Ben’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. A month and a half ago, I was invited to a very traditional Feast here in Jaipur, the capital of the desert state of Rajasthan, India. I’m intimately familiar with the dishes that were prepared and served yet this is not everyday food out here – it’s celebratory. For that reason as well as the quality of all that was prepared, I was especially pleased and photographed it. Today, I have the opportunity to share some photos and my experience with you all – dear readers.
The city of Jaipur wears the range of aravali hills like a broken garland – protecting its east and north entrances. These fold mountains are older than the himalayas, and are the oldest in India, so the considerable wear is apparent. Nestled among these hills are many temples and palaces built by the Rajputs who ruled the Rajputana – the invitation was to join a dinner at such a temple. The temple itself is of the monkey god – hanuman- and the place is called khole ke hanumanji (khole is the word for a niche – in this case a niche inside the aravalis). A bit before sunset, I arrived and walked the last kilometer to the complex.
Behind the temple proper and to its right is a semi-open pavilion – three floors tall. The construction is new but it mimics the traditional Jaipur style and one can see carved pillars covered with the regional pink sandstone. There are no walls, the entire pavilion, shaped as a gigantic L has a contiguous open space with small recesses demarcating individual dining areas. Tables were laid out in each area and people sat and ate.
I walked up the small flight of stairs and turned right to find people waiting while servers milled about busily with steel pails. A group with some children and some women dressed in traditional ”bandhej” (tie-die fabric) sarees waited patiently for their turn (tables were in short supply). It was hot when I had left home but after sunset – as of the time of photographing this, it was quite pleasant.
I turned around to reach the area where my host and his group were holding their feast. There is a specific name for this kind of gathering, ”sava-mani” – the word arises from sava (one and a quarter) and man (or maund) – the old indian weight measure of forty kilograms. Legend is that savamani originated as an offering to the deity of the temple at salasar, about a hundred odd miles from Jaipur. The Brahmins there would prepare a feast from approximately fifty kilos (one and a quarter maund) of raw material and serve a plateful to the deity. The rest would be distributed among themselves, friends and family of the person who donated the money to procure the material. This tradition, later spread to other temples of the region as well. I have attended a few such feasts growing up. That day, the first plateful was kept aside, with a few incense sticks inside it (below). The plate and bowls are made of dry leaves and are eco-friendly-
I had to wait a bit for a vacant spot. These ladies and some children were just starting their dinner.
I spent that time looking at the table where the serving vessels were kept. The pails contained water and kadhi (thick chickpea and yogurt soup) respectively. Large serving bowls contained bati (the first two from bottom) – large baked doughballs, green chillies, and various types of churma (a sweet preparation of roasted flour). More about the dishes in a moment. [I still feel hungry everytime I look at all this, do you?]
As I waited I noticed there was a specific order to what gets served and that sent me down memory lane. In Rajasthan, we have a dictum – ”Eat dessert first” I do not know why and how it originated but it’s a fact that in a traditional feast or even at home, dessert is served first – the meal typically follows and the last course is poppadum (papad – savory lentil pancakes served fried or roasted). I have a vivid memory of eight years ago where in a temple kitchen, the server misunderstood my request for a papad as a signal that I was done with food and didn’t come around for seconds! I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again! Neighbor lady meanwhile hadn’t finished her green mango appetizer drink (it’s still in the glass), even as the server came around with kadhi.
When I sat down, I patiently waited for each dish to be served and recalled what I used to like best when I was younger and what each was called. The large semi-broken dough ball is called ‘bati’. It’s baked, often by burying these dough balls in earth and smoking and heating them with charcoal fire. Then the balls are soaked in clarified butter (ghee). Behind the bati is a ‘laddoo’ (sweetmeat) and then counterclockwise are three types of churma that I described earlier. A dash of chilly pepper pickle in the front and a wedge of lime complete the plate.
In the photo below, the bowls on the left from bottom contain – ‘gatta’ – these are chickpea flour dumplings in spicy gravy – the leaf is a bayleaf. The second is kadhi that i described earlier (also spicy) and the third is lentil soup (salty and mild). I ate by mixing the bati with either the kadhi or the gatta or the lentil soup as I pleased and refilling the bati as many times as my stomach allowed.
The churma deserves a second, special mention. The three types were made of chickpea flour, wheat flour and semolina respectively. It’s a simple recipe – the flour is roasted along with ghee and then sugar is added and the process repeated. The slow roasting makes each grain stand apart from another even as the fat in the ghee tries to bind it all together. One never eats it with a spoon – that’s a mark of the uninitiated. Using your right hand, pack it like a small mound – the ghee inside the churma will help bind it for a split second and then lift this instantaneously compacted mass into your mouth. Yum!
I felt like eating a plateful of batis but truth be told I gave up after three of those – they are dense and they make you insatiably thirsty. It is not a good idea to drink much water though immediately after but I couldn’t control myself. The servers come around many times – and the host accompanies them to insist that you take a bit more – the tradition is called ‘manuhar’. It is considered impolite to not eat well or to leave waste in your plate.
A savamani feast is held to commemorate a wish fulfilment of any kind – childbirth, a job promotion, a new house. That day, as I left the place and looked back at the temple pavilion, I could count no less than thirty distinct parties and was a bit overwhelmed at the thought – how many wishes were fulfilled.
[Submitted to the daily post – Feast]. Have you ever had a religious feast and the memory makes you happy? Please leave a comment! (also if you have any questions)