Bitter, Sweet,Sour, Spicy & Salty - Thats what life is all about!
One definite advantage of not being a W.A.S.P (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and claiming origins from a former third world country is that you get to celebrate almost everything twice. Two names, Two Birthdays (one on the official date you were born, the one that you register at school with, the other, your star birthday, which is calculated according to the Hindu Calendar ), and festivities of cultures from the mother land & adopted home. Who says life can't be a string of events to celebrate?
And so, today was New Years, the religious one. As with many of the different communities in India, New Years is celebrated in April, which was the case with the Western world until some pompous Roman figurehead decided that the New Year should begin in the middle of the freezing winter. (and gave us April Fool's day as a rather lame substitute). This day is venerated as Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi in Punjab, Poila Baisakh / nabobarsho in Bengal, Vishu in Kerala and Varsha pirappu in Tamil Nadu.
Among the Tamil Brahmin community, especially those who have a connection with Kerala, there is a beautiful tradition to kick off the day & consequently the year. It begins with setting out large trays of fruit, flowers (traditionally its flowers from the golden shower tree , but any bright yellow flower will do, its the color that matters, the golden hues), Rice, lentils, unrefined sugar, Money, new clothes, Jewelry and in the midst of it all, a mirror.
Children are led to the display with their eyes closed and are asked to open them to view themselves in the mirror. The significance behind this is to literally open your eyes in the New Year to see yourself surrounded by wealth and prosperity.
AS with any other culture, such occasions are celebrated with food, and PLENTY of it. At home there is the classic three course South Indian Feast , here's a partial list:
plain dal, Sambar with freshly blended spices,
a light Rasam broth tempered with Neem blosssoms (more on that coming up),
A vegetable (usually winter melon or pumpkin) stew spiced with coconut & cumin,
A stir fried vegetable dish
Deep fried Lentil fritters (aama vadai)
Salad of course;
The list goes on for about half a dozen more dishes, all freshly prepared , without any tasting in between. You had better remember to salt the dish & do it just right, there is no such thing as adjusting the seasoning!
The signature dish for this feast however is not a main entree, but a condiment - 'Mango Pachadi'. Its a sweet sauce made with raw green mango, spiked with smoky fried Arbol chile and finished with a tempering of mustard, curry leaves and Neem blossoms. I don't know how this genius of a dish came to be invented, but its significance is deep. Its a reminder of how life is a mix of all different kinds of experiences, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy & salty and that one must be prepared for whatever life tosses at you in the coming year. Needless to say, Its usually the first serving dish that gets polished off. Since Neem blossoms are not easy to come by in the US of A, I resort to toasted and crushed fenugreek seeds to supply the bitter component. This is a dish with 5 different tastes & one huge mother load of pure Umami!
Mango Pachadi: (Makes 1 cup)
1/2 a raw green mango
1 cup water
1/2 cup Jaggery or dark brown sugar
1 fresh green (or ripe red) chili, slit lengthwise
Salt to taste
for the tempering
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 red arbol chile, whole
1 pinch asafetida (optional)
10-12 fenugreek seeds
Peel off the green skin of the mango. Cut off the 'Cheek' of the mango and run the peeler along the length of the piece of mango. This will yield thin strips. Alternatively you could dice the mango into small pieces. Add the water to the mango strips in a saucepan along with the split chile and bring to a boil. Cook down until the mango is completely mushed.
Now add the jaggery (powder it before hand so that it dissolves easily) and salt to taste. Continue cooking on low until the jaggery has completely dissolved. Fish out & discard the split fresh chile
In a small cast iron skillet, toast the fenugreek seeds until they turn a deep reddish brown, add it to a mortar and crush it coarsely. Heat the oil in the same till it just begins to smoke and then toss in the mustard seeds, once they pop, add the curry leaves & the red arbol chile. Once the chile browns remove the skillet off the heat and add the asafetida and crushed fenugreek. Pour over the mango and stir to combine. Serve as a condiment to any spicy rice dish.
Here's wishing everyone a wonderful year ahead (AGAIN), filled with all the delicious UMAMI enriched flavors that life offers!