There is more to our vrat ka khana (food of the Navratri fast) than the religious explanation that is given of its existence and its continuing practice.
“It’s been our tradition,” says Chef Aman Puri of Imly as he starts working on the ingredients for Navratras. While like most restaurants Imly—a comfort food-based theme eatery—too offers a set menu during the nine days of fasting, the offering, insists, Chef Puri, is different. To begin with, not only does the set menu boast of three different formats of the vrat thali including phalahaar and dudh-ahaar for those who keep fast in jodas (that is, the first and last two days), but the food prepared replicates the pattern at home. For these nine days, he continues, “a segment of the kitchen is specially cordoned to prepare food with fresh ingredients that almost mirrors the one at my home and the ones I have eaten growing up.” While going that extra mile has helped Chef Puri and Imly gain a reputation for the vrat menu over the years, the inspiration behind working on Navratri specials means more than commerce for the chef who has, in the past few years, had a new perspective about ‘vrat ka khana’.
Explains the Imly Head Chef, “when you grow up in Delhi, Navratri is a part of your DNA. Initially, I liked it because even as a chef the root vegetable and millets-rich thali provided that necessary palate detox that is crucial for us to continue. But it was around four years ago that I really began understanding the nuances of the composition of food, and why it is so calming. In fact, when done right it has benefits that go beyond a light body.”
This refreshing aspect of the vrat food is something that Indian cuisine specialist Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi too concurs with. Another chef who takes extra steps to ensure that the food is made in accordance with traditional practices, he finds the fasting food, a “proper way to give the body the R&R before the onset of winters and the seasonal changes in between.” “Think of it,” says Chef Raghuvanshi, “the food that is had during the nine days fast is a blend of root vegetables and fruits that are high on starch as well as minerals like potassium, magnesium along with a good dose of antioxidants. All of which are not only easy to digest but also work towards helping the digestive system specially the liver and intestine to repair the wear and tear and prepare for the season. In addition, the food is mostly cooked in ghee (clarified butter) that has a high smoking point which keeps it from burning easily, makes the food delicious, is easy to digest and results in a sense of zen that lasts the day even when one is eating less than usual.”
But does that explain what makes vrat ka khana, which comprises of some of the oldest ingredients known to us, so appealing and relevant?
According to culinary researcher Chef Nimish Bhatia (Founder, Nimisserie Bespoke) who has worked on fasting foods pan India, the brilliance of vrat ka khana is in its “composition and the way it uses fruits, vegetable, millets and milk in different formats to get the balance of nutrients right.” Take, for instance, the singada ke atta. Made from dried water chestnuts, this flour is not only gluten-free but is also a rich source of starch, fibre, manganese, potassium and Vitamin B6. In the vrat ki thali, this along with buckwheat flour are the main sources of energy and come with a good amount of nutrient matrix that helps aid digestion and is heart friendly too.
Fascinatingly, the food group is the key to what makes vrat ka khana such a fascinating piece of culinary ingenuity. Each food, continues Chef Bhatia, “works in sync with the other. While constants like sago pearl and kuttu ka atta(buckwheat) compensate for the lack of complex carbohydrates by becoming the main source of protein as well as supplying enough nutrients and starch that help rejuvenate hair follicles, rework the sugar levels and boost the calming hormones, fruits and root vegetables ensure a steady supply of other nutrients and minerals that help in cleansing the liver and gall bladder and also in removing toxins.”
Especially, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the resin or gum which is present in most starchy foods, especially the root vegetables that are a part of the fasting food. Resin along with potassium and starch are liver- and gut-friendly foods which help in cell wall repair and detoxing of the liver and the gall bladder and to prepare them for the winters when they would need to process high-calorie, high-fat food.”
How does it do that? In two ways, continues Sveta Bhassin, “first by the right composition where each ingredient is paired as per their role and then cooked for effectiveness. This explains why different variants are present of each of the ingredients where kuttu ka atta can be had as a halwa, puri or roti and likewise with the root vegetables that can be had as a mash, in curry or stir fried.”
The cooking style isn’t just a barometer of how to keep oneself energised during the days of fasting, but also ensures the effectiveness. As Bhassin puts it, “A routine that helps keep the mind calm and body relaxed for a complete detoxification, when done pragamatically can lead to a process called autophagy.” A traditional concept of detoxing through self-eating (auto means self; and phagy means eat), it has been at the core of the concept of fasting which back in the day was done as part of removing toxins from the body by giving the body and mind enough rest to relax and recuperate.
This is one of the many reasons that vrat in the days of yore, say nutritional experts, “was done on phalahaar or a meal that had a good balance of protein, Omega-3 and antioxidants. This kept the insulin from spiking and with little work to do in terms of digestion and processing of food, the body used up their residue nutrients to ensure a complete detox of the body and the mind, restoring the balance of the circadian rhythm. In other words, keeping us peaceful.”
It is here, adds Chef Bhatia, “where our ancestors’ wisdom and understanding of seasons and our immunity system can be fully appreciated. Think of the sync. Navratri which usually falls around the same time as Durga Puja in the East is at the cusp of a seasonal change and the end of it marks the beginning of winters. A time when the body is susceptible to a variety of ailments. It is also the time when root vegetables are in season. Putting a nine-day vrataround the time because a good detox and the cleansing takes about a week seems like a masterstroke, especially when put against the tradition of praying that inadvertently calms the mind.”
That, concludes Bhassin, “when put with foods that are light on the system, low-calorie and gluten free becomes the perfect recipe for success to boost the level of serotonin in the body while giving it that necessary break to repair.”
No wonder that back in the day kings like Chandragupta Maurya and even the Ahom Rajas would often be put through a series of these fasts—which we today know as intermittent fasting—to help prolong their life, cleanse their system, built their immunity and also calm their mind.
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.