Last week was time to celebrate Navarthri once again, but my plans for that disappeared with me stuck in bed unwell with a rather bad bout of viral fever. Navarathri (also known as Dussehra or Puja) refers to ten day festival celebrated by most Hindu households across India. In each state of India, it takes on a different manner of celebration but involves ten days of celebrating Shakti or the power of the Goddess Durga in all her forms.
“Nava” means nine and “Rathri” means night so it’s really a celebration that is over nine days with the festival ending on the tenth day, Vijayadashami (the day of victory over all that’s inauspicious or evil)
Like in many other parts of India, we celebrate all the ten days of Navarathri and one part of the celebrations is to make a dish as offering to the Goddess (neivedhyam/ prasaadam), for each evening of the first nine days. The offering for the tenth day is Paanakam, a delicious cardamom flavoured jaggery and ginger based drinkwith excellent digestive properties which is supposed to be an antidote for nine days of feasting!
We generally make savoury and sweet offerings on alternate days of Navarathri with a sweet offering in particular for the Friday that falls within these ten days. With most of us no longer living in extended families, or in urban areas where we have busier lives Navarathri celebrations no longer have the fun that used to be a part of my childhood memories of the festivities.
In our community, Navarthri was as much a social affair as it was religious and it centred around women and children. Men were rarely seen during the festivities except on the periphery of things. There are two things that are so intricately linked in my childhood memories of celebrating Navarathri. One is the singing, and the other is the little packets of neivedhyam/ prasaadham (ritual food offerings) that we all came back home with from our visits to friends and family.
Once Navarathri was upon us, every Palakkad Iyer home that was celebrating would decorate a corner of the living room or the Puja room if it was large enough with the “Bomma Kolu”. In the evenings women and children would drop by the homes of neighbours or family members, and it was usually the done thing to sing a song/ prayer, spend some time admiring the “Kolu” and of course pass on the gossip for the day.
The lady of every house would insist that the children who visited for Navarathri, had to sing a song if we wanted our share of food for the evening. It didn’t matter if you were shy and the kind that limited your singing to the bathroom, or even if your brand of singing resembled a crowd of crows at their loudest, you had to sing! To give everyone their due, no one ever laughed or poked fun at you (except the meanest of your own friends, perhaps) if your singing performance wasn’t exactly bringing in the applause.
I personally found this bit of ritual harrowing and would refuse to sing even it meant forgoing my share of the neivedhaym.
Before the visitors left, they were offered the traditional festive “vethelai paaku” ( a traditional ritual offering to married women which typically includes betel leaves and nuts, kumkum, pieces of turmeric, a small banana, a coconut, a small mirror. Comb, glass bangles, sari blouse pieces, and packets of the day’s neivedhyam/ prasaadham)
Ask anyone from my community what food comes to mind when you mention Navarathri, and nine out of every ten people will tell you “Chundal/ Sundal”! Even though other foods are prepared during Navarathri festivities, Chundal is something that everyone prepares at least once if not twice during these ten days.
Chundal is a preparation, a sort of cooked salad made of lentils like Bengal gram lentils (chana dal) or dried beans like chickpeas, black-eyed beans/ cowpeas or whole moong beans. Usually a savoury preparation, the legumes or lentils are soaked overnight, cooked and then tempered with a few simple spices and fresh coconut. Not only are Chundals/ Sundals easy to make they’re also tasty, healthy and filling. The sweet version of Chundal/ Sundal is made with jaggery, coconut and flavoured with cardamom and a little ghee.
This version of Chundal is made with raw groundnuts which is what we call peanuts in India. I have never seen this made at home (though it is a popular dish in the Indian state of Tami Nadu)probably because we don’t use groundnuts very much in our traditional cooking. I get raw groundnuts here in season and when they are cooked they have an inherent sweetness which lends itself very well to this dish.
This dish cannot be made with roasted or dried groundnuts so if you can’t find raw groundnuts, you can substitute it with an equal amount of cooked chickpeas or black-eyed beans or whole green moong beans.
While this is served as festive fare, it also makes for an excellent teatime snack and can also be served on the side with a main meal.