Bright Tastes And Colors Of An Indian Spring: Holi FoodColorful, sweet and savory Indian treats are a natural when it's time to celebrate the coming of spring. That's what the Hindu holiday of Holi — or the Festival of Colors — is all about. The day calls for bright curries, sweet and savory rice, a mango cannoli, and a special carrot juice.
One of my favorite memories of my mother comes from when I was about 6. Her face was covered with random splotches of magenta, yellow and green, and her clothes were soaked with deep-red water. She pushed her hair back and laughed when we kids threw more water balloons at her.
Later, she took us inside the house, cleaned us up, and served us our favorite foods: savory samosas stuffed with spiced potatoes; flaky papris (savory wafers); and dessert of rice pudding and thandai (an almond-based drink).
A Word On Bhang
A while ago I was deluged with e-mails asking about bhang, used in a version of India's lassi yogurt drink and some dishes.
Anthony Bourdain had visited an "authorized bhang shop" for his show No Reservations. The owner asked him which bhang lassi he wanted: "normally strong, super-duper sexy strong, or full-power 24-hour, no toilet, no shower."
I have never cooked with bhang or tasted it.
Welcoming Spring, With Color And Food
It was the Indian Festival of Colors, Holi, which welcomes spring and makes all us Indians not only joyous but also childlike in our celebration of it. (I don't say "childlike" lightly: bhang — a derivative of marijuana — is a very popular cooking ingredient during this holiday.)
Holi is celebrated the day after the first full moon in March. Celebrations begin the night before with a large bonfire and go on the next day, with people showering each other with colors in both powder and water form. This is not the day to be dressed in your Sunday best in India — although my family has a tradition of wearing white to show the colors more vibrantly.
About The Author
An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.
Growing up in a large extended family filled with storytellers, I would corner one of my grandmothers to have her retell the story behind Holi. While there are several Hindu legends explaining the celebration, my favorite was the tale of Prince Prahlad.
As a boy, Prahlad's father did not respect his worship of Lord Vishnu — and he sent a witch to kill his son. Her name was Holika, and since she was immune to fire, Prahlad was made to sit on her lap in a burning pyre. Long story, short: He made it. She did not.
However, it is from Holika's name that the holiday was christened Holi, and pyres are burned at night to represent the victory of good over evil. The colors of the next day are meant to reflect the spring blooms covering the earth with their terrific vibrancy.
Spring Foods: Sweet And Spicy
And then, of course, there is the food. Food such as coconuts, sweet desserts and corn is offered to the god of fire during the bonfire.
My food-obsessed childhood household would go into overdrive during Holi, with many savories and desserts for lunch, and then a spread of meat curries, breads and vegetable delights such as spiced potatoes and sweetened rice for dinner, when the family would all congregate.
My grandmother would prepare delicious kanji, a fermented, spiced black carrot juice. One of the Holi favorites in my mother-in-law's home in Mumbai is a special dessert called gujiya, made of sugar, coconut and lots of khoya (evaporated milk). It's delightful, but was never prepared in my parents' house in Delhi, as food traditions vary all over India.
Carrying On A Tradition
Today, I celebrate this lovely festival with my young boys. We celebrate by throwing water balloons at each other. Occasionally, we will find a kind friend willing to allow us the generous use of their backyard as a playing field for throwing powdered colors at each other.
Then, like my own mother did, I prepare their favorite food: sweet rice with saffron, spiced potatoes. And I always serve a chilled carrot juice. Brightly colored foods to celebrate a vibrant day.
This beautiful curry can be served with steamed rice or with homemade or store-bought naan. The key to making this curry is to watch the heat when you add the yogurt. If your pan is too hot, the yogurt will curdle. Just lower the heat, add the yogurt slowly, and you will be rewarded with a fantastic curry.
The recipe is adapted from one by Floyd Cardoz, chef at Tabla restaurant in New York City, a contemporary Indian-French restaurant.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 red chili, crushed
3 sprigs curry leaves*
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 fresh serrano green chili peppers
2 small tomatoes, diced
1 quart whole milk yogurt
10 fingerling potatoes boiled, cooled and broken into large pieces
Salt to taste
Pinch of sugar
*Curry leaves are available at most Indian grocers, Asian stores or from online sources.
Heat a large stew pot over moderate heat and add the canola oil after the pot is hot.
When the oil shimmers, add mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds pop, add cumin, red chili and curry leaves.
Cook for 1 minute, then add ginger and turmeric and cook for another 20 seconds.
Add onion and green chilies and saute for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk the yogurt and water together.
Turn the heat to low. Let the pan cool down for about 5 minutes. Add the yogurt and water to the pot along with the potatoes. Simmer for 20 minutes stirring constantly. Be sure the heat is low or the yogurt will curdle.
Saffron and mango cannoli provide a modern take on Holi by Chef Santosh Tiptur of Co Co Sala in Washington, D.C. I have to admit, when I first served this, I thought one cannoli per person would be too much. I am happy to admit I was totally wrong.
You can really play with the stuffing here – flavor the cheese with two tablespoons of coarsely chopped pistachio in place of mango and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom in place of saffron, for example.
Monica Bhide for NPR
Makes 6 servings
1 very ripe mango
5 strands saffron
1 cup ricotta cheese
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
6 store-bought cannoli shells
Mango puree (optional)
Cut the mango in small cubes and set aside. Soak the saffron in teaspoon of warm water and keep aside.
Mix the ricotta cheese, salt and confectioner's sugar together, and fold in the mango cubes and saffron.
Fill the cannoli shells with the mango mixture.
If you like, drizzle with some pureed fresh mango and serve.
Place this fermented carrot juice in a covered jar in the hot sun for 3-4 days. You will know it is ready when the ground mustard rises to the top and the color brightens with the rise in acidity from fermentation of the carrot sugars.
The traditional recipe uses black carrots, which are not easy to find in the U.S, but can be found at some farmers markets. Chef Sudhir Seth, who owns and operates Passage to India and Spice Xing in Maryland, suggests adding a beet to this recipe, which uses regular orange carrots, so that the color reflects that of the black carrot kanji.
Courtesy of Stephanie Stiavetti
Makes 6 servings
1 pound black carrots, peeled (use regular carrots if you cannot find black carrots)
2 small beets, peeled
3 quarts water
6 ounces brown mustard seeds, coarsely ground*
Sprigs of mint (optional)
Cut the carrots and beets into thin sticks.
Blanch the beets and carrots in hot water for 2 minutes, and let cool in the same water.
Add ground mustard seeds and salt to taste.
Leave in sun for 3-4 days, until the ground mustard seeds rise to the top and the color of the liquid turns bright red from its original dark mauve.
For a dash of color and flavor, add a sprig of mint.
*Whole brown mustard seeds are available at Indian stores or from online sources.