New Year comes once a year, right? Wrong! If you are an Indian, you can celebrate New Year’s Day several times a year, for, every region and state celebrates it on different days. Each one has a different name and is also celebrated in different ways. But the joy and hope of an unfolding new year is common to all.
It is celebrated as Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, Vishu in Kerala, Bihu in Assam, Cheiraoaba in Manipur, Nabo Barsho in Bengal, Baisakhi in Punjab, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra and Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. I don’t know what the other states call their respective New Year’s days. If you know, do share them with me. Why just New Year, we have so many festivals which are region and religion specific, that one can be in a celebratory mode throughout the year! But unlike festivals, some of which call for strict adherence to religious rituals and customs, including fasting, New Year is more of a social function and calls for rejoicing and feasting.
What is more, the celebrations are as varied as the regions and the people. If there is the lovely dance on Bihu, there is the robust Bhangra in Punjab and the colurful gudi in Maharashtra, and the flower rangolis in Kerala and of course the feasts in all the states! My vote goes to the Indian new year celebrations in comparison to the 31st December parties.
The Tamil Puthandu falls on 14th of April this year.
In preparation for the big day, the house is cleaned and colourful rangolis are made at the entrance and inside the house, mango leaves are strung across the top of the threshold and flowers adorn the shrine. There is no strict adherence to any religious ritual except for a ceremonial bath, wearing of new clothes, doing puja, going to temples and offering a variety of dishes to the Gods – and then the grand finale – feasting on the yummy dishes! In some households there is the ritual of reading the panchangam or almanac of the forthcoming year. Otherwise it is a time for rejoicing and hope.
The feast is an elaborate one, with kheer, vadas, raita, two varieties of subzi, kosumalli (a salad made with soaked moong dal and garnished with tomatoes, coriander, cucumber and lemon juice), aviyal, mango pachadi, (chutney) a coconut-curd based stew), panagam (jaggery dissolved in water and flavored with cardamom, black pepper and lemon juice), and neer mor (watery buttermilk with a tadka of mustard, hing and curry leaves). The last two are cooling and suited for the summer, which is just setting in at the time of Puthandu
If you thought that the feast is all sweet and savoury, you are mistaken. There is one ingredient which is mandatory – neem flowers, which are in full bloom at this time of the year! And we all know how bitter it can be. So what is bitterness doing on the happy occasion of New Year, you ask? Well, isn’t life bittersweet? It is to emphasise this truth that our forebears included it as part of the first feast of the year.
And that brings us to the mango and neem pachadi. It symbolises life itself — with the good and the bad, the sorrows and the joys, sweetness and bitterness. Another unique thing about it is that it incorporates all the six tastes advocated by Ayurveda to be included in every meal to maintain a perfect balance of good health. In Tamil, we call the six tastes arusuvai: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
For this pachadi, we use jaggery (sweet), raw mangoes (sour), salt (salty), green chillies (pungent or spicy), neem flowers (bitter) and turmeric (astringent). While I use fresh neem flowers if available, dried flowers can also be used, after lightly sautéing them in a little ghee. My mother used to make neem flower pachadi separately. That had tamarind instead of mango for the sour taste with the rest of the ingredients being the same.
You can try your own recipe to make this delicious dish. Or try it my way: Peel, chop and cook the raw mango in a little water with a little turmeric and salt till it is soft. If you are using raw neem flowers add about a tablespoonful of it to the mangoes when it is almost cooked. Add jaggery and cook till it is well combined. Make a tempering of mustard seeds and a couple of slit green chillies. (If you are using dry neem flowers, sauté it in a little ghee till it turns nearly black and then add it to the pachadi in the end. Don’t cook after adding neem flowers in this case).
When you eat this pachadi, remember what it stands for : Life in its myriad shades and moods is bittersweet but taken as a whole, is delicious.
Wish you all a very happy new year ahead!