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Bright Tastes And Colors Of India's Spring: Holi

One of my favorite memories of my mother comes from when I was about 6. Her face was covered with random splotches of magenta, yellow and green, and her clothes were soaked with deep-red water. She pushed her hair back and laughed when we kids threw more water balloons at her.

Later, she took us inside the house, cleaned us up, and served us our favorite foods: savory samosas stuffed with spiced potatoes; flaky papris (savory wafers); and dessert of rice pudding and thandai (an almond-based drink).

Welcoming Spring, With Color And Food

It was the Indian Festival of Colors, Holi, which welcomes spring and makes all us Indians not only joyous but also childlike in our celebration of it. (I don't say "childlike" lightly: bhang — a derivative of marijuana — is a very popular cooking ingredient during this holiday.)

Holi is celebrated the day after the first full moon in March. Celebrations begin the night before with a large bonfire and go on the next day, with people showering each other with colors in both powder and water form. This is not the day to be dressed in your Sunday best in India — although my family has a tradition of wearing white to show the colors more vibrantly.

Growing up in a large extended family filled with storytellers, I would corner one of my grandmothers to have her retell the story behind Holi. While there are several Hindu legends explaining the celebration, my favorite was the tale of Prince Prahlad.

As a boy, Prahlad's father did not respect his worship of Lord Vishnu — and he sent a witch to kill his son. Her name was Holika, and since she was immune to fire, Prahlad was made to sit on her lap in a burning pyre. Long story, short: He made it. She did not.

However, it is from Holika's name that the holiday was christened Holi, and pyres are burned at night to represent the victory of good over evil. The colors of the next day are meant to reflect the spring blooms covering the earth with their terrific vibrancy.

Spring Foods: Sweet And Spicy

And then, of course, there is the food. Food such as coconuts, sweet desserts and corn is offered to the god of fire during the bonfire.

My food-obsessed childhood household would go into overdrive during Holi, with many savories and desserts for lunch, and then a spread of meat curries, breads and vegetable delights such as spiced potatoes and sweetened rice for dinner, when the family would all congregate.

My grandmother would prepare delicious kanji, a fermented, spiced black carrot juice. One of the Holi favorites in my mother-in-law's home in Mumbai is a special dessert called gujiya, made of sugar, coconut and lots of khoya (evaporated milk). It's delightful, but was never prepared in my parents' house in Delhi, as food traditions vary all over India.

Carrying On A Tradition

Today, I celebrate this lovely festival with my young boys. We celebrate by throwing water balloons at each other. Occasionally, we will find a kind friend willing to allow us the generous use of their backyard as a playing field for throwing powdered colors at each other.

Then, like my own mother did, I prepare their favorite food: sweet rice with saffron, spiced potatoes. And I always serve a chilled carrot juice. Brightly colored foods to celebrate a vibrant day.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Monica Bhide
Up North Updates
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