Why do so many Indians eat cold, stale food at the start of spring?

#1 Mar 17th, 2019, 12:47
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In several cultures, there’s a tradition of feasting on day-old dishes during seasonal transitions to cool the body and fortify the immune system.

Illustration by Nithya Subramanian

In Bengal, Saraswati puja, which is celebrated on Vasant Panchami, is followed by another unique celebration the very next day called Sheetal Shashti, which translates to Cold Sixth. The festival is primarily observed by Bengali mothers to solicit the benediction of Maa Shashti, the protecting goddess of children and childbirth, for their offspring. On this day, no hot food is consumed, nor is the kitchen fire lit. Only cold food, a typical assortment of dishes prepared the night before is eaten.

In many Bengali homes, an absolute must on this day is the Gota Sheddho (whole boiled) or simply gota. A medley of seasonal vegetables – typically baby potatoes, baby brinjals, flat beans, tender spinach tips, green pea pods and sweet potatoes – is cooked whole, skin and all, along with whole moong dal. The dish is seasoned with salt and finished with a splash of pungent mustard oil. The recipe varies from house to house. At a friend’s place, gota is an elaborate one-pot dish spiced with cumin, coriander and dried whole red chillies. They also add chickpeas and black gram to the lentil and vegetables.

The gota is circumscribed by ritualistic stipulations, which again vary from one house to another. For instance, six kinds of vegetables must be used in the dish, and each vegetable must be added in sixes, multiplied by the number of children in the house. “So, if a woman observing the ritual has two children, she would add 12 each of the six kinds of vegetables,” explained my aunt, who is responsible for the cauldron of gota made at our family home every Vasanth Panchami. She makes enough for the entire clan and for neighbours whose homes don’t follow the mandate of making gota.

The gota sheddho is part of a more elaborate spread, all of which is cooked on Vasant Panchami, and consumed cold the next day for all meals. The other mandatory items are Panta bhaat or fermented rice gruel, yoghurt, and the seasonal Topa Kul’er Chatni, a panch-phoran-scented chutney made with tart Indian jujubes. Several other dishes are cooked too – unctuous aloo posto, sweet and spicy cabbage curry, fritters or deep-fried vegetables and stacks of luchi. It is a feast, albeit cold and slightly stale.

This practice of eating day-old food at the onset of spring is more than simply a religious observance or a folk festival. Shital Shashti in Bengal is observed right when winter makes way for spring or basanta, as it is known in Bengal. During this time of seasonal transition, our immunity tends to weaken, making the body prone to infections and diseases. This is also the time that chicken pox, called basanta in Bengali after the eponymous season, is widespread. Keeping all this in mind, the Shital Shashti spread is constructed to cool the body and fortify the immune system.


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