What’s Navratri Without Sabudana Khichdi
Image Credit: Sabudana Khichdi | Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Navratri is an annual Hindu festival spanning nine nights and ten days celebrating the Goddess Durga. Theoretically, Navratrioccurs four times a year, corresponding to the four seasons - Magha (Winter), Chaitra (Spring), Ashadha (Monsoon), and Sharad (Autumn). However, the most celebrated, and significant Navratri is the Sharad Navratri, which occurs close to the autumn equinox, i.e., September to October. This is preceded by the Chaitra Navratri (near the spring equinox, between March and April). The way the festival is celebrated varies remarkably across the country. In some parts, Navratri is a time of reflection, and fasting. In others, it may be celebrated in a more extravagant manner, with plenty of dancing and feasting. 

There are some underlying themes to the celebration of the festival, regardless of where it is celebrated. Devotees adopt a strict vegetarian diet, avoiding certain ingredients (onion, garlic, and some spices), and refrain from consuming substances such as alcohol. The food consumed during this time varies depending on the region in consideration. That said, most people consume starchy foods, from singada ki atta (water chestnut flour) to sabudana (sago). Fruits and vegetables are also staples during this time.

An often-overlooked component of vrat ka khanai.e., food of the Navratri fast is its nutritional soundness. Most devotees disregard the concept entirely, focusing on satiety. However, it would be wise to keep your macros in check, as it would be best not to disturb bio-mechanical processes for an extended period of time. It isn't that hard to make a vrat friendly meal with good nutrient makeup. The daily requirements for carbs and fat can be met through the components that make up the vrat thali. Protein macros will likely have to be satiated separately, via items made using high protein vrat-friendly flour, milk, and nuts.

Sabudana is an indispensable part of the vrat ka khana.You would be hard-pressed to find a vrat thali without a sabudana preparation. The most prevalent dish featuring the beloved white pearls is sabudana khichdi. The dish is fairly simple to make: the sabudana is soaked overnight, drained, and then sautéed with cumin seeds, green chillies, salt, and spices. Other ingredients are also added to customise it in different ways.It is not uncommon to find preparation that include chopped potatoes or fried peanuts. On Navratri, Sabudana khichdi is usually served with sweet yoghurt.

Sabudana has a rich and storied history. Although most people associate the white gelatinous pearls with central and north Indian cuisine, the pearls were first introduced to India via Salem, Tamil Nadu, as a part of an import from Southeast Asia. The Chinese had been consuming sago for thousands of years, in contrast to the 80-odd years since being introduced in India. The consumption of tapioca, too, is a relatively recent development in India. Other sources say the starchy root was first introduced to the country via the state of Kerala in the 1800s, as a means to combat famine, and it then rapidly spread to the rest of the country. Kappa is still a staple in Kerala, and is widely consumed throughout southern India.

Most dishes that are centered around sabudana are quick and easy to make. The task of making the pearls is much more difficult and labor intensive. This has since been made easier and more cost-effective with the advent of machinery that helped streamline the whole process. Sabudana is made by processing tapioca or cassava root. The tubers are cleaned and crushed in order to obtain a white, milk-like liquid. The liquid is set to rest for a few hours, additives may be added at this stage to further refine the product. The liquid is then filtered.

After the impurities are filtered out, the liquid takes on a thicker consistency; it is then shaped into the small spheres we know and love, with the help of a machine. The spheres are finished by steaming, roasting or drying. Additionally, the pearls may be buffed in order to achieve textural evenness.

Sabudana is used throughout Navratri preparations owing to its nutritional properties, ease of preparation, and near-ubiquitous availability. To quote nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the resin or gum, which is present in most starchy foods, especially the root vegetables that are a part of the fasting food...along with potassium and starch...is liver- and gut-friendly...(they) help in cell wall repair and detoxing of the liver and the gallbladder, and to prepare them for the winters when they would need to process high-calorie, high-fat food.” 

Sabudana is a complete starch and serves as a nutritionally sound meal. What a great way to detox during Navratri and rejuvenate your health.