Ammama (which is what I call my maternal grandmother), my mum and 2 aunts are seated on the kitchen floor surrounded by a number of ingredients. The spare cooking stove has been removed from storage and placed on the floor, and oil is heating up in a large iron frying pan. The aromas of fried gram flour, sugar syrup and such assorted delicious smells fill the air in the tiny Mumbai apartment kitchen. I remember being a part of this scene. I remember this scene from when I was a kid, watching from the kitchen door, because I wasn't allowed near the hot oil. But I was allowed to help measure the dry ingredients, wipe the utensils dry, and other such small chores. Much later, I was allowed to help in preparing the dough. I remember this as a happy time, each year.
This same scene plays out during Gokulashthami, Diwali and a few other festivals that involve family members getting together and cooking up a storm. The variety of goodies made during Gokulashthami clearly made Krishna my favourite deity as a child. There was the dark and sweetened with jaggery, vellaseedai, its savoury version, uppuseedai, murukku-the crispy rice flour spirals, completely handmade, flattened crispy discs called thattai, and so much more. The problem with all of these goodies being made a day in advance for Gokulashthami was that we were not allowed to eat any until the offering was made to Krishna. Needless to say, resisting the urge to sneak into the kitchen and filling our pockets with goodies to eat later in a quiet corner of the house, took every ounce of self-control that we kids possessed. After all, Krishna was known for stealing butter from all the village mothers, too! But somehow, we'd exercise patience; and the minute the offering was made, we'd dig in with relish!
The good thing about the Diwali cooking sessions was that there was no waiting period. All the food was prepared for the fun of eating. No offerings had to be made and consequently, there was no waiting and salivating, no pestering granny with a constant stream of, "When can we eat this?" Everyone was allowed to taste (or eat) the goodies as they were being made. Thank goodness for such festivals! The Diwali 'mixture' making project was (and is) a big event at granny's place. The women of the house would gather on the appointed day to assist in the making of this crispy mix of 8 to 10 different savouries. So iconic is this mixture in Tam-Brahm households that if you ask me to sum up Diwali in four words, I'd say: new clothes, mixture, lehiyam and sparklers.
For the mixture project, first, a list of the ingredients would be meticulously drawn up. All the ingredients were then bought fresh or prepared. Once the ingredients were all gathered, phone calls ensued and the women would collectively choose a time and date to get started. For us kids, just knowing that the ladies of the house are going to embark on this project would mean that the festival was round the corner. Freshly made sev (gram flour noodles), boondi, diamond-shaped biscuits, peanuts, fried flattened rice, cashews and a whole host of other tasty items would be prepared one after the other. Fried coconut slices, which I'm convinced, are as tasty for vegetarians as bacon is to meat-eaters, were the key item in the mixture. All the items would be heaped on newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor, seasoned, mixed up with dry hands and divided into 5-6 gleaming aluminum dabbas. The dabbas, of course, would have been scoured and kept in the early winter sun to be naturally sterilised so that the mixture keeps fresh for longer. Not that it stayed in the dabbas for too long, anyway! Diwali mornings typically started with the oil bath ritual, putting on new clothes, bursting a cracker (for those who enjoyed it), eating a spoonful of the herbal spicy mix called the lehiyam, a digestive to help your stomach handle the overload of heavy food that would soon follow, and then of course, this legendary mixture. Just playing out these food scenes from my childhood fills up my heart with a festive cheer.
You need a group of people to work together to enjoy these cooking projects. A whole day of preparing, frying, cleaning up is much more fun when done with family members over steaming tumblers of coffee and discussing 'important' family gossip. This certainly doesn't seem like fun when you are alone in a nuclear family. No fun to make and no fun to eat, all by yourself. And that's where we are today. Family members are often scattered around the country or the world. Many women from my grandmum and mum's generation have given up on this all-day cook-a-thon in favour of the convenience of placing an order with local caterers who deliver all kinds of goodies right to your doorstep. I have to admit, some of these caterers are so good with their preparations that it is natural to be tempted to save on the cooking time and energy, and still be able to enjoy the festival food.
People from my generation are increasingly looking for modern options-healthy and quick versions of the festival food that we grew up eating. While I love cheesecake and brownies, in my mind, they simply don't lend that touch of food magic to our festivals. Last year I took a shortcut-I made cupcakes, mini bundt cakes and some other baked treats to share with my friends and neighbours. Even though they loved the food, I felt like a complete fake. Call it years of conditioning or the comfort we find in rituals, but it just didn't feel right. I've decided that this time, I'm going to do it the old-fashioned way. I'm going to gather two of my cousins and do a full-fledged Diwali goodies-making session over chai and the all-important family gossip. Why? To relive my childhood for just a little bit, and hopefully, give my son some happy memories to look back upon fondly and share with his own kids.
As for the calorie-counting health freaks like me, you have to admit that passing up on the yummy food at this time of the year is criminal! So dig in, like you did in your childhood. If that means an extra workout per day, so be it!