Be it Vishu (for Malayalis), Bihu (for Assamese), Baisakhi (for Punjabis) or Poila Boishakh (for Bengalis), celebrating the New Year traditionally has an incomparable charm. Celebrated as the day of sowing seeds, it also signifies new beginnings. These New Year festivities are as much about food as they are about the celebrations.
For me, Vishu has always meant being woken up along with my cousin at the crack of dawn by my grandmother to see the ‘kani’ she set up with my grandfather the night before. We spent the rest of the day gathering pocket money from elders and settling down to savour a hearty meal of Vishu kanji (porridge), upperi (fried bitter gourd) and puzhukku (steamed raw jackfruit with jackfruit seeds).
Eventually, even when it was just me, mother and grandmother, the tradition continued. We were always joined by my mother’s sister and her husband and a family friend or two for my grandmother’s famous Vishu kanji. Even my North Indian friends, who always expected a meal of sambhar, aviyal, rice and thoran at my place, were initially taken aback. Rice porridge (Vishu kanji) for a special occasion?
New Year meal traditions
Now mind you, Vishu kanji isn't plain old rice porridge. It is a meal fortified with vitamins, minerals and lots of flavour. Vishu kanji also contains roasted field beans (vaal for Maharashtrians), coconut and fenugreek seeds.
Besides the Vishu kanji, there’s pavakka upperi or bitter gourd that’s slowly cooked till crisp and a steamed dish made from raw jackfruit and jackfruit seeds. The fare on Vishu is supposed to be simple yet nourishing since it is the beginning of summer.
As the weather turns hot when farmers go to sow seeds, they eat seasonal food to provide them with plenty of energy. Also, since it isn’t harvesting season yet, the fare is kept simple in the form of porridge made with rice and lentils.
However, food traditions vary in north and south Kerala. In North Kerala, mostly in Palakkad and Trissur and a few other villages, the kanji puzhukku combination is made instead of Vishu kanji. While, in Southern Kerala, from Kochi to Trivandrum, people tend to prepare a Sadya. However, viewing the Vishu Kani is a tradition followed throughout Kerala.
Beginning on a prosperous note
Vishu Kani is an assimilation of fruits, vegetables, kanikonna or Cassia Fistula flower, a picture or statue of a deity (mostly Krishna), a mirror, money placed on rice and lentils and a lit-up lamp. On Vishu morning, everyone is supposed to wake up to this sight.
This assembly of all the symbols of prosperity is believed to be a promising start to the year. Family members then get dressed in traditional wear and seek blessings from elders. In turn, elders give children kaineetam (gift of money). Again, a symbol of prosperity, kaineetam is supposed to bring you luck and wealth.
The entire family then sits down for the Vishu kanji meal or the Sadya. The kanji itself is specific and usually made only during Vishu or the onset of summer due to its cooling and nutritional value. The fenugreek seeds act as a natural coolant and the beans are rich in minerals. An altered form of this Vishu kanji or porridge is had again during karkidakam or rainy season, owing to its nutritional benefits.
Vishu Kanji Recipe
1 cup par-boiled or Kerala broken rice (red)
Three-quarters cup-full of grated coconut or coconut milk
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/4th cup field beans or vaal
Salt to taste
- Take 1:3 rice with water and cook in a vessel with the lid closed. This could take about 30 minutes on a low flame.
- In the meantime, roast field beans and fenugreek seeds till they release an aroma.
- Cook the field beans in lots of water (three whistles, if in a cooker).
- Combine the beans, rice and the fenugreek mixture. Add grated coconut, salt to taste and serve with pappadam and puzhukku.