Celebrity Chef Varun Inamdar On Makar Sankranti: ‘Traditions Are Best Left Alone’

Celebrity Chef Varun Inamdar On Makar Sankranti: ‘Traditions Are Best Left Alone’

The award-winning chef and ambassador for Swastha Bharat Yatra talks about the food and celebration surrounding the harvest festival

Varun InamdarUpdated: Monday, January 15, 2024, 04:35 PM IST
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Chef Varun Inamdar |

Makar Sankranti is the ultimate celebration to honour the sun’s northern transit — Uttarayan. It is also our way of thanking Mother Nature for the bountiful harvest. It is called by different names in different states of India.

It has, not just, agricultural importance; it carries deep cultural and spiritual significance, too. Engaging in kite flying is a sport associated with Sankranti in some parts of India. But it was actually an expression of sunbathing which somewhere was lost over time in all the fun and frolic.

Kites, not for me

I am not into kite flying. The fact that it hurts our aerial friends discourages me from flying kites or even watching them as a spectator. The multitude of colours in the blue sky is not very colourful for me (chuckles).

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, hence I have been majorly exposed to urban festival celebrations in my childhood. However, adulthood has taken me across India, hence I have seen it in all its glory.

Those were the days

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Sankranti is also celebrated as Pongal by our Tamilian brethren. My early memories take me to Dharavi where 400 families celebrate the festival with an eponymous recipe called Pongal, which can be sweet or savoury. The celebration happens on the street dedicated to community cooking that begins at 4 am.

Imagine the bird’s eye view: around thousand people with 400 make-shift red brick chullahs making a dish on the road in all its glory; worshipping the almighty and eating all the cooking as a community. Imagine the imprint of this image on a young impressionable mind. Unforgettable. A couple of hours later, the streets are as bustling as ever; even if you breathe, you will end up pushing someone.

On Makar Sankranti, an early morning bath and an annual visit to Dharavi to experience community cooking in all its glory is a given. We bring some Pongal home from there and place that as naivedya in our home temple. A quick worship and then I head to my kitchen to cook. Did I mention? We all wear black clothes!

Tasty delights

Over the years our menu hasn’t changed — traditional bhogi chi bhaji, bajri chi bhakri, kadhi-khichadi, til koot, peanut chikki and sesame jaggery laddoo called til gul. The chef in me sometimes takes over and also makes til gul kulfi, peanut chocolate bonbons and rahash (crushed sesame) and molasses tarts, which I used to make for the Queen of Kuwait, Sheikha Amthal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Puran polis and til polis are also enjoyed around this time of the year. What I enjoy the most is my bowl of baer fruit (Indian jujubes) with salt and chilli powder.

We also make a typical grandmother-styled recipe, passed down for over a 100 plus years and has not changed one bit. Jaggery, unpolished sesame seeds, peanuts, roasted chana dal and a little green cardamom powder. This is a customary preparation along with til papdi, gul poli, and Surati Undhiyo, since my grandmother was from Valsad (trust me she made the best undhiyo).

I have been making prasad for years. It is the most amazing feeling to make prasad, not just as a professional chef, but more as a human being. We are walking the path carved by our ancestors. If we sit back and think, we are living on the land where the Gods once lived. Prasad making is therapy.

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Change it not

Traditions are best left alone; they connect us to our roots. Everything is not a subject to be revamped. A little leeway now will become the norm after a few decades, spiralling our culture downwards. Of course, keeping health in focus and throwing plastic and tyres in the Lohri fire should be discouraged.

Passing on traditions has a positive impact on our children. Vivaan, my sister’s son, turns 10 this year; he is very rooted in our culture because he also lives with his grandmother. We celebrate all festivals at home — Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Gudi Padwa, Ganesh Chaturthi alike with a lot of fervour — traditionally, the way they must be along with festive foods. Because that is how the next generation will be connected to their roots.

For instance, when you explain the cultural significance of Makar Sankranti to children, it multiplies their joy. Children are open to learning and Sankranti teaches them to be thankful for the food on their plate.

Bhogi chi bhaji

Bhogi chi bhaji

Bhogi chi bhaji |

(A mélange of winter produce cooked in the magic of goda/malwani masala — depends on the demographics — and a powder of sesame and peanuts is Bhogi Chi Bhaji served with takatla palak and til bhakri)

Ingredients

4 drumstick (cut into 2 inches)

2 cups sugarcane (cubed)

1 cup baer (Indian jujubes)

½ cup potato (cubed)

¼ cup red carrot (cubed)

¼ cup brinjal (quartered)

¼ cup pavta beans

¼ cup harbhara

¼ cup green peas

¼ cup fresh toovar

Other ingredients

2 tbsp groundnut oil

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp asafoetida powder

1 tbsp tamarind pulp

2 tbsp jaggery

¼ cup fresh coconut (grated)

¼ cup peanuts (powdered)

2 tbsp sesame powder

1 tbsp goda masala

1 tsp red chilli powder

Salt as required

Method

Heat oil in a pan. Add in asafoetida, mustard and cumin seeds. Allow them to splutter. Add all the vegetables, fresh coconut, spices, and salt as per taste. Add two cups of water and allow them to cook; covered. Add sesame and peanut powder along with tamarind pulp and jaggery. Stir well and allow to simmer. Turn the flame off. Serve hot with til bhakri.

(As told to Anita Raheja)

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