Lesson 3: The Seasonal Wisdom of Āyurveda – Holī
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Every traditional holiday has a traditional prasāda that is rooted in the ecological wisdom of Āyurveda. Prasāda is food that is lovingly offered to a form of the Divine as part of ritual worship, and later shared with devotees to impart blessings.
By studying the choice of each prasāda and its ingredients, we can begin to understand important teachings of Āyurveda. In particular, we understand the qualities of each season and the importance of adjusting our diet based on the season. This practice not only benefits our health, it connects and aligns our beings with natural cycles.
Many people who grew up in somewhat traditional homes in India will tell you that what they loved about celebrating Holī was not just having fun throwing colors with their friends, but eating pūranpoli, the traditional prasāda for Holi. Mothers know to prepare this Holi prasāda in generous quantities.
Pūranpoli is a thin, round flatbread or poli stuffed with puran, a soft mixture of channa dal (small split chickpeas, sometimes called Bengal gram) that is sweetened mildly with jaggery. It is often so large and delicate that is needs to be folded in quarters, with warm ghee spread between the folds as it is served. It falls apart in your fingers as you relish it.
This simple delicacy seems to be every child's favorite. Even adults light up with a childlike joy when they eat puranpoli. That alone could make it ideal for celebrating Holi, since it's a time when we let ourselves be playful like children.
But it's the wisdom behind this particular prasāda in this particular season that is as noteworthy as its deliciousness. Pūranpoli is remarkably healthy - in moderation - for the season when Holī typically occurs: the transition from winter to spring.
Spring officially begins in mid-March, according to the texts and oral traditions of Āyurveda. The seasons are defined by the movement of the sun and the length of the days. The effects these incremental movements have on our digestion, overall health and environment are some of the most important things to understand in order to stay healthy.
Each ṛtu sandhi, or 15-day transition period from one season into another, is a time for special care in what we eat, because our immunity is easily lowered as we adjust to the changes in the air and environment.
What happens internally, as winter gives way to spring, is a lot like a snow mass melting in spring. In our case, what is "melting" is excess kapha that has accumulated during the colder winter months. You can think of kapha here as a cool, wet, stickiness. When this gets aggravated and loosened in spring, it starts "overflowing" into your stomach and chest area.
Pretty quickly your digestion begins losing its winter strength, and in your lungs and nasal passages, the perfect environment for the familiar wet congestion of spring is quietly created. Luckily, for everything there is a counter balancing strategy to maintain good health.
The ṛtu sandhi that leads from late winter into spring is a time to begin phasing out the rich, nourishing diet that is recommended for winter, and introducing a lighter, purifying spring diet that is warm and drying, with lots of digestive spices. The aim is to balance out the accumulating wetness, to manage it before it becomes a problem.
This is also reflected in the kind of prasāda that is associated with celebrations that fall in spring, and the days leading up to it. Gone are the rich offerings laden with nuts, dried fruits, and condensed milk. Instead, the offerings become increasingly lighter and more austere as we head towards full spring.
The star ingredient in pūranpoli, the traditional prasāda for Holī, is channa dal: small split chickpeas, called चणक (caṇaka) in Sanskrit. This humble, everyday legume looks like a sunny yellow split pea, and comes from the same immediate family as the larger garbanzo bean. While channa is a popular yet very simple staple in kitchens across the Indian subcontinent, channa is actually considered an āhāra dravya, a medicinal food.
The key qualities of channa are that it is rukṣa. drying, and laghu, light to digest: the perfect balancing power to the wet, heaviness of kapha that "overflows" internally in spring. It's taste has a subtle sweetness, with pungent and astringent undertones that help it kindle the digestive fire.
Channa is nutritious yet light, and is used in special diets to control diabetes, urinary problems, and excess weight gain. It's light, drying and astringent qualities make channa very absorbent, which enables it to help remove toxins from the body.
In Western terminology, channa is a good plant based protein with a low glycemic index. It's gluten free, high in dietary fiber and rich in anti-oxidants.
In savory dishes, channa is cooked with plenty of hing (asafoetida), so that it's dryness doesn't aggravate vāta doṣa, i.e. so that it doesn't cause gas or constipation. When it's cooked in a sweet dish like pūranpoli, the ghee (clarified butter) balances any excessive drying effect channa could have.
Channa flour, known as besan, is a wonderful pancake batter, and also an excellent substitute for soap. Using it as an ubtan or body scrub, is an interesting way to observe some of the qualities of channa.
You simply mix a tiny bowl of chickpea flour with water, gently rub the paste all over your body, then rinse it off with warm water. It is particularly helpful in removing excess oiliness, as well as giving your skin a gentle exfoliation - both helpful things in spring. (But be careful to clean your drain afterwards.)
Try making pūranpoli, not only because it's such a delicious, traditional offering for Holī, but also as a way to experience and explore something that's ideal for keeping your health in balance during this ṛtu sandhi, this transition from spring to summer.
Regional styles of pūranpoli vary, but they are all delicious and nurturing. For example, in Gujarat, they make this out of toor dal or a mixture of toor and channa. Typically they seem to be prepared by awesome cooks, so making your own can seem a bit daunting. Luckily, even small, unevenly shaped pūranpolis are delicious, and can be made into a heartfelt offering. A deconstructed version is even easier.
- Split channa dal - 3/4 cup (nourishing, light, dries up excess wetness)
- Jaggery (crumbled or powdered) - 1/2 cup (warming, nourishing)
- Dried ginger powder - 1/2 teaspoon (warming, purifying for chest, digestive boost)
- Cardamom - 1/4 teaspoon (gently warming digestive)
- Saffron - a pinch (warming and auspicious)
- Salt - a pinch
- Whole wheat flour - 1 and 1/4 cups
- Ghee - 1/2 teaspoon (nourishing, boosts digestive fire, balances excess dryness)
- Water as needed
- Wash the channa dal then soak it in room temperature water for at least an hour.
- Cook with 1 and 1/4 cups of fresh water in a pressure cooker to 3 whistles. (If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can also boil it in a pot or slow cooker until the dal is totally soft, and remove extra water afterwards).
- Turn off. When the pressure cooker is ready to open, remove the lid and let the dal simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add another cup of water and let the cooked channa simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
- While the dal is simmering, soak the saffron threads in a tablespoon of hot water.
- Turn off heat and mash the cooked dal with a hand blender to remove lumps and make it smooth.
- Turn the heat to low, then stir in ginger powder, then the jaggery. Keep stirring as the jaggery melts, so it gets thoroughly mixed with the channa.
- Add the saffron and keep stirring to help all the water evaporate.
- The mixture should be firm. If it is still watery, drain off the excess water with a large strainer.
You might choose to offer just this puran mixture.
- Otherwise, begin mixing the wheat flour with water.
- When thoroughly mixed and kneaded for a few minutes, cover the dough with a wet cloth and let it rest for 10 minutes.
- Then knead the dough extensively by hand, or in a mixer with a dough hook. This is what makes the poli or flatbread covering delicate.
- Take a golfball sized ball of dough in your palm and shape it like a small bowl.
- Place a smaller ball of the puran mixture in this "bowl" of dough, then seal the wheat dough around it.
- Dust the ball with flour, then place it on a board and begin gently rolling it to a flatbread shape.
- Place it on a heated flat pan with just a little ghee to insure that it doesn't stick.
- Flip it as it begins to rise a little.
- When it is cooked on both sides, transfer to a plate.
- Smear with ghee when serving, folding it in half or quarters as needed.
If you're making it for the first time, make them smaller and thicker as you get a feel for working with this mixture.
Hopefully, as you eat pūranpoli, you will get a taste for and understand the kinds of foods that will nurture you through this seasonal transition. May it also fill you with childlike delight!
Teacher: Hema Patankar
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