Fruits, meat, or tamarind rice, what’s on your Navratri Thali?

From fruits and vegetables to buttermilk, and yes, meat, this nine-day festival and its accompanying food has traversed an interesting course. Here’s all you need to know about the Navratri Thali and its origins.
Navratri thaali
Navratri thaali by Imly

When it comes to Navratri and its thali, there a few things that are a given: It is a satvik, plant-based thali; fruits, roots, millets and dairy are its main ingredients; the festival brings together not just the spirit of togetherness but also marks the beginning of winter – a season that for some parts of India calls for preservation of food while for the rest, a period of abundance.

The thali of homecoming and fertility

“Navratri,” says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “is an interesting mélange of the different avtaars it is celebrated in across India. In some parts of the country, these nine days are an occasion that is a tribute to one of the oldest goddesses; for others it is the homecoming of another; and for a few, it is part of this ancient ritual of war and a fertility festival that Navratri was originally considered to be.”

As a result, continues the culinary historian, “Not just the traditional practices but the food differs too. This is not just about staying off food that have tamsik characteristics like onion and garlic, but also those that need the body to work harder to be effective, like rice.”

– Chef Akshraj Jodha

The meaty thali of Kashmir

But even these restrictions are often based on what Navratri truly means for the region. For instance, the celebration in Kashmir. “Here,” says legacy specialist Chef Rahul Wali, “during the nine days, we worship Goddess Durga, and thus for the first six days we have sacrificial meat as a part of our thali. It is on the last three auspicious days, including Navami, that we follow the vegetarian suit as elsewhere in the country.”

The reason, according to Chef Wali, is the seasonal change that takes place around the nine days when the valley transitions from a pleasant summer to snowy winters. He adds, “Traditionally and even today, these nine days of ample sunlight are spent conserving for the winter and changing a diet that once had all forms of vegetable to being meat-heavy, and cooked with vegetables that can be preserved well, including the indomitable saag.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the thali isn’t celebratory enough. “It has some of the ancient dishes that every denizen is fond of including the Haak, Rogan Josh made with meat and Kohlrabi, and of course bread,” says Chef Wali.

The thali that celebrates tapioca, millet, and dal

Curiously, the meal style is followed in much of the hilly regions up north where the nine-days not only mark a stop for all agricultural and war activities, but also for trading and travelling. Move towards the mainland and the thali, while continuing with its theme of meat or vegetable based on the community, takes on a different tone. Here, the thali showcases culinary ingenuity, wellness, and functional cooking. Like that served in the hill station of Kasauli, where the Navratri thali instead of meat has tapioca pearl, millets, roots, and potatoes, says Chef Yogender Pal, Functional Specialist Culinary, Grand Hyatt Kochi, Bolgatty. He finds the thali one of the balmy things about seasonal change, especially for a place that often takes on the appearance of Grimpen Mire, and the best time to enjoy Kulath Dal and Gaguti Arbi.

“In fact,” continues Chef Pal, “Much like cinnamon for Christmas, the root vegetables take on a much tastier note during the nine-day festivities, and come as a surprise in spite the minimalistic seasoning and spice used during the season. But the finest part of this thali is that it gives a sense of lightness and cheer while easing one into the next season.”

The thali that endorses fruits

Faraali pattice navratri
Farali pattice eaten during Navratri

The search for dishes that can be light and satiating is perhaps also the reason that fruits make a big debut in the thali in all formats – from chutney to salad to puddings, and even as a bowl of mixed fruits. The latter, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “Is more effective for two reasons: There is no gluten that is being consumed during the time, which in turn allows for a layer-by-layer absorption of the fruits that may in other times interfere in other processes. In fact, the whole idea of incorporating sprouts, cucumber, and coconut slices into them only works at making the fasting time useful to accord similar benefits to the body as in the case of intermittent fasting.”

There is no gluten that is being consumed during the time, which in turn allows for a layer-by-layer absorption of the fruits that may in other times interfere in other processes

– Shaveta Bhassin

The thali that detoxes and nourishes

Chef akshraj jodha
Chef Akshraj Jodha of ITC Hotels

That ability to detox, preserve and build the system could explain why in much of mainland India, the Navratri thali doesn’t change much with a possible addition of meat or fish in a few places. According to Chef Jodha, “This depends on two factors: The community association with Navratri and of course the produce around the time and the climatic condition post the ritual. For example, in Rajasthan, there are communities that were once warriors and in keeping with the tradition, even today have sacrifices and meat is accepted as prasad. On the other hand, there are communities who follow the plant-based route. The common thread in both is the absence of garlic, onion, and in some cases chillies too.”

The thali that balances fasting and feasting

A similar tone that is found in Bihar as well where Navratri is celebrated as Durga Puja but minus West Bengal’s meaty fiesta. In Bihar, says Executive Chef Gautam Kumar of Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort, “Much like in the apple hills, our food works on the fundamentals of what is seasonal, what is needed, and a mix of fasting and eating at the right time, even though we pay our tributes to the famous warrior Goddess. Daily meals would be divided into three parts, the first is phal-ahaar that would be a mix of all fruits available around the time with sendha or rock salt added to it; then comes the meal, which would have kuttu poori, samak ka chawal, lauki ki subzi, aloo jeera, sabudana kheer and sabudana khichdi, all made in ghee, and minimalistic spiced without onion and garlic.”

Even the beverages, says Chef Kumar, “will be those that help the gut and calm the mind. So there would be lassi, chaas and even sattu drink that can give you energy.”

The thali that personifies Gujarat

Phalahar by Imly

A fine example of the cleverness of creating a meal that is both satiating, detoxing, and nourishing is the Falhaari Navratri thali of Gujarat, which while being gluten-free is nutritionally dense, be it with protein, carbohydrates, resin, or the other micro-nutrients needed. The perfect balance of nutrients and the clever selection of ingredients, in fact, makes the thali and its many components in other regions too. And to this, meat or fish is added where it is part of the rituals like Odisha, where meat or fish is part of the tenth day of the festival.

The thali that celebrates women

Navratri and its rituals, including the thali, transform when one heads down south, where the nine-day festival is celebrated as Bommai Kolu in Tamil, Bommala Koluvu in Telugu, Gombe Habba in Kannada, and Dussehra in Mysore, Karnataka.

“Unlike the nine different goddesses worshipped elsewhere,” says Head Chef Sandeep Sadanandan of Byg Brewski, “in the different states of southern India, it takes the shape of Doll Festival, much like the Japanese Hinamatsuri. A more modern take on the fertility festival of yore, the nine days in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh are an ode to womanhood, and her different phases presented through a collection of dolls, with tradition that bring girls and women to the fore.”

A more modern take on the fertility festival of yore, the nine days in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh are an ode to womanhood, and her different phases presented through a collection of dolls.

– Chef Sandeep Sadanandan

A fine example of this is Bathukamma, which is an ode to Maha Gauri, where women celebrate it with flowers, and is much like Raja in Odisha. In fact, the Naivedyam thali comprises dishes that are good for a women’s overall health and includes the likes of Sappidi pappu (bland boiled lentils), Bellam (jaggery), and Atukulu (flattened parboiled rice), Naanesina Biyyam, Uppidi Pindi Atlu (pancakes made from wheatlets), Chinthapandu Pulihora Saddi (tamarind rice), Nimmakaya Saddi (lemon rice), Kobbari Saddi (coconut rice) and Nuvvula Saddi (sesame rice), and Samili Muddalu to name a few.

The thali that celebrates a warrior clan

“In Karnataka,” continues Chef Sadanandan, “the festival is celebrated as Dussehra or more commonly called Mysuru Dasara. Thus, it reflects the warrior clan cuisine of yore, but differs as per which region it hails from. So, in North Karnataka, the thali would have Baledindina palya (banana stems playa), Suvaranagadde playa (yam playa) and Dharwad peda holige (akin to a puran poli), and in the North-South region, Ambode (vade), Kosambri, Obuttu (puran poli) and Gasa gasa paysa will hold prominence. Finally, towards the Southern side a variety of Sundal will take prominence along with Kattina Saaru and Huli Saaru (will have more vegetables like kabuli channa, dried green peas, mini brinjal, potato).”

So enjoy your Navratra and pick a Thali from the plethora of choices available to you.

Madhulika dash
Fruits, meat, or tamarind rice, what’s on your navratri thali? 6

Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.