soaked overnight before being dried and ground on a "silbatta" the next morning. It would then be combined with fresh chenna (cottage cheese), milk, jaggery, crushed peppercorns, ginger, and chopped fruits (apples, oranges, bananas, and sometimes sugar cane), resulting in a divine medley of tastes and textures, and we would eagerly await our share after it was offered to the sun as Prasad.
Later, while studying in Delhi, I was introduced to the robustness of Punjabi traditions through Lohri celebrations. Til (sesame) chikki, rewdi, gajak, pinni (wheat flour, jaggery, and dried fruit laddoos), peanuts, cashews, pistachios, and almonds would take centre stage at our Punjabi neighbour's house during Lohri celebrations. A bonfire would be lit, a dhol would appear out of nowhere, and good cheer would ensue, with Lohri songs and Bhangra dance beat reverberating through the night. We'd be served gur-rewri, peanuts, dried fruits, popcorn, and til ke gajak with hot adrak chai, aka ginger tea, followed by makki di roti with sarson da saag and delicious rice kheer.
Many years later, when my husband and I were working as journalists in Ahmedabad, we were captivated by the city's kite-flying fervour during Makar Sankranti celebrations. Victory cries of Kai Po Che (based on Chetan Bhagat's novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life) would be heard in the mornings, and colourful kites would bobble up and down in the blue skies. One or two of the unfortunate fliers reduced in size would be trapped in our window panes, tapping forlornly.
Residents would flock to their apartments' terraces in the early morning and stay until late in the evening. The terrace would be well stocked with food. And lunch would always include poori, veg undhiyu, khichdi, and jalebi, along with unlimited glasses of chaach or lassi.
Undhiyu, paired with hot pooris, is a one-pot vegetable casserole dish that takes centre stage during Sankranti celebrations in Ahmedabad (all of Gujarat). Steamed fresh pigeon peas or green tuvar dal, Surti papdi (hyacinth beans), Valour papdi (fava beans), root veggies like purple yam, baby potatoes, baby brinjal, and methi muthiya (steamed fenugreek and besan dumplings) used to prepare undhiyu are all full of winter goodness. A delicious filling is made by combining ginger, garlic, green chillies, grated coconut, hing or asafoetida, dry spices like cumin and coriander, and chilli powder. This is stuffed into veggies like baby potatoes and brinjals and tossed along with the remaining cut veggies and pulses to fry it all and be served hot.
Across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, especially in Hyderabad, Sankranti is celebrated with great gusto and fervour. While folks from Telangana have a non-vegetarian feast on Sankranti, which is followed by a vegetarian meal on the following day, i.e., Kanuma (a cattle festival in which prayers are invoked for the farmer’s livestock), Andhra-ites observe the polar opposite tradition, eating a vegetarian meal on Sankranti.
Sitting in Hyderabad, I always look forward to posts from a home chef friend of mine, Sreevani Macha, about her fantastic Sankranti lunch that inspires me to try in the coming days. Sreevani posts pictures of a large spread of drool-worthy baghara rice, mutton curry, country chicken curry, chicken fry, and mutton chaaru. Baghara rice is made by cooking sona masoori or basmati rice with bay leaf, cinnamon, sliced onions, green chilies, and ginger-garlic paste. Generous amounts of mint and coriander leaves are used as a garnish for this fragrant rice preparation. It is my personal favourite! That is served with mutton curry (made with a coconut-khuskhus paste), chicken curry (traditionally naatu Kodi or country chicken), chicken fry, and mutton chaaru (a dal rasam made with different cuts of mutton and the fat). Pooris, vadas, til, peanut laddoos, and chikkis are the other delicacies readily accessible for nibbles.
Telangana-ites cook sweetmeats like Ariselu (fried rice flour and jaggery cakes), paramannam (similar to pongal cooked in ghee with jaggery and nuts), and other fried savoury snacks like garelu, bhoorelu, chekkalu, murukkulu, and more, on Kanuma, the day after Sankranti. Interestingly, on Bhogi, the day before Sankranti, Telangana residents prepare kalagura, a mixed winter vegetable medley similar to undhiyu, with beans, green tur peas, and sugarcane. Coincidence, much?
During Bihu, also known as the Assamese Sankranti festival, til pitha, or rice flour cakes filled with jaggery and sesame seeds, are made in Assam. I had enjoyed tasting it from my college roommate's tuck box, which had been sent by her mother from Guwahati all the way to Delhi the day before Bihu.
All in all, it is a good harvest festival that people celebrate and pray for across the length and breadth of the country. The dishes and their flavours may differ across states, but there are many common ingredients, such as rice, sugarcane, jaggery, sesame, and coconut, that come together to celebrate the culinary fabric of India.