South Indian Brahmins are vegetarian, so the food served on festival days and occasions like weddings is vegetarian. In fact, as strict Brahmins, many South Indians avoid even onions and garlic in their cooking, believing them to have Tamsik elements which are incompatible with the pure thirst for knowledge and detachment that is supposed to be the goal of Brahmins. Even vegetables which are considered 'foreign' or earthy, like potatoes, are avoided on festival days.
Festive meals include one sweet item, a dal-based gravy dish like huli or saaru, kosambri – a salad made of julienned cucumber or finely grated carrot, or sometimes soaked chana dal or moong dal and dressed with lime juice, green chilli, chopped coriander and fresh grated coconut and seasoned with a mustard seed-curry leaves and heeng garnish, a dry vegetable, typically beans or ladies finger and rice. In my mother's home, a flavoured rice of some kind is de rigueur – lemon rice, tamarind rice or a rice spiked with a special pulao powder and mixed with a special selection of carefully chosen vegetables – tinda by itself, or green peppers with peas, fenugreek leaves by themselves or peas when the fresh peas really kick in. Even the order in which things are served on the plate and eaten has a special significance.
We start by serving a spoonful of the sweet – kheer, sajjige or whatever else in the bottom right. The kosambri at the top left. On the right of the kosambri comes the dry vegetable. Below the sweet comes a spoon of fresh homemade tuppa or ghee. A mound of plain rice is served in the center of the plate. The saaru or huli is served next to the rice. The spiced rice is usually served to the left of the plain rice.
The meal starts with the head of the house making a ceremonial ring of water drops around his plate, and then everyone begins their meal. The first morsel to be eaten has to be the sweet. Once that is finished, everyone is free to move on to whatever they want to eat, but a repeat helping of the sweet is necessary after the saaru-anna has been eaten. And we end the meal with curd-rice.
This year, for Deepawali, as mom was in the US with my sister, we all ate at our place, dad included. The sweets included payasa made with poppy seeds, sajjige – a halwa made with cream of wheat, and dad brought one of his favourite kannadiga desserts – kesari bhaat, or saffron-rice. I made saaru which my kids love, and lemon rice which is easy for everyone to eat, and for the cook to make.
Poppy seeds payasa is something that I never cared for as a child. It's only as an adult that I have developed a taste for it, and now I find the complex flavours delicious. It's also an easy one to make and healthy as it uses jaggery instead of sugar. And after the scramble of getting up early to do an oil ceremony for everyone, bathing and then rushing through the cooking in time to participate in the puje, I find its promise of sound sleep extremely beneficial J.
Poppy seeds Payasa
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1 tbsp rice
½ grated coconut
4-5 tbsp of jaggery, or to taste
1 tsp powdered cardamom
400 ml water
Soak the poppy seeds and rice in a little water for half hour. Blend with the coconut in a mixie until finely blended. Add to the water and set on to boil. Add the jaggery when it starts boiling, and let it simmer for 5-7 minutes after that. Top with the cardamom powder.
You can garnish with roasted cashews or slivers of coconut before serving. Tastes good, hot or cold!