Sankranti is one of the few Hindu festivals observed according to the solar cycle. Marking the end of the month of winter solstice, it coincides with the harvest of the Rabi crop and is celebrated in mid-Jan. This pan-India festival is known by different names across the country such as Makar Sankranti in UP, Bengal, Karnataka & Andhra, Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Lohri in Punjab, Uttarayan in Gujarat and Magh Bihu in Assam.
My own childhood memories of the Bengali Poush Sankranti are of sweet Pithe Puli - rice dumplings with a jaggery and coconut stuffing and Patishapta - pancakes stuffed with kheer and topped with grandma’s love. The other vivid memory is from Bangalore, the city of my birth & early childhood and I recollect the thrill of watching decorated bulls jumping over bonfires of haystack. Like any festival, Sankranti has its own food associations depending on which part of the country one is in. This piece captures the diversity of native food customs and unique dishes that the festival calls for. Not surprisingly, the preparations are seasonal and region-specific, depending on the ingredient availability. As with most festivals in India the best way to enjoy the unique traditional cuisine would be a home cooked meal, served the traditional way. Since that’s not always possible, I’ve tried to put together some suggestions for restaurants and eateries where one can savor the same authenticity. Do check with the eateries, before visiting, for the exact dates when they’ll serve some of the traditional dishes.
LohriStarting from the North, Sankranti is celebrated as Lohri in Punjab. The quintessential Lohri dishes of Punjab are Makki Ki Roti and Sarsaon da Saag accompanied by Gur, Pindi Chane, Dry fruit chikki, Til ki barfi/ chikki and Murmura Laddu. Without a doubt the go-to-place for traditional Punjabi Lohri fare would be holy city of Amritsar, the food & cultural capital of the region. Talking Street’s recommendation would be Bharawan Da Dhaba, which is over a century old and an institution for traditional, bursting-with-flavor, loaded-with-desi-ghee, finger-licking Punjabi food.
However, if you can’t make the trip to Punjab, here are some authentic Punjabi eateries to try Sarson Da Saag & Makki ki Roti. In Bangalore: Tandoori Taal (Indiranagar) and Anand Sweets Purani Dilli (multiple locations) for Makki Roti & Sarson Saag, are places we’d recommend for traditional Punjabi style Lohri fare. Anand Sweets also serves the traditional sweets like Chikkis and Til Barfi. In Delhi: There are many options to choose from but we’d recommend Gulati’s at Pandara Road Market near Khan Market. In Mumbai: We recommend Urban Tadka in Lokhandwala for the Sarson Saag and National Chikkis in Ghatkopar & Arjun Chikki for Chikkis.
Poush SankrantiTravel a little eastwards to Bengal where it is celebrated as Poush Sankranti. Living up to the state’s well-earned reputation as a land of sweets, the culinary highlights would include Puli Pithe, Patishapta and Payesh. Pithe is like a sweet-filled momo - a rice dumpling with a coconut and jaggery stuffing served steaming hot and relished with Nalen gur or liquid date palm jaggery sauce. The other must-try dish is a Patishapta - sweet pancake made of rice flour and stuffed with a khoya barfi or even kheer. What would Sankranti be without Bong Payesh (rice kheer) made with Nalen Gur! Every locality or para of Kolkata has its own legendary sweet shop but the ones I’d recommend for the most authentic sweets would be Balaram Mullick at Bhawanipore, KC Das at Esplanade or any of the Bancharam outlets.
In Bangalore: With a vibrant diaspora of 5lac+ Bengalis, Bangalore has many Bengali restaurants and sweet shops. KC Das (Church Street is their most popular outlet) and Bancharam’s both stock the Puli Pithe during Sankranti. Also hugely recommended is the Nalen Gur flavored ice-cream at Pabrai’s, Koramangala, a unique & innovative use of the palm jaggery.
In Mumbai: Head to Oh Calcutta! For an authentic Bengali meal on Sankranti and for the Pithes, I’d recommend Sweet Bengal in Andheri - a shop that has been my soul-comforting destination for satisfying my mishti-cravings during my MBA days. They have branches across the city at Powai, Navi Mumbai, Cuffe Parade. In Delhi: CR Park, the only place in Delhi that has 033 as its STD code as the joke goes, has to be the go-to destination to discover Sankranti delicacies of Bengal. Try Rasoraj Sweets who do a good variety of the Pithas and Nalen Gur Sandesh. Bengal’s one-woman-show CM, Mamtadi, deserves high credit for a great invention - Liquid Nalen Gur packaged in easy-to-use tubes. These are available at the Bengal Govt’s Biswa Banga store near Rajiv Chowk. What would the Probasi (non-Resident) Bengali Dadas & Boudis do without her entrepreneurial genius? :P
Magh BihuMagh Bihu, also known as Bhogali Bihu, is the Assamese version of Sankranti. Gila Pitha, Til (sesame) pitha and til laddoos are the delicacies that the festival is associated with in this part of the country. The Assamese versions of Pitha are distinct. Gila Pitha is made with rice flour & jaggery dough that is deep fried and relished with liquid jaggery. How can fish be left out of any Assamese feast? The fish curry during Bihu is a mustard sauce based gravy cooked with potatoes and tomatoes.
In Guwahati head to Khorika or Heritage Khorika for an authentic Assamese meal on Magh Sankranti (apparently the head cook at Khorika left them and opened Heritage Khorika, which is equally good). There are quite a few Bhogali Melas or fairs held in the city during the festival where one can try all the authentic delicacies like Pitha, Til laddu in makeshift stalls.
UttarayanHeading west now to aapnu Gujarat. Sankranti is celebrated here as Uttarayan, the festival to fly kites. The day is celebrated with a healthy mix of a festive and competitive spirit as the skies play host to many a kite-fights. No terrace, no park in the city is empty, the skies are filled with multi-coloured kites and the air is filled with frequent exclamations of “Kai Po Che” (I have cut you). Ahmedabad even hosts an international kite-flying festival every year on Sankranti. “Undhiyu” has to be the most famous Sankranti dish of Gujarat. Made with green beans, sweet potatoes, purple yam and brinjals, this unique delicacy is best enjoyed in one of the many thali speciality restaurants across town. I personally enjoyed the Thali at Atithi in Satellite every time I’ve travelled to Ahmedabad. The best way to enjoy this dish is with hot puris and shrikand (a sweet dish). Not to mention there is a special version of farsan (Gujarat’s world-famous anytime snacks) specially prepared during Uttarayan. Induben Khakhrawala is our recommendation for fasrsan.
In Bangalore: Looking for a great Gujarati thali in Bangalore may be a bit tricky as typically it gets clubbed with Rajasthani thali places like Rajdhani and NH8. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is quite authentic but there are subtle nuances that set a Gujarati Thali apart from a Rajasthani one. And there isn’t really any Gujarati place in Bangalore yet, sadly. For Farsan try Kota Kachori & Bikaner Sweet Centre in Koramangala. In Mumbai: Amchi Mumbai is a second home for Gujaratis with thriving communities especially in Vile Parle and Ghatkopar. These are the localities to try the authentic thalis & farsan. My own recommendation would be Status at Nariman Point, a place we used to frequent during my bachelor-jobber days at Backbay Reclamation. The staff there take it upon themselves to feed you like a guest, sweetly urging you to take second and third helpings!
Pongal / SankrantiAnd finally in the south Pongal & Sankranti are celebrated in three of the states with their unique local rituals and meticulously prepared meals.
Starting with Andhra, where Sankranti is celebrated by offering newly harvested rice to the Gods as a Naivedyam. There is an elaborate meal that is part of the festivities. The star attractions of the meal are Kalagaya Kura, a mixed vegetable curry, Teepi Punugulu, sweet fritters and Chakrapongal, an amazing sweet dish made of moong dal, rice, jaggery and generous amounts of ghee. Appalus, deep-fried sweets made of rice flour and jaggery are another Sankranti delicacy, to be devoured guilt-free without counting the calories!
In Bangalore: One is spoilt for choice but if there was to be a clear favourite for Andhra meals, it would be Nagarjuna. I know of folks who will make it a point to just have a meal there even if they are in town for a few hours on work. In Delhi: The Andhra Bhavan Canteen near Connaught Place is not just any other Govt. Canteen, it’s a veritable institution! During my college days in Delhi, we would frequent this place just for an awesome meal on an even more awesome budget. Apart from the thali, there are some amazing side dishes to order, can’t resist mentioning the Mutton Fry, even though this is a blog on Sankranti food! :P
Thai PongalMoving on to Tamil Nadu, the rice bowl of India and inarguably one of the most culturally rich parts of India. Sankranti or Thai Pongal is celebrated with much ritualistic fervor over 4 days here. The eponymous “hero-dish” of the festival comes in many varieties. Ven Pongal or khara Pongal is the savory variety which is also a popular all-season comfort food for Tamilians. It’s made with moong dal and rice, and allowed to boil over (that’s what the word Pongal means) so that it is easy to mash. It is typically accompanied by vada and sambar. The sweet variant or Chakkra Pongal is made of moong dal, jaggery, ghee and seasoned with cashews and raisins. Best place for these signature Tamil Pongal dishes has to be Chennai, the cultural and gastronomical capital of South India. Now there are many places one could try authentic Pongal in Chennai but my personal recommendations would be Rayar’s Mess, Sarvana Bhavan and Murugan Idli. The ritualistic start to many of my work trips to Chennai would be an early morning stop at a Sarvana Bhavan (I’m not biased towards any particular branch, though Egmore is supposed to be the best). Murugan Idli at T Nagar was a revelation to me, worth going just for the experience and authentic Tamil tiffin.
And finally, how is Sankranti celebrated in Karnataka and Bangalore? Yellu Bella or a dry mix of sesame seeds, jaggery, gram dal, white sweet candy, roasted peanuts and dried coconut is the signature Kannada Sankranti delicacy. It’s actually a super-food packed with protein, calcium and oil and apt for the body in winter. Every house makes their Yellu Bella and distributes it during Sankranti and you could munch on it for days after the festival. It is also easily available at sweet shops during the festive season. Days prior to Sankranti also see markets overflowing with sugarcane, the main harvest crop at this time of the year.
Other gastronomical attractions include Puliogare, Obbatu Holige, Chakkara Pongal and Payasam. Halli Mane in Malleshwaram, north Bangalore is an iconic place to try an authentic Kannada meal during Sankranti.
Hope you enjoyed reading about the culinary diversity of Sankranti which is another fine example of how India is actually 1 country but many lands with their unique rituals and foods co-existing for centuries.