Who doesn’t know about holi? It’s the most exciting festival to me. It’s very well known all over the world now. It’s a festival of color and love. It breaks the boundaries of poor and rich, known and unknown, friend and foe. Westerners or anyone who is not familiar with the occasion might get intimidated by the thought of it. But to us Indians, it’s just fun. We don’t get scared by unknown people approaching us with a bucket of colored water. We smear red-blue-yellow-green abir on each other. Faces become psychedelic canvases, to the extent that we cannot recognize people even our next door neighbors.
Holi is also the first festival of spring, heralding the advent of the season. In Bengal (where I am from) it’s also known as ‘doljatra’ or ‘basanta utsav’ (literally, spring festival). In my region, the night of the full moon is celebrated by burning dry leaves and woods. It’s called “nera pora” (burning of the bald guy). I have no idea why the name though. The purpose was to burn all the dead and dry leaves and start the spring with fresh and green. A childhood memory that sticks is of roasting potatoes in the fire and then eating them with a sprinkling of salt. It tasted heavenly. All the kids from the neighborhood gathered around the fire, we played, danced and then waited eagerly for the potatoes to be roasted. We used to chant a poem:
“Aaj amader near pora,
Kaal amader dol,
Phete gyalo, phete gyalo
Kaali raamer dhol.
Bawlo hori bole, hori bole,
Bawlo hori bole
Phete gyalo, phete gyalo
Kaali raamer dhol…
Bawlo hori bole”
I am not even going to translate the poem; it makes no sense in English if I do so. The only lines that make sense are “today is near pora and tomorrow is holi”…that’s it.
Holi brings back so many childhood memories. Wearing the clothes which you will not mind throwing away, cleaning and brushing vigorously to remove horrendously toxic colors off our skin all through the afternoon, drinking sidhdhi (a drink made from cannabis leaves) and going to the neighbors house to sprinkle a little bit of aabir (powdered paint) on the elderly people’s feet and asking for their blessings…the list goes on.
This year my parents are with me, so I have something very special to share. It’s called tilanno (til=sesame and anno=rice). It’s basically rice pudding with toasted sesame seeds. It’s very fragrant and delicate. I loved, loved and loved it, so did my friends and my husband (who does not have a sweet tooth but appreciated the delicacy of the flavor).
Whole milk: ½ gallon
Atap rice (preferred)/any small grain rice: ½ cup
Sesame seeds: ½ cup (more or less according to your preference)
Cashew nut powder: 2 tbsp
Mewa/khoa kheer/milk powder: 2 tbsp. (optional)
Sugar: to taste (you can mix half n half sugar and gur/jaggery)
A tiny pinch of salt
- Start boiling the milk. Keep stirring constantly on medium high heat.
- Wash the rice with several changes of water and soak them for minimum 30 minutes. Drain the water. Let the rice become completely air dry.
- Grind the rice to a coarse powder (do not make a fine paste, say half broken kind of)
- Toast the sesame seed to a shade or two darker. You will get the nice toasted sesame aroma.
- Let it cool down and then pulse it to a coarse powder as well. Do not make a fine powder.
- Add the rice to the milk and let it get cooked. Add sugar and salt. Stir frequently.
- Once the whole thing comes to almost the desired consistency, add cashew nut powder and mewa/milk powder/khoa kheer and the ground sesame seed powder. Stir and turn off the heat.
- Let it cool down and then refrigerate it.
- Sprinkle some whole toasted sesame seeds on top of it.
- Serve chilled.
If you add gur/jaggery, add it at the end and then turn off the heat, otherwise the milk might get curdled.
The whole thing will be much thicker after it cools down, so keep it a little more liquidy and it will come to a thicker consistency after it cools down. If you se ethat it became too thick, add a little bit of luke warm milk.
Note: The name ‘Holi’ came from the name ‘Holika’ who was a demoness and the sister of the demon ‘Hiranyakashipu’ (a mythical character). You can read the Wiki article here and know more about the festival. Long story short, the festival is the celebration of good over evil (as most Hindu festivals are), symbolized by the dahan or cremation of Holika and the salvation of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu). Funnily, Holi lost its religious side a long time ago. Everyone plays holi now…doesn’t matter who you are.