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Ashtami Food

Yesterday was ashtami, the eighth day of the navratras. Twice a year in my home state of Punjab, in April and then again in October, ashtami is celebrated as kanjak. Technically, this means that it is a day you pray to the Goddess Durga and invite 7 girls to your place to treat them to a meal. But given the logistics of everyone needing to invite girls (there are only so many kids in the neighbourhood after all), here is how it works: my mum and dad will get up early in the morning and make the traditional ashtami meal of puris, semolina halwa and dried black chickpeas. We will then create little snack packs with two puris topped with a scoop of halwa and another scoop of the chickpeas.

One of us will then go out out get hold of neighbourhood kids - both boys and girls are welcome and the more the merrier. They will come in, you will spend 5 minutes doing the puja. My dad will light the traditional lamp, hand over tiny bites of halwa as prasad to the kids and then fill the plates they bring with them with the ashtami food, some gifts and typically some money. For kids, these are the two favourite days of the year. They get all the attention and get nice gifts like toys and bangles and what not. Plus my four year old niece certainly raked in enough money yesterday to keep her high on candy for a week.

As a child, my favourite time was when the puja was over, all the kids had gone home and my mum will fry fresh puris for us to eat. Everyone knows dozens of halwa recipes but my pick of the meal was black chana. For some reason, this curry was only made at our place twice a year and never more. Maybe because it's considered to be too simple compared to other curries. Because the meal is offered in prayer to Goddess Durga, no onions or garlic can be used. But even with dry spices, the curry comes out flavoursome and a great match for oily puris and the rich halwa. Here's how you make some.

1/2 cup black chickpeas
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tbsp amchur (dried mango powder)

Soak the chickpeas overnight in at least 4-5 cups of water. Drain and wash in running water, then set aside. In a pressure cooker, heat the ghee. Add cumin seeds and wait for 15-20 seconds until they start to splutter. Then add haldi and stir it around to take the raw turmeric smell off. Add the soaked chickpeas, salt and chilli powder as well as 2 1/2 cups of water. Put the pressure lid on and cook for 5-6 whistles until the chickpeas are soft. There will still be some water left over from cooking, if not add 1/2 cup water, garam masala and amchur, then put the chickpeas back on heat. Cook on a medium heat until the water dries up and the chickpeas are nicely coated with spices. Serve hot with puris or paranthas.


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