'Tis the Season...for Comfort Food

Christmas carols would fill the corners of my home all year long if I would allow it, and if Medha's piano teacher would allow it. I hide the Christmas CDs as soon as possible. It's bad enough that some stores like The Great Ignore were dressed for 'The Holidays' in September itself and that the only station we are allowed to tune into is Denver's KOSI 101.1 FM, which plays Christmas music all day long. The same songs over and over and over again. But no matter how much I complain, I love Christmas carols and it brings back memories of school and singing in our school's beautiful chapel.

And yes, we are not Christians but we call it Christmas. And, we have a Christmas tree. And, we put up Christmas lights and Christmas decorations.

Every year as the houses start lighting up in early December, Secret Santa comes into town. One of the Moms in the neighborhood takes the responsibility of assigning each child the task of being the Secret Santa for another child in the neighborhood. Two homemade items must be delivered secretly anytime during the week, followed by a party on the day school ends. A final gift, worth not more than $10, is given in person at the party, revealing just who the Secret Santa was! The kids have a blast trying to figure out who is who's Secret Santa. There are sure-fire giveaways: same wrapping paper or the same craft is delivered by siblings. Some kids even hang around by the door, hoping to catch their Secret Santa!

Last year Medha made penguin ornaments. I helped her draw the various parts on sticky foam; she then cut them and pasted it all together. She painted some parts and used glitter glue on others. She then slipped over to the neighbors with a black Hallowe'en mask covering her face and an extra large sweatshirt, rang their doorbell, left the gift at their door and ran in the direction opposite to that of our house. My husband was waiting for her around the corner in the car and they sped off in the wrong direction, made a full circle around the block before returning home. The car was too far away and gone by the time it could be seen! Medha stumbled back into the house, rolling with laughter at her escapade.

It's Secret Santa time again. We started making the first gift this evening, a nameplate wall hanging made of clay. No, neither she nor I are that creative to come up with it on our own. We did refer to Craft Fun (Art & Activities for Kids), an amazing book with over 90 projects for kids from ages 6 to 11. Medha designed the nameplate and so far, this is what we have:

It has since been taken apart carefully and each piece is now drying. Tomorrow we will paint each piece first as it is easier to paint each piece separately than to paint it as a whole. Then we will slip and score an area of each piece and pray to the Santa in the North Pole to make it stick to the plate. If they don't stick, I guess we will have to call on Super-Glue for help.

I thank God for the wonderful neighborhood we moved into a year ago. Most of the families go back at least a couple of decades. They have shared the joy of new births as well as grave illnesses where children from the affected home were taken in by several families, while others kept vigil at the hospital. It can be quite daunting to move into an extended family such as this, but they have only welcomed us with open arms. They keep the warmth alive by the things they do for one another. Especially when Old Man Winter decides to blow. But when he blows like he did last week, there is one more thing that I long for. Comfort food. From that place within me that I cannot define. My roots, perhaps.

So last week, when one of my readers left me a comment with a recipe for one such food that fits the bill perfectly - for a cold and wet evening - I decided to give in to the urge and it was by the far the quickest and the simplest dinner we have had in a long time, and also the most fulfilling.

Pithla Bhath

  • 1/2 cup besan (chickpea flour or gram flour)
  • 4 cups buttermilk
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • a pinch of hing
  • 1 dried red chilli (use more if you like it hot!)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 cup red onion, diced
  • frozen drumsticks (not the chicken kind! But the veggie saragawa kind), about 9-10 pieces
  • salt to taste
  • chopped cilantro for garnish
  1. Put the drumsticks in a pot with enough water so that they are covered completely. Add some salt to the water and cook on medium-high until the tender. Usually about 10-15 minutes, depending on the quality of the drumsticks. Drain when cooked.
  2. Mix besan with buttermilk to make a paste that is the consistency of pancake batter. Use your hands to mix it as that is the best way to ensure that there are no lumps.
  3. Add turmeric powder to this paste
  4. Heat the oil in a saucepan
  5. Add mustard seeds and when they start popping, add hing
  6. Break the red chilli into two pieces, shake out as many seeds as you can and discard them, and then add the red chilli pieces to the oil, taking care that neither the mustard seeds nor the red chilli burns. If the oil gets too hot, simply turn off the flame and move the pan off the stove.
  7. Add chopped onions to the oil and sautée until they are pink in color. About 5 minutes, if you have done a good job chopping it fine!
  8. Turn the heat down and slowly add the besan-buttermilk paste to the pan. It tends to splatter at this point so be careful.
  9. Add the cooked drumsticks and salt to taste
  10. Cook on medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring every so often, until the mixture thickens into a yummilicious pithla. The consistency is very similar to that of thick slip that you would use to glue clay together. (Perhaps I am not helping much with that analogy but the common thread here is clay!)
  11. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve over hot steamed rice (bhath) and enjoy to your heart's content.

There are several variations of Pithla. Many of which are mentioned in the comment that led to this meal.

Nupur of One Hot Stove has her own take on pithla. And, there are more recipes on Mumbai-Masala's Maharashtrian food.

And then there is the drier version of pithla: zunka, which Ashwini made me drool over recently.

Pithla is just so quintessentially Maharashtrian and earthy that it brings to mind the smell that goes with cooking on a coal stove in the ground.

Some tips:
  1. If you don't have buttermilk on hand, whip some yogurt and add water to make a buttermilk substitute
  2. Save the water that the drumsticks cooked in. If your pithla thickens too much, you can add this water slowly to the pan, stirring it in as you add it
  3. An important point to note is that a little bit of besan goes a long way in this dish. I used 1/2 cup of besan and made enough to feed the three of us. We could have fed a couple more but since everyone was over-eating that night, there were no leftovers. So don't go overboard with the quantity of besan. You might be eating it for days!

Wish us luck with the nameplate. I'll post an update with a picture of what it looks like once we are done with it. And, Shhh! Don't tell Jessie!

Update: We finished and delivered the nameplate late Tuesday evening. separating all the individual elements seemed like a good idea at the time, it really was not because they warped as they dried. So we had to remake most of them and speed-dry them with a hair-dryer. It was easier for Medha to paint them though. Putting it back together and then touching it up was not easy! But we did a rather decent job, I think!

Here's another picture just before it was wrapped in bubble-wrap and delivered in heavy disguise.

Medha got her first delivery, too. The door almost came down in her effort to catch her Secret Santa in the act but she failed. She got some really delicious Puppy Chow that I can't stop reaching out for!

Medha made the bowl it's in!

Have a wonderful Holiday season! And if you have kids in the neighborhood, it's still not too late to start playing Secret Santa!


Anonymous said...

Mmmmm Pithala ..This looks delicious.

Anonymous said...

Great work on the name plate Manisha and Medha! It is impressive already!

I am always interested in a different take on the Pithala - there is such an amazing variety. For the longest time, because of my limited Maharashtrian exposure :), I thought there was one standard recipe. As if there is ever a standard recipe for any classic!

At our place, we generally make the lumpy kind in which you gradually sprinkle besan over tempered boiling water, and dunk in like a cup of coriander.

Now I try different kinds. Once I found you cd make it really spicy (after the Nagpur recipe where, I believe, you take equal quantities of besan, red chilli powder, and oil!! Yum), I deviate a little bit every time.

Now I have your take to try.

sra said...

Hi Manisha! That nameplate looks like cake icing! As for pithla, it looks very much like a similar dish made in AP, drumsticks with milk. Only, the besan/rice flour is added so that the milk doesn't curdle and only slightly thickens the gravy. Bottle gourd and ridge gourd are made in the same way

Anonymous said...

Pithala looks delicious. I haven't made many dishes with besan. I guess it is an acquired taste.
You and Medha make a good pair. I am glad to hear about your wonderful neighborhood. It makes all the difference, doesn't it?
Christmas is a great time of the year. We are having the choir from our church come to our home this Saturday. Haven't set up a Christmas tree yet. Share a picture of your tree too..

Anonymous said...

How very sweet!!!Very good work by Medha as well as you.

Anonymous said...

sorry last comment was by me
Deepa Kiran

Anonymous said...

Well..all the time I was wondering....what if Jessie "accidentally" visits your blog? :D.

As you know, I am still far far away from celebrating Christmas at home, but I looove reaading about it. Definitely I would love reading about Medha's Christmas :). Wish you both all the best :D.

Anonymous said...

Pithla looks mouthwatering!:))

Cakes and decorations are great! We have a tree too,all decked up. Although I don't do Christmas it's just fun for the kids!

Enjoy Manisha.

Anonymous said...

Jyotsna, it was very good. I didn't particularly care for pithla till I was much older, so it surprised me when it was a hit with Medha.

Anita, when clay dries, it shrinks and becomes brittle. Since the frame and the letters were made of a thin coil, they warped as they dried. We had to make a thicker frame and re-do some of the letters again this morning. Medha's gone off to school of course but I keep pressing down on the letters to ensure that they dry better this time. We are probably going to end up with very loud colors on the nameplate since a certain someone likes red, bright blue and yellow!

My variation of pithla is mild. It can be spicier so go ahead and add more red chilli in the phodni or add finely chopped green chillies to the besan-buttermilk mixture. I don't remember how my mother made pithla but I do remember that it was lumpy, which was one of the turn-offs for me, as a kid. Now this equal quantity of besan, red chilli powder and oil sounds very enticing!

Sra, that was my thought, too. Except that icing does not harden and warp, the way some of the letters did! Please post the recipe for the dish you mentioned. What is it called? And what do you use for khatash? I haven't been very successful cooking with milk. A Sikh friend of mine used to cook chicken in milk. Hers used to be fantastic but mine never worked.

Gini, we can't do without besan. I make a lot of kadi so besan is almost a staple ingredient in my pantry.

It's a lot of fun doing this kind of stuff with Medha. She has great ideas and we seem to make them come alive together! I would have been miserable if we didn't have great neighbors. They really helped make the move so much easier.

You're hosting the choir at your home?! You lucky girl! I gave away my 6 ft artificial tree when we moved and bought one of those fibre-optic things last year. I missed putting up all my ornaments. I have ornaments that Medha made in day-care and school from the time she was 2 years old. I am thinking of getting a real tree this year. Let's see! And yes, I hope to share pictures!

Deepa, welcome and thank you! Hope to see you around here more!

Shilpa, Jessie had better be in school! ;-) Medha's Christmas is going to be fun as her cousins will be visiting us from NJ.Thanks for the wishes and same to you!

Asha, what cake?! You have a great time, too! Winter break starts next week!

Saffron, just like it's tough to be the new kid in school, it's tough to be the new family in the neighborhood. The dynamics aren't much different, just that the players are much older! But this is one group that is very easy to be with and very accepting. The kind of things they do together are rather amazing, and it's absolutely OK to opt out.

It's fun to do these arty-crafty things with our kids, isn't it? I know Medha would love to see the garlands you are making together. I am sure they will be beautiful, so do share! Have a great holiday, too!

Anonymous said...

Manisha read somewhere that Colarado is the healthiest state in the union with sunlight 330 days or something like that. Santa is sure to make a visit.

IS Pithala similar to Kadhi, it is a new recipe for me to try.

Anonymous said...

Hi Manisha,
Nice recipe and great pic too... I was just wondering if pithala is basically a lot like kadhi( without the drumsticks)?
I usually make south indian dishes only so was just a bit curious.. this one will be a nice change:-)

sra said...

Hi Manisha, I'm not too good at milk-based curries myself, and rarely cook drumstick at home as no one eats it. Here's a link:
Only, it doesn't mention the besan or the rice flour, I think you add it to the milk first and then put the mixture into the curry.
What is khatash? Tadka? Pretty much the same as yours.

Anonymous said...

hey manisha ,
shabari here!:) it`s the first time iam writing a note,but i do visit ur blog regularly....wanted to tell u that ur blog never fails to lift my spirits ,bring a smile to my face! i must say u are one talented lady! way to go!!!!!!!! also when i read ur adventures with ur angel (medha!),reminds me of the fun times i shared with my mom, :)wakay then will wind up for now, take care......see ya! happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

Hey, look at that plate!!! As a child, I so used to love eating in that kind of plates with compartments. Our Telugu neighbours (another connection with your post!) used to use them because they were a joint family with lots of kids, and the women of the house used to wash vessels. They did not hire domestic help for a long time. With these plates, you don't need katoris or bowls, hence their use, I guess. Since we didn't have them at our place (my mother hates them!), they were always a novelty for me.
Awww, you've made me nostalgic now.

Anonymous said...

Yummyyy !!! Medha - Congrats on such a charming piece of art. Manisha - To you too.

Christmas tree - I have been wanting to have one since 3 years now. The decorations, the festive mood is just incredible. So we bought an artificial one this year. Yayyy !!

The Pithla is somewhat like kadi mebbe because of the presence of the besan powder.

Good post, Manisha. Nice read. And kudos to your neighborhood too for opening their arms to you :)

Nabeela said...

I love how involved you are with your kid, If(and when) I have kids, I'll try to follow your example :)

Unknown said...

Wonderful write up Manisha and I do like the Pithla - there is a Pithla(a) recipe in Tamil cuisine where a coconut based masala is prepared fresh for veggies with tamarind etc...a variant of sambhar..I love the zunkas and pitlas, will try this out...

Was just wondering if you have displayed your mail id somewhere on the blog? Was going thru some of your archives, and wanted to share something with you on mail...you'll find my id on the blog, pl send me ur mail id if its ok with you..

Anonymous said...

Indosungod, you're right about Colorado! I think I saw it in one of the last few issues of Time magazine. People in Colorado live longer and it is also the 'skinniest' state. I must say I help tip the balance the other way as far as skinny is concerned!

Anon and Indosungod, this version of pithla is like a very thick kadi because I used buttermilk (or yogurt) along with besan. However, other versions of pithla use water. Try it out! Feel free to experiment as mentioned here.

Sra, you're right! KA's drumstick curry looks very like my pithla. I will try it with the drumsticks I have left. By khatash, I meant souring agent. If the buttermilk/yogurt is slightly sour, pithla tastes gret, just like with kadi. If you see other recipes for pithla tat use water, lemon juice is used to give it that slight tang.

Shabari, welcome! It's so nice to hear from you! And if you go on this way with all the compliments, my head will swell up and that will be the last straw - I don't fit into my clothes as it is, now I won't be able to get into them either! Jokes aside, I am thrilled it brings back memories for you. It also tells me that I am doing some things right! My angel had two canines extracted earlier this week and I think I got more woozy than her because I couldn't bear to look at her mouth. And because I couldn't look at it, it was constantly proffered in my face, jaw wide open!

Vaishali, that thali is not quite the ultimate in thalis. The abslute must-have is the one that has scalloped edges and has decorations along the scallops (well, nothing more 'dots' - the metal is pushed through from the other side). Now that was *my* thali when I was growing up. I am going to have my husband bring it back with him when he visits India in Jan. All of us had those - I always wondered if it was having fewer dishes to wash or if it was to reduce accidents and spills. The food also spreads out in the compartments and therefore cools faster. Maybe I should gift you a thali for your birthday, eh?! Indulge now in what your mother did not let you do! That's what growing up is all about! :-D

Mythili, I will update the post with pictures of the finished piece shortly. I've been dealing with migraines this past week, apart from bloody jaws! Have fun with your tree! I got my first set of ornaments from Walgreens (ya!) at throwaway prices after the season was over. And, they're still chugging along, 7 years later. And, you're right about this version of pithla being very like kadi - it's because of the besan and the buttermilk/yogurt.

Nabeela, that's a huge compliment! I do my best is all I can say. There is something very wonderful about children and being with them! I volunteer at her school a lot, too. Any chance I get to get into their classroom, I take! I am very lucky that her school welcomes parental involvement at every stage and they encourage participation in the classroom. It's a treat to be among them as they are so full of energy and uninhibited with their thoughts!

Nandita, the Tamilian pithlaa sounds very interesting! Do you have a recipe for that? It was great to hear from you and I will be in touch very soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Manisha..so this is what pithla is, forgive my ignorance...~smile~..I have the same recipe for drumsticks with besan but I don't use onions or buttermilk, I must try your version...I planning on posting my version and I will link to this post if you don't mind...I do love this dish...thanks for sharing...~smile~..

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post Manisha!
We too had the tree up with the ornaments that we have collected during the previous years. Nothing new on the tree this year!
I am planning to bake a cake, probably archana's recipe!
I bought Wilton's gingerbread house kit which we plan to do this weekend. We are planning to add more yummy decorations to the gingerbread house including trees and gingerbread people.

Anonymous said...

Dilipbhai, kem cho ane welcome! Mara var Patel che pan ene bo vadhare Gujarati avadtu nathi! And, as you can see, mine is even worse! There are many variations to pithla. It's almost like khandvi except that the phodni (vaghaar) is done before heating the besan-buttermilk mixture and it's not dried up as much. Please link away and let me know so that I can try your version, too!

RP, thanks! I'm hoping to put up our trees this weekend. I haven't bought a gingerbread house kit despite a lot of grovelling as that is what the kids do at the Secret Santa party. Medha's house is usually a disaster - I don't think she has much future as an architect! And hey! I am planning to make Archana's Kerala fruit cake, too! We must compare notes! This is very exciting!!

Anonymous said...

Ohh that nameplate looks very very cute now. I wish I was a kid and Medha was my secret santa :).

Anonymous said...

great post!!!
that name plate was great!!!
i too am planning to do a name plate for my house .I love to see someone being creative on the blog good...

Anonymous said...

Pithala is new to me but very welcome. You are blessed with a wonderful neighbourhood and the holidays are the best way to show the affection towards each other, right? Nice name plate.

KA said...

Beautiful name plate!
Pithla looks delicious Manisha. We make something like this on similar lines but with other veggies like potato, cucumber etc, never tried it with drumstick so far.

Anonymous said...

I love the penguins that Medha did last year and the nameplate came out just beautifully; I can imagine how pleased Jessie was. And the image I have of Medha's escapades delivering the gifts is wonderful. The neighborhood Secret Santa project is a great idea. I'm looking forward to hearing what comes next.


Anonymous said...

Manisha, You know I never liked Pithala Bhaath when I was in school and also later as a teenager and I swore I ould never make it even as a grown-up. But my mother always laughed at that and said that I would start loving it after I got married and had my own family simply because it is so convenient to make and does taste delicious. What she predicted was so true.

Sumitha said...

We used to play this game in our class during my college days!Its such a fun game.Merry Christmas to you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Manisha, as promised i posted a pithla recipe. I have also linked to your blog. Pass by when you can...thanks

Ashwini said...

Loved reading about Medha's creative effort. Pithala bhaat ani toop, thoda loncha - enough to soothe one's soul for a month :-)
Happy Holidays.

Anonymous said...

And yes, we are not Christians but we call it Christmas. And, we have a Christmas tree. And, we put up Christmas lights and Christmas decorations.

What are you referring to??

Anonymous said...

Shilpa, I'd love to be a kid again, too. I just don't want to go through the teenage years again, though!

Mahek, welcome! Do share pictures of the nameplate you make for your house!

Shaheen, I do think we are very lucky! Let me know if you try the pithla.

KA, I saw your recipe and I am going to try it with milk. You can add drumsticks, tomatoes, onions, and any veggie you feel like. It's up to you!

Lee, I will tell Medha! She's finding out who her Secret Santa was right abotu now - the party is in progress. I came home to help with the shovelling and because I thought I had an appointment I needed to cancel. I have till tomorrow and lots more snow to do that!

Anupama, I know what you mean! There's something very "home" and "roots" about pithla, once we're adults!

Sumitha, we played Secret Santa in school, too. Except we called it Kris Kringle. It was a ton of fun!

Dilipbhai, thanks! I will check out your post very soon to see how you made pithla your way!

Ashwini, we're in the middle of a blizzard as I write this. And believe me, pithla bhath is very inviting and is probably going to be what's for dinner!

Anon, I have no idea where you live. But in the schools, the season is referred to as "The Holidays". The party at school is called the "Winter Party" and not the Christmas Party. Folks don't say say Merry Christmas, they say Happy Holidays. It's not Christmas, it's the Holidays.

When my daughter was in first grade, she had a beautiful book called The Christmas Story which she wanted to give to her class library since she had two copies of it. Her teacher sent it back saying, "We don't talk about church or the Bible or Christmas in school." There's this whole thing abotu being PC about just what it is we are celebrating!

Anonymous said...

Manisha, I live in the US and the school is right. They are trying to maintain secularism. If they allow your daughter to bring christmas book, then they will have to allow diwali and eid books too. State schools cannot favor one religion over the other. Anyway, it is unrelated to pithla recipe and hence I could not understand why it was there.

Anonymous said...

The name plate rocks (too)!

Let's try out the Nagpuri (I think) pithle - 1 katori chilli powder, 1 katori besan and 1 katori oil - Game anyone? Will make 'the Holidays' really warm and colourful!!

Being politically correct and 'secular' should not have to mean pushing our 'cultural' inheritance under the carpet. Wouldn't it be nicer if we learn to share our differences? Just wishing "Merry Christmas" or telling people about our religion (which is inextricably linked with culture)should not threaten another group. Like the Mahatma said - let the winds of the great cultures/religions blow freely through my house, but I refuse to be swayed by them (or words to that effect).

Happy Holidays! (or may I say - Merry Christmas!) :) Cheers.

sra said...

Manish, happy holidays and a happy new year to you and your family

Anonymous said...

Anon, it's not so much maintaining securalism as it is poor implementation by way of suppression of information. Think about it: where is it that children first are exposed to cultural diversity, and therefore religious diversity? When they go to school and are there 6-7 hours of their day. If the schools acknowledge that religion exists, our children will grow up to be more accepting of others' beliefs.

Quite honestly, I think there should be books about Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and other cultural festivals. Many ethnic festivals are tied closely to religion. Schools in Maryland are beginning to include Diwali. Schools in New Jersey already include many Jewish festvals.

Implementation of securalism is very poor: at talent shows and at class parties, children are allowed to perform Good King Wenceslas, Silent Night and other carols. Why deny the children what Christmas is really about? Schools encourage children to write letters to Santa Claus. They sing songs about Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Saint? Wait, there's religion there, isn't there?

I am not saying that the onus of teaching religion should rest with the schools. What would help a great deal is acknowledging that there are several paths to God and maybe not, for those who don't believe in God.

I have experienced several knee-jerk reactions from local religious organizations to the denial of religion in schools. It borders on fanatical. There were several incidents in Medha's school in Illinois which then prompted the school to distribute a cultural brochure, published by Scholastic, that talked of various ethnic festivals: Diwali, Eid, Hannukah and Kwanzaa were all explained, as was Christmas. I can't find the brochure online but it was similar to this but not quite the same.

What does this have to do with pithla? Well, this post was about traditions, new and old, putting down new roots and listening to the call of my original roots. I don't claim to be a good writer so I am sorry if the message was garbled. Merry Christmas to you!

Anita, my stomach is far too weak to handle 1 katori of red chilli powder! You try it but make sure you have Tums (or its equivalent) on hand! Glad you liked the nameplate. I feel like making more! Medha is not so sure - as it was quite a bit of work, but then she chose it as her craft gift!

The third graders just celebrated a Heritage party instead of the usual winter party. For a week prior to the party, the children studied their own heritage. They had to interview at least two relatives who were not their parents or siblings on things that like why you came to this country to what you miss the most or what is the most important lesson taught to you to what is your favorite festival and how do you celebrate it. Very similar to this. At the party, children were encouraged to perform ethnic dances, play tunes on the piano, do card tricks, show mementoes that their ancestors carried with them and if you could, your family brought an ethnic dish to share. I took chaklis (sans chilli powder), which the children did not care for much but the parents loved them.

What was the festival that Medha wrote about? Diwali. As you said, culture is so intertwined with religion that denying it exists will only do harm. There's a balance that can be achieved and it will only serve our children better.

Every year, we go through Meri Christmas! Teri Christmas! with a Goan friend of ours. It really is sabki Christmas if you allow it to be, so Merry Christmas!

sra, thank you and I hope you have a wonderful 2007!

Anonymous said...

Hope you enjoyed the hols and happy new year! Manisha, Medha is goining to have lots of stories to tell your grandchildren about granny. Love all the art work. Pl. post a picture of the bowl with full view even though it looks great with the puppy chow. Medha will be happy to see it here I'm sure. Pat her back for me.

Anonymous said...

Anjali, it's a pinch pot and the owner of the studio put it in the kiln even though she wasn't done with the final glazing. Despite that, the inner bowl is really very cute. I will take a picture and post it soon!