Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ashtalakshmis and Ashtabhojanam!

The Varamahalakshmi Pooja is celebrated with aplomb in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Worshipping the powerful Ashta Lakshmis on the last Friday of ashada is said to invoke the blessings of the goddesses.

The festival is in the air almost a week before. Aromas of the offerings for the goddess linger around, as my mother and my three aunts toil in the kitchen with my grandma supervising from her sofa just outside. Eight different sweets and eight savories comprise the offerings to the deity. Obattu, Coconut Burfi, Rava Laddoo, Besan Laddoo, Chimli, Challbindi, Mysore Pak, and Kadubu hit the sweet plate while chakli, muchoru, kodbale, and nipattu adorn the snack plate. These are made in fresh oil or ghee and stacked up in steel or aluminum containers which then go sit on the top-most shelf of the kitchen. A white powder that wards off ants is sprinkled around the containers and they rest there till the morning of the pooja.

I recall my mind wandering into my home kitchen as I sat in school, completely missing my Civics and Geography lessons. By the time we cousins got back home, the kitchen was completely normal, showing no signs of the hectic, frenzy cooking that took place a couple of hours ago. The only proof was the extra containers perched on top, and my grandma sensing the greed on our minds would promptly shoo us away with a smirk on her face. We could not touch or even think about it, until the goddess had her share.

On the festival day, you wake up to see the ladies in colorful silks, with jasmine in their hair and glass and gold bangles clinking against each other on their hands. The previous evening is spent decorating the entrance with fragrant mango leaves and bright marigold flowers, and a nice rangoli to welcome the goddess. The lack of rangoli-drawing skills at home is made up for by Saroja, our domestic help, who gladly does the needful.

I am angrily stared at by grandma- I get the point, “Go bathe and dress up before the priest comes in”, I comply. The priest arrives and after hemming and hawing about traffic and expressing unhappiness about the youngsters today, he begins…..The coconut in a silver kalasha is smeared with kumkum and turmeric and painted with eyes, nose, mouth like a woman’s face. This face is adorned with gold, and the kalasha represents the goddess.

Flowers, milk, honey, curd, fragrant leaves are all offered to the goddess amidst holy chanting. By the end of the pooja, the ladies tie yellow threads on each other’s wrists signifying that the rituals are done. The offering is now made to the goddess. On a fresh banana leaf, all the sixteen dishes are presented along with rice, ghee and payasam. Grandma says, simple rice and sweet milk work just as well as offering. The men come in to take blessings and go back to debate politics, or read the newspaper-whichever.

Pooja done, we swoop down on the goodies. It’s a tough one deciding what to eat now and what later, just so every delicacy is given a fair chance to be savored and appreciated. Obattu, which is surprisingly warm just melts in the mouth, crunchy coconut burfi with plump raisins and snappy cashews entice you, huge kadubus with the jaggery and coconut mixture is divine, and the muchoru is just the same as last year and the year before-perfect!

Festivals are beyond connecting with the divine, it is a time to renew and discover family ties, pause from the mad rush and cacophony, and a time to eat delicious food fit for the gods!

But alas, not any more… Family ties now seem cumbersome and food fit for the gods are calorific and unfit for consumption. God save us, really!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Damrote when in Distress

I remember my first day at school, rather, what I did that evening. I hated school, and I proved my unhappiness by wailing to my mother and puking all that I ate at lunch, as additional proof. But my mom knew better, “Wash up and come inside, your grandpa has got some damrote”, she said. That did it—I meekly did as told, and any hatred for my new school was forgotten.

And sure enough, the rich, sinful preparation was handed to me in a cup, as I tucked in carefully, not letting even a little crumb go waste. In fact damrote was not meant to be shared nor eaten while talking with others on the table-it commanded respect. I would run upstairs and hop on to the ledge over the window and sit and eat it, quiet, savoring every morsel- sometimes even speak to it.

That was the kind of power that damrote yielded over my childhood, not ice cream, not chocolate. It was available in only one place: Gundappa Hotel, and people would come from far and wide just to buy 100 grams or two of this sweetmeat-it was expensive. My grandpa was a connoisseur of sorts when it came to good food- he bought the best ingredients from the best places, and sweet for a special occasion meant damrote.

I was obese through childhood, and I suspect my grandpa’s indulgence and my fondness for food was the catalyst. I still am on the heavier side (tsk, tsk) and although my grandpa is no more, I seem to have inherited this whole eye/nose/mouth-for-good-food thingy. The only difference is grandpa wouldn’t eat, he would bring them for us, and I am different that way!

Giving out the recipe for damrote is impossible, first it is a secret guarded by the Gundappa Hotel Kitchens and second, somehow I just can’t believe anyone can make it like them. Oh, there are several sweetmeat stores professing to make this: but trust me, I know how the original tastes since 30 years!

Describing damrote is a challenge-one needs to taste it. Made of grated pumpkin, khova, ghee and sugar, the mixture is cooked on ‘dum’, in a sealed copper vessel. By the end of three-four hours, the result is a sizzling golden-brown damrote with a crunchy-gooey exterior and a sweet, soft, succulent inside. The taste is out-of-the-world. I felt privileged when Mr. Srikanth—one of the brothers who run the sweetshop now—showed me the old copper oven it is cooked in. The huge plate with 10-kg of the delicacy just sings and sizzles in the oven- it is pure joy to watch.

Of course growing up, I discovered a whole lot of other favorite desserts: warm chocolate cake, coconut burfi, kesaribath and more recently paal ada pradhaman from my mother-in-law’s kitchen, but damrote holds a very special place in my heart, almost like a friend who helped me forget the little sorrows of childhood, and gave me moments of pure ‘foodie’ joy! This is just a very, very small tribute.

(About Gundappa’s Hotel: You get lovely sweets at this sweet shop. And in my experience the Vimurti and Chandrahara rock! And I love the mixture they sell because it has chunks of pakodas in it—like little surprises hiding in nooks and corners of the packet. Gundappa’s Hotel has also forayed into ready-to-eat mixes: Rava Idli, Rasam and Sambar and Vangibath powders and Chutney podi. Among them, I think the Vangibath powder was amazing and the Sambar and Rasam powders are just like what mom makes at home. If you want to try any of these, call them on 080-22222055. The shop is nestled in a nook on OTC Road, Nagrathpet, in old Bangalore, India.)