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Let The Feast Begin 

by Swati Ali

(Written for JetWings)


A traditional sadya in Kerala or the customary Maharashtrian pangat, the aay buro bhat inside a Bengali home or sizzling barbeque on a Goan beach, the wedding feast in India is as important as the presiding priest and probably just as sacrosanct. 


From the coconut offered to the groom for prosperity to the turmeric paste applied to a bride, the rice sprinkled on a couple to ward off evil and the ghee poured into the wedding fire as an offering to the Gods, an Indian wedding seems to revolve around food every step of the way. And why not? Food is the biggest draw and the primary reason most people even agree to dress up, pack a gift and make that trip to the wedding venue.

Hours fly by deliberating with chefs on the kind of food to be presented, the number of cuisines to be included. Days are spent tasting various selections in the search of that perfect paneer tikka or that faultless reshmi kabab. And be it a traditional feast or a new-age spread, the food at the venue will always be the most talked about element in the Indian wedding extravaganza.

In the melting pot of cultures that is India, no wedding can mimic the other, each culture bringing with it it’s unique rituals, an array of customs and of course, it’s very own kind of food.


A MAHARASHTRIAN PANGAT

The celebrations at a typical Maharashtrian nuptial begin with the Simant Pujan, when the groom and his family arrive at the bride’s house the night before the wedding, and are served kadhi-khichdi and sheera puri for dinner. Usually a late morning or afternoon affair, the wedding culminates in a long, languorous sit-down lunch with guests seated in pangats or panktis (long, parallel rows) either on floor rugs placed in front of low tables known as chowrangs or on regular chairs and tables.

The food is served on a silver thali with several vaatis (bowls) and is strictly vegetarian. The feast commences with salt and a lemon wedge, essential flavoring agents for any dish. This is followed up with polis or puris (golden puffed up balls made of wheat), batatachi bhaji (a spicy potato preparation), aluchi patal bhaji (made of colocassia leaves), green chutney, koshimbir (a crunchy salad made with cucumber and ground peanuts), amti (a type of lentil), varan-bhaat (hot, fragrant white rice with yellow dal, often eaten with a dash of salt, lemon and ghee) and masale bhaat (a spicy rice preparation). The food is washed down with taak or buttermilk or matha that is diluted buttermilk mixed with spices like ginger, salt and green chillies. Desserts include puran poli and shrikhand.

Waiters, who serve the food, are usually accompanied by relatives who have to carry out agraha – that is, insist the guests eat some more! A recent wedding in Pune offered guests the royal treatment with sofa chairs for individual seating, silver cutlery and rich, ghee-soaked puran polis accompanied with saffron-scented milk. Years later, guests still talk of the wedding with a faraway look in their eyes, the taste of the food still a happy memory.


SADYA IN KERALA

A wedding in God’s Own Country can never be complete without the dazzle of a bride’s ornaments, the heady scent of fresh jasmine flowers and most importantly, the quintessential patta khana or banana leaf meal. The traditional wedding spread in Kerala called the sadya is a luncheon feast replete with more dishes than you can count on your fingers. A typical sadya could have anywhere between 14 to 28 items and zero cutlery. Eating with your hands is the norm and also the most practical approach.

A banana leaf is placed before the hungry guest seated cross-legged on a floor mat, so that the narrow part of the leaf always points towards the left. A waiter serves each course in its proper sequence and each dish has a fixed place on the plate.The feast commences from the top left corner on which is placed a small yellow banana, sarkara upperi (jaggery coated banana chips) and papaddum (crispy lentil wafers) in that order. This is followed by pickles both mango and lime, injipuli (a tangy pickle made of ginger, jaggery and tamarind), thoran (a vegetable dish abundantly garnished with coconut), olan (a preparation of pumpkin, coconut milk and ginger), avial (a thick mixed vegetable dish) and salt are placed in order on the rest of the upper half of the leaf. Once all these items are placed, rice – the red Kerala rice - is served in the center of the leaf. Then comes the parippu (ghee and dal) followed by the sambar (a thick curry made of lentils, tamarind and lots of vegetables) and kalan (a curd based gravy). Rasam, a spicy, watery tamarind-tomato curry, is served after this. When it’s time for dessert, Prathaman and Payasams are presented. Lastly, it’s buttermilk time, the perfect end to a perfect meal. The banana leaf is then folded and closed once the meal is over. It is said that folding the leaf away from you signifies a happy tummy and closing it towards you means the food could have been better.


THE BONG BANQUET

On an ordinary day, a bhojon roshik Bengali (actually, there isn’t another kind) will attack at least one mutton dish and one fish preparation while watching television alone in his or her home. Now plant the same species in the midst of a wedding. And watch the drama unfold.

It all begins with some innocuous rice and moong dal (yellow lentil soup) with Alu Bhaja (fried potato wedges) or Beguni (batter fried brinjal) but swiftly moves on to the Kalia, a sweet water fish preparation and Chanchra, a vegetable curry with a fish head dropped into it for flavor. If that were not enough, there is also the Muri Ghonto, a pulao cooked with fish head and the Macher muro diye muger dal, which is lentils, cooked with - you guessed it - fish head. Of course there is also Chingri macher malaikary (prawns in coconut gravy), Macher chop (fish chops), Chingrir cutlet (prawn cutlets), ilish bhaja (fried fish) and Doi Mach (fish in curd). Bengalis love their fish, but it would be a sin to ignore the meat. A sweet pulao and a rich mutton curry, usually the mutton daak bangla, soon follow. And when there is fish and meat can desserts be far behind? Mouth-watering Bengali sweets like sweet curd, rossogullas, chanar payesh, sandesh, khaja and gaja bring an end to this finger licking good feast.


THE EVOLUTION

Change is rolling in though and tradition is now making way for a different, more international kind of cuisine. And we are not talking just Chinese and Italian here. Much more open to experimenting, Indian weddings are seeing a sea change in the food department. From barbeques on a sultry Goan beach to sophisticated champagne sundowners in Mumbai and even testing the molecular gastronomy waters, Indians are finally willing to try something different. Caramelized walnuts for high tea at mehendi rituals, smoked cheese salvers at sangeet practices or oyster platters and cold cuts at an engagement party, the big fat Indian wedding is going global. And food is its ticket to the world. 

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