My article apperared in The Hindu supplement dated Thursday 12, 2013
Enjoy your New Year’s Day festive meal as it has a part to play in your well being
Whether it is Ugadhi (Andhra and Karnataka), Gudi Padwa (Maharashtra), Tamizh Puthandu (Tamil Nadu), Baisakhi (Punjab), Cheiraoba (Manipur), Navreh (Kashmir), Mahabishuba Sankranti (Odisha), Cheti Chand (Sindhis), Chaitti and Basoa/Bishu (Himachal Pradesh), Pohela Boishakh/Juir-Sheetal (Bengal) or Juir Sheetal also known as Pahil Baisakh or Baisakhi or Maithili New Year (Bihar), it is the New Year and a time to feast.
The tastes and textures of the food served and eaten on New Year’s Day augur a balanced destiny. The different food items teach us to accept life’s sorrows and joys in equal measure.
South Indian vegetarian food has always been based on the best practices of cooking and eating healthy food. The Tamil New Year’s Day has a fixed menu that is based on the concept of Shadruchi, an interesting mixture of many flavours. The sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent and astringent tastes are incorporated into the menu.
Ayurvedic nutrition is based on the tip of the tongue as the sense of taste is a natural road map to proper nutrition. Human beings have greatly relied upon taste to discover healthy foods. Nature has its own way of providing the appropriate taste in a particular season. Our tastebuds identify tastes and also process the nutritive value of foods. The saliva and the instant reaction to a taste unlocks the entire digestive process.
From a modern nutritional point of view the six tastes satisfy each major dietary building block. For example, sweet foods are rich in fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and water. Bitter and Astringent foods are high in vitamins and minerals.
No festive meal is complete in India without something sweet. In the south, the sweet dish is served first on the banana leaf. The idea of a sweet dish is not only to make the occasion pleasant by sweetening tongues but also to set right the body’s low sugar quotient. This could happen due to excessive sweating because it is summer; the long wait for the meal due to religious pujas that are performed on empty stomachs; and stress and strain caused by extra work and close proximity of too many relatives! Sweet food help to build tissues, calms nerves and are easily available in fruit, grains, natural sugars and milk.
Sourness is an integral part of the south Indian cuisine. Ayurveda says that sour food cleanses tissues and increases absorption of minerals. So, tamarind, sour fruits like the mango pachadi, yoghurt and fermented food like idlis are the main sources of this wonderful flavor.
Salt improves the taste of food, lubricates tissues and stimulates digestion. Most of the items cooked on New Year’s Day are salt based. At least two to three vegetables are cooked that provide natural salts. The vellam/gur/molasses in the sweet payasam (milk pudding) also has natural salts. Salt also replenishes body fluids.
Bitter food is an important part of the New Year’s menu. In many houses the flower of the neem tree is roasted and added to a yoghurt raitha or pachadi. The vegetable that is shunned, the bitter karela is also cooked on this festive day. Bitter food like dark leafy greens, herbs and spices helps to detoxify and lighten tissues of the body.
Pungent food especially chillies, pepper, garlic, herbs and spices stimulate digestion and metabolism. They make the food really tasty. Very spicy food can make you sweat too and throw out unwanted toxins.
The last flavour is the astringent that helps to absorb water, tighten tissues and to dry up fats. This flavor is epitomized in the gooseberry/avla/nellikkai but can be tasted in vegetables like gawar/kothvarangai etc. This taste is typically seen in legumes, raw fruits and vegetables and herbs like curry leaves.
The summer is always a difficult time with many diseases like measles and chicken pox flaring up due to the heat. The prescribed menu of New Year’s Day in mid-April has a focus on Neem that helps to ward off such diseases. The menu was actually a precursor to the diet for the whole summer and many of the dishes were meant to be eaten on a daily basis.
Shadruchi or six tastes naturally guide us towards our body’s nutritional needs. Each taste appeals to our mind, body, senses and spirit. The brain sends to the body appropriate signals when it requires energy in the form of food. By incorporating all six tastes into each meal, you can be sure that these signals are being met.
So enjoy and relish each mouthful of your New Year meal as it has a part to play in the festivities and in your well being!