On January 15 this year, the sun will move northwards and enter the cusp of Capricorn (Makar). It will be the coldest day of winter, as it has been for ages, and will be forevermore. It will also be the first day of the 10th month (Magh) of the Nepali calendar, and people all over the country will be celebrating this day with a lot of joy; the bitter cold of winter will now be on a waning path, and the days henceforth will become warmer and longer. In addition, it is the end of Poush (Dec/Jan), the most inauspicious month of the year. A local saying goes like this: ‘Poush ma je gare pani huncha phooss’ (whatever you do in Poush is going to end in failure). Now, the ending of such a month does call for a celebration, doesn’t it? A festival is certainly in order!
The festival to celebrate this joyous occasion is called Maghe Sankranti (or Makar Sankranti), and as with most other festivals, special food items are what makes it really special. The most important food of Maghe Sankranti is tarool (yam), which is a tuber that’s starchier and drier than sweet potatoes, with which it is often confused. The outer covering is pretty rough and difficult to peel, unlike the softer skin of sweet potatoes, so you got to boil it well to soften it. The edible part, the ‘meat’, of mature tarools can be white, yellow, purple, or pink in color. It is rich in vitamins B6 and C, antioxidants, proteins, complex carbohydrates with low glycemic index (raises blood sugar more slowly than regular sugar), and fiber. Tarool is also credited with having antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties, aside from other health benefits.
The most common way of preparing tarool is as follows: first, select chunks of blemish-free tarool, and after washing them well, boil for about 10 minutes in a pressure cooker. Let it cool down, and then start peeling. After that’s done, cut into small pieces, and that’s it. You can serve them cold. Another popular way is to make thin slices of the boiled and peeled tarool, which you marinate with oil, ginger/garlic paste, salt, and pepper. Then, you stir-fry these slices in a non-stick pan. This is pretty tasty stuff. Of course, as with most things culinary, there are other innovations too. And so you have tarool and green peas curry, tarool pakodas, and tarool kheer, to name a few.
Another essential food of Maghe Sankranti is til ko laddoo. These are made of sesame seeds and molasses, with the sesame seeds being white, brown, or black. Generally, black sesame seeds are the most commonly used during Maghe Sankranti. Here’s how you can make your own til ko laddoo: you’ll need 100 g each of sesame seeds and molasses (chaku), one-fourth cup of finely chopped coconut, and a teaspoon of cinnamon and cardamom powder. Now, dry-roast the sesame seeds in a pre-heated pan (stir constantly). In another pan, melt the molasses, adding some water to it, and then mix coconut, cinnamon, and cardamom to it. Then, make round shaped balls of sesame seeds mixed with the molasses mixture (grease your palms with some butter so molasses don’t stick to your hands), and voila, you have your til ko laddoos. Allow them to cool down and then store them in an air tight container.
What other food is essential during Maghe Sankranti? Chaku (hardened molasses) is the third food that is absolutely a part of Maghe Sankranti, as is ghyao (or ghee: clarified butter). Now, here’s something interesting about ghyao and chaku, particularly concerning Kathmandu. There are half a dozen tiny shops behind the Annapurna Temple in Asan Bazaar, that historical, cultural, and commercial center of Kathmandu, where six lanes/streets converge on a square with numerous shops selling a mind-boggling variety of goods. Now, the half dozen or so tiny shops mentioned above are a bit different from the pack, having a history spanning over a hundred years, and throughout, the only things they have been selling are ghyao, tel (oil), chaku, and candles. Most locals of Kathmandu Valley know them as the ghyao-tel pasals (ghee, oil shops). Candles were, in fact, later additions. Anyway, these shops are famed for the purity of their products, a necessary stipulation, since things like cow’s milk ghee and sesame seed oil are used to light wicks in temples during religious functions. Their buffalo milk ghee is for human consumption, as is the tori ko tel (mustard oil).
However, it is their chaku that is most in demand, not only during Maghe Sankranti, but at other times, too, since ghyao-chaku is a highly nutritious combination that is traditionally fed to newborns by the valley’s Newars. The shopkeepers claim the highest standards of hygiene and purity when preparing the chaku, which they make in their own homes. Come January, and business soars. Come Maghe Sankranti, and these half a dozen or so tiny shops become the center of attention of tens of thousands of valley folks. “They become crowded,” is too simple a statement. If you are in Kathmandu that day, do make it a point to go to Asan Bazaar and see for yourself what reputation can do, because all said and done, the reason for these tiny shops to have survived for so long and to be still in so high a demand is primarily because they have earned the valley-dwellers’ trust.
So, you now know what Maghe Sankranti is all about, and where to go to get pure ghyao-chaku on the day. There aren’t many religious functions as such, though many people do take a dip in the confluence of some holy rivers. It’s actually more about looking forward to better times ahead after the bitter cold of winter, and celebrated by eating body-warming foods like tarool, til ko ladoo, ghyao, and chaku. And, yes, khichdi, too, which is a wholesome and filling combination of black lentil, rice, ghyao, ginger, and salt. Health-giving, life sustaining foods, which points towards Maghe Sankranti being more a celebration of life than just another festival!