January is one of the greatest month’s foods wise. It is a period of plentiful colourful vegetables that are often available at bargain prices but also because of Sankranti- a festival celebrated across India albeit with different names in different states. So whether it is Lori or Sankranti or Uttarayan or Bihu the vital ingredient of the key preparations are Jaggery and Til (sesame).
Sesame sweets whether known as Revadi, Gajjak, Laddoos or Pitha are delightful. In Maharashtra we exchange Til laddoos always accompanied by saying “तिळगुळ घ्या गोड बोला"
(Accept this Til and Jaggery and speak sweetly!)
I am not really sure of its origins but it’s a sure fire ice breaker and a good means to renew strained relationships. To facilitate spreading bonhomie, the period from Sankranti day (usually 14 January) up to Rathasaptami is considered auspicious for the same. Ladies are usually busy with ‘Haldi Kumkums’ an occasion where each one can show-off her black saris. Usually a no-no, black is a must, come Sankranti! Further we also have a tradition of making jewellery out of halwa (balls made from sugar syrup and sesame seeds) that is presented to a baby or at a bride’s first Sankranti.
In Maharashtra we make ‘gul poli’. These are rotis stuffed with jaggery. To many the concept of sweet rotis is strange yet one bite of this crisp poli lathered with ghee is sure to remove all doubts. Now don’t frown at the ghee, its essential; Sankranti is not the time to count calories.
My first attempts to make gul polis were after I got married. My ever-dependable guide to home style Marathi food is a book called ‘Ruchira’ written by Kamalabai Ogale. I mustered up courage and decided to make these polis that are considered to be the mark of a chef. I roasted the besan in oil, roasted and ground poppy seeds and added them to grated jaggery to make the stuffing. With the firmly mixed dough I was ready to begin. It seemed simple enough – roll two small circles of the dough, put a bit of stuffing on one, cover with other circle, roll out, cut off edges and roast on medium griddle.
The first one turned out like a dream. Hooray! I basked in the glory as my husband polished it off giving me the ultimate compliment- that it tasted just like his Mom’s.
Mentally thanking Madam Ogale I got down to the task ahead of me quite sure it would be a breeze. Alas, the celebrations had come too early. The second one on the pan suddenly seemed to come alive as its surface erupted into umpteen bubbles spewing steam and hot jaggery droplets. I got the melting mass off the griddle and began afresh.
Many melting moments and burnt fingers later I finally got the process right and the last couple of polis were respectable again and without the charcoal flavour that characterised most earlier attempts.
Several years later, I still pull out my ‘Ruchira’ when making Gul Polis. It’s now just a collection of pages - the binding having long given up. I have not invested in a newer edition preferring to stand by this proven model.
As for laddoos, a special type of jaggery is available in Maharashtra in this period that is used specifically to make laddoos. The catch in making these laddoos is to get the jaggery syrup to the correct consistency else the final product ends up becoming rock hard. Trust me; my dental architecture has suffered from its effects. Further they have to be rolled when the mixture is hot but greasing your palms with oil or ghee will keep them from burning.
My Mom-in-law’s recipe is excellent and more importantly is tooth friendly! It goes like this: roast and grind equal quantities of groundnuts and sesame (white or polished variety). Grate good quality jaggery (same quantity as other ingredients). Take little of groundnut powder, sesame seed powder and jaggery and grind together in a mixer. Ideally it should be pounded in a mortar and pestle (preferably an iron one). Add cardamom powder and ghee as required to the entire ground lot. Roll into balls.
As the sun begins its northward journey let us hope that Sankranti with its rich repertoire of sesame dishes opens the door to lasting good health and peace for all of us!
This was first published in a now extinct site called 4indianwoman.com