Now that it’s the revered ‘sawan ka mahina’ time of the year when Hindu folks all over our country religiously adhere to the ritualistic observances in display of their deep devotion to the ultimate God of all Lord Shiva, the one particular expression of the Indian way of life that has seen a shift, like it does in pretty much every such similar context in devoutness and piousness, is one related to the all essential nature of food. Come any occasion even remotely alluding of the divine and the religious fervor is pretty much evident in all who pledge their unwavering allegiance to the Gods.
It however is not just rituals and rites and ceremonies and cult observances that sum up this spirit of religion. It also is as much about the celebrations that follow, not just in the pure essences of evoking the absolute power of the Godly but also in the fanfare and revelry of it. And what good is revelry and indulgence and celebration if not a hearty pursuing of the many tastes that sums up quintessentially the flavor of life through the absolute holy grail of what we gorge upon as the forever love for food?
The premise is peculiar though for this love for food in unfurling along a strictly and genuinely spiritual devotion. For it is not the kinda fare that you relish as sumptuous allowances in celebratory vibes but one that you dig into still with as much ‘gluttony’ as characteristic observance of what is yet another ritualistic ruling in some form of it. This is the kind of ‘palate cleansing’ ceremony that one indulges in, in all their dual love for the creator and the culinary alike. Sanctified as the ideal in fasting or even more evocatively the exclusively spiritual- if not out and out religious reference of the vrat, but curious in the irony of its manifestation through a range of specifically curated recipes in specific some ingredients is this idiosyncratic mechanism along which the human love for good food plays out more than evidently even employing the ethereal element of the divine to justify and even further that pursuit in gastronomy.
One such curious ingredient that sums up specifically vrats widely practised by devout devotees in their sawan time evoking of the Gods happens to be though a not exclusively indigenous thing. For beyond its prominent assertion along the many a turns of both tradition and taste across the Indian trails even when not steeped so much in history, the tales of the pristinely pretty sabudana pearls tread also many such other terrains in staple identities of it. But very definite indeed is the Indian experience when it comes to exploring the food profile of sabudana or sago as not just an ingredient but rather a food proper versatile indeed in its imbibing of the so many different ideals of taste and flavours and textures as well.
From crunchy and crispy to creamy and smooth, from savoury and somewhat spicy to sweet and sumptuous, from basic and simple to decadent and rich, sabudana encompasses such a whole world of diverse distinction even within the surprisingly limited ambit of the vrat conducive gluttony that manifests as nothing less of a wonder encountered in foodland. And while the commercial, processed production and packaging of the sago might be a case to cautiously consider in its nutritional context, the basis of this otherwise natural food is one dwelling in immense health and heartiness.
Also worth noting is that sago itself is more of a general term for the starch extracted from a range of tropical palm stems but what commands most attention in the culinary explorations that India undertakes is the one that entails as ball shaped pearls obtained from the tapioca root. Essentially starchy though no matter the uniquely varied composition that ekes out its specific identity, the health benefits of sago derive from its nutrient composition that make it a powerhouse of energy and carbohydrates but sans the oft associated entailings of fats sought to be avoided.
Enriched also with fair amounts of calcium and potassium while bearing trace amounts of other minerals and nutrients including protein, iron and the like, this resistant starch is also beneficial in its fibrous content which explains its popularity as being part of restrictive diets as the ones taken to in vrats. Easy to digest and filling and therefore a good option for everyone from babies to the elderly, from weight watchers to pregnant women, from high blood pressure to high cholesterol afflicted patients, this cooling food can also be eaten uncooked by just soaking it in water for an adequate amount of time and then mixing it with milk or curd and bananas and sweeteners though this mode of its consumption tends not to be so much a pan Indian affair.
Numerous recipes that involve cooking sago with other ingredients of course to make up for its less than optimum presence of vital vitamins and nutrients are what commands greater popularity as vrat foods but indulged also heartily as servings of deliciousness whether that be as snacks and accompaniments or desserts and sweets or even a complete meal in itself. Versatile thus in every aspect of its dwelling, from cooking to serving and from tastes to flavours, sago truly is the wonder food that one can definitely incorporate in their diet as part of a healthy eating regime.
Even outside the consideration of nutrition, sago makes for an interesting addition to the plate in its characteristic ball presentation as well as in its starchy texture not to forget also the many methods and mediums in which it can be incorporated into different dishes and introduced in common recipes for more wholesome a range in eating variety. Interesting a demonstration of the myriad essences that sago dwells in would also be the spread- if not the popular origins of it again of course explored purely in the Indian context, that had its first brush with fame down south but today identifies more as a north Indian based array of preparation at least in the vrat vitals.
It had been a Travancore of the late 1800s wherefrom the legacy of the sago commenced in our country as it being then the saviour of the empire during a raging famine. At the behest of then king Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, and his brother Vishakham Thirunal Maharaja, sago was first cooked and served as a royal food to ultimately gain also mass precedence as the starchy food to cling on to for dear life. Over the course of the years, there had been further expansion in popularity of what is neither a grain nor a legume, with the years of the Second Word War providing added impetus for the sago to present itself as an excellent alternative for the then scarcely available staple of the rice grain.
Cross over to times of the present and the adequately lengthy list of recipes curated in the sabudana simplisticness though manages to take fancier expressions across the culinary realms of the globe. Most commonly encountered in assertive ‘sagoishness’ would be the pudding like preparation of it, simple in preparation as well in its namesake identity as sago pudding. Made by cooking together sago and sugar in water or milk to a creamy consistency, sticky of course in all its defining presence of the starch, with regional and traditional recipes varying to offer thus unique tastes of the similar dish in different tweaks of it, this perhaps is the most classic and cosmopolitan case of the sago calling upon it a greater world attention in all deliciousness for sure.
But most glaringly evident a presence eked out in the global spectrum of gastronomy by tapioca pearls as the kind of sago that we know is that of its dominating the spectacle of what presents a picture in much prettiness as the boba tea. It in fact is the signature sight of the tea abundant in its bed of tapioca bubbles that is what makes it so aesthetic a food feature fit indeed of flaunting across the frilly frames of the ‘gram. In other lipsmacking still preparations of which sabudana shines out as the star in the vrat variations of it, the eating through the eyes adage might be not as well satisfies but there sure is no miss when it comes to fully satiating appetites of wholly religious devotees for them to pursue to divine extents the calming aura of the Gods.
Appearing on the vrat menu as part of a wholesome three course meal would be such sago dishes that would surprise one indeed with the sheer transformation of the ingredient into entirely different worlds altogether as far as their perception is concerned in both the eye alluding and taste enticing aspects of it. Occurring as perhaps the most sattvic version of what easily carries the potential to pass off as a specialty if not gourmet preparation would be the national food almost identity on which the sabudana khichdi hinges to embody at once the purity of the occasion and the popularity of its demand as well.
With the essential presence of the potatoes and the biteous evidence of the peanuts making up in utmost basicness this easy to prepare and eat and relish and digest meal, this even more comfortable interpretation of the forever indulgent comfort food of the khichdi does harbour more than enough elements to be an all time, all occasion favorite that which it veritably is in its unmissable presence as a popular, pretty and colorful north Indian street food as well!
In such almost meal-like prominence of its preparation, there also is the thalipeeth version of its presentation and consumption that makes for equally interesting an option to dig into in assurance of a day long observance thereafter of a fast as dedicated as can be. And for those open to or rather craving for the in- between meal munchies as well as for those who identify more as snackers than as proper eaters, there is everything from the vadas and fritters and tikkis to the papads and appalams and the sandiges, heck- chaklis even! to cater to that particular charting of the culinary.
The coursing of the sabudana story in such mentions of it might be a more northern thing but vrat appropriate recipes of such dishes prominently south Indian too have been interpreted in terms of these pearls of glory. Classic always offerings of the dosa and idli too can be munched upon in a sago state of existence even as forever favorites of the misals and the chiwdas find equal preference in the sabudana scale of savoury savoring.
No cruising along the pleasures of life is ever complete without some pouring of sweetness and that is a fact truer still when it comes to the fancies of food. Even when that food is something supposedly ‘sober’ in its religious ‘vibe’, it indeed is sweetness that we call for for its sublime elevation. Sabudana achieves that zenith of food perfection in terms of the sabudana pudding or kheer no doubt but there also can be as general versions of Indianness that sago is made to evoke the experience of it all its versatility.
So whether it be as ladoos and barfis or even halwas and rabris as well as the even more jaw dropping spectacularity of the jalebis, there is nothing Indian enough that sabudana has not been made to emulate so that it allows for the ironic luxury of indulgence even in the face of restraint. And that indeed is the beauty of this humble ingredient of holistic essence, of bearing within its globular mass a character that shines through in all its transitioning from the opaque to the translucent revealing of truth. That might be too idealistic an adage to attribute to something encompassing the sin of gluttony in food but for a constituent of the culinary to resonate with the divine aspirations of the universe, this surely has to be a religiously relished realm. To sign off though, there also is the glass of sabudana java to drink from in refreshing readiness as perhaps a nectar churned by the Gods themselves!