One of the traditional names for the sun is Mitra, the radiant friend of all, and one of the characteristics of Makara Saṁkrānti is that it’s a day of friendship and good will. It’s a day when people strengthen the bonds of friendship, and renew neglected or strained relationships. It a day to refresh and celebrate the warmth and sweetness of our connection with relatives and loved ones.
This warm spirit of friendship is expressed through small, delicious balls of sesame seeds cooked in jaggery and ghee, tila laḍḍūs. In Maharashtra, people give them eagerly to friends and family saying tilguḍ ghya goḍ goḍ bolā: take this ball of sweetened sesame and let us always speak sweetly with one another. It’s a moment when we pause to recognize how deeply we are nourished by our friendships and family relationships.
You might already be wondering if you could substitute anything delicious, say chocolate chip cookies, for sesame laḍḍūs. From the perspective of the heart, of course that’s fine. But the wisdom of Ayurveda beckons us with its own friendship, inviting us to understand that there is a huge, beneficial science behind the simple sesame laḍḍūs.
Makara Saṁkrānti falls right in the middle of winter, at the point when hemanta ṛtu, early winter, transitions into śiśira ṛtu, late winter. It’s a comparatively cold, drying time, when you quickly feel hungry and thirsty for something warm and hearty. There are two important characteristics of these winter seasons. One is fairly apparent, the other more hidden.
Firstly, appetites are keen in these two seasons, thanks to the stronger digestive fire that most people develop in response to the coldness of winter. It’s the time of year when most people can eat plenty of nourishing foods like nuts and things cooked in ghee and nourishing oils, and digest them well. Just as your skin cries out for moisture and lubrication, so do the digestive system and tissues of the body.
In the terminology of Ayurveda, it’s a season for foods and oils that keep away the accumulation of vāta, the tendency towards dryness, depletion, coldness, agitation and aches. So your body is calling out for lubrication, softness, warmth and nourishment.
The second big piece of advice from Ayurveda for this season is that this is the most important time to nourish all our dhātus or tissues. This means building up our core immunity for the year ahead, especially by nourishing the deeper tissues with the body.
We’re not only talking about muscle and bone tissue, but also our bone marrow, nervous system and fertility, along with ojas, which we can think of here as our core immunity and vitality. Since our digestive fire is usually strongest at this time of year, we can digest and assimilate the kind of rich, nourishing foods that build up this core strength in our tissues.
So nourishment is the theme of these winter seasons. Isn’t it fascinating how this echoes one of the primary names of the sun: Pūṣaṇa, the nourisher, the one who enables us to thrive.
The star of the season is sesame. It gives us the perfect balance for the cold, dry, depleting qualities of winter, and helps us build up strength and resilience in our deeper tissues for the year ahead.
Sesame is one of the most widely used medicinals in Ayurveda, and appears throughout its classical texts and oral traditions. It is used in about 40% of Ayurvedic formulas, and 90% of Ayurvedic oils are prepared in a base of sesame oil. Sesame formulas are used externally, internally, orally, nasally, and in enemas. It’s everywhere in Ayurveda.
Black sesame is used where it’s concentrated medicinal qualities are ideal. It’s also used as an offering in many Vedic fire rituals. White sesame is more widely used as a base for medicated oils, and in most culinary contexts, because it has a higher oil content and a slightly milder taste. The red variety isn’t used much as its qualities are weaker.
In Ayurvedic terms, the properties of sesame seeds are madhūra, meaning that it has a subtle sweetness that makes it nourishing, as well as tikta, pungent and kaśāya, astringent, in taste. They are uśna, heating, as well a snigdha, softening and lubricating. This translates into a host of favourable outcomes.
The first benefits of eating a sesame laḍḍūs come as you chew them. Chewing sesame helps keep teeth strong, remove plaque and prevent mouth ulcers. So take your time as you chew your sesame laddūs. (If you’ve heard about the benefits of oil pulling, this advice to chew sesame seeds slowly may bring to mind the benefits of holding sesame oil in your mouth.)
These sweet sesame balls are quite easy to digest because sesame is dīpana, it ignites the digestive fire in the stomach. Sesame is vyavāyi, it gets absorbed and assimilated easily and enters the channels of the body quickly. And it helps clear those channels as it moves. Plus sesame helps with easy bowel movements.
Once it’s absorbed, sesame gets to work helping to build strength and immunity, keep the joints supple, and bones healthy. It is a great vayasthāpana: it is rejuvenating and helps slow down aging. And it nourishes the mind because it helps keep the intellect functioning well and calms anxiety.
In the terminology of Western medicine, sesame has antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory qualities. It’s rich in minerals, Vitamin E and Omega-6 fatty acids, and a good source of plant based protein. And it’s delicious!
It’s worth noting that in winter people who follow an Ayurveda-inspired lifestyle traditionally do regular abhyaṅga, self oil massage of the body, head and hair using warm sesame oil, either plain or medicated. The thirsty skin seems to drink it in. Actually the skin passes the benefits of this oil to the deeper channels of the body, so the benefits go way beyond soft skin and hair. It is very calming and nourishing.
Jaggery is the second ingredient of til laddūs. It comes with strong credentials of its own. Jaggery is unrefined sugar, rich with minerals. It can also be sourced from various kinds of palm. Jaggery boosts both digestion and elimination, gives a slow release energy boost, and imparts a pleasing warmth throughout the body. It’s not just a sweetener: it actually helps clear channels in the body, particularly respiratory channels. And it has an earthy deliciousness.
The next ingredient of sesame laḍḍūs is ghee, or clarified butter. Ghee is one of the most outstanding sources of nourishment, strength, immunity and good digestion. It promotes longevity, helps the intellect and all the senses function well, and acts like an internal moisturizer to relieve dry skin. It is used extensively in Ayurveda’s medicinal formulas and home remedies, and is probably the most famous ingredient in Ayurvedic recipes.
Ghee is respected as auspicious, and it is one of the major offerings in Vedic fire rituals. Just as ghee makes flames leap up as it is offered into the sacred fire, it also kindles our digestive fire when we eat it. Yes, it’s made from cow’s milk. But it doesn’t disturb people who are lactose intolerant.
The final ingredients are cardamom and nutmeg. They are both great for enhancing the digestive process, and add a subtle, pleasing fragrance. Many people also like to add peanuts and cashews. If you and your friends don’t suffer from nut allergies, these nuts are a nourishing addition.
On Makara Saṁkrānti, these sweet balls of medicinal goodness are offered in worship, popped in the mouths of children and loved ones, shared generously with family, mailed to relatives who live far away, given by children to their teachers and playmates, distributed at work, kept in a big container to give to guests, and shared with each other by women in special gatherings in each other’s homes over the following weeks. (These are called haldi-kumkum gatherings. More on that in one of our future courses!)
With tila laḍḍūs, what we’re giving and receiving is not just any sweet treat. We are giving a ball of the most seasonally perfect nutrition, and we are making a significant contribution to the receiver’s good health, both physically and mentally, short and long term.
When we give a sesame laddū as an expression of refreshing our commitment to the nourishing power of friendship, we are giving small, powerful steps towards peace, harmony and the well being of those around us. So enjoy preparing them, and share them with the generosity of the sun.
Note: If you live in the Southern Hemisphere where January is mid-summer, sesame seeds are NOT your friend at this time of year. If you want to get into the spirit of this celebration in January, I’d suggest making something with coconut and dates, since they are more cooling.
Time: about 30 minutes
Yield: around 20 small laddūs
This is an easy, basic way to make til laddūs. Every grandmother adds her own special touches. Some like to make them very hard like chikki but using a special kind of jaggery. This recipe makes slightly softer, more bite-able and earthy laddūs.
1 cup organic sesame seeds (white)
1 cup organic jaggery – powdered or broken into small pieces
2 1/2 tablespoons organic ghee (clarified butter)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup roasted peanuts and/or cashews cut in small pieces (optional)
A couple of hours ahead of time, soak the sesame seeds in water for about 20 minutes. Then spread them on a cotton napkin or several layers of paper towels to absorb as much water as possible from the sesame seeds.
Put the plate of sesame in the sun for about an hour – a lovely step in preparation for a celebration that connects us with the sun. It’s best to cover the sesame seeds with a layer of cheesecloth to protect them from birds and squirrels. If it’s snowing , raining or overcast, you can keep the plate of sesame in a warm, dry place indoors to dry out a bit more.
You can ever skip this preparation if you’re short of time. It just means that the sesame will be more chewy.
1) Lightly grease a plate and set aside.
2) In a regular cooking pot, lightly roast the sesame seeds on low to medium, stirring continuously. In 8-10 minutes, if you soaked the sesame in water, or 2-3 minutes if you’re using unsoaked sesame, the seeds will turn golden brown, give a light fragrance, and begin to pop.
3) Immediately remove from the heat before they burn or get over cooked, and pour them into a bowl.
4) In the same pot, heat the water. When it is close to boiling add the jaggery and stir while it melts until there are no lumps and mixed completely with the water.
5) Let it cook on medium, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes until the mixture starts to caramelize. You’ll know it’s done by dropping a tiny amount in cold water: if it forms a ball it’s ready.
6) Turn heat to low and gently add the ghee, stirring as it melts.
7)Add the cardamom and nutmeg and mix briefly.
8)Add all the sesame seeds, plus the nuts if you’re using them. Mix thoroughly then remove from the heat.
9) Transfer the hot sesame mixture to the greased plate and let it cool for just a minute.
10) Grease your fingers and palms with a little ghee.
11) As soon as you can touch it without scorching your fingers, take a small spoon of the mixture and form it into a ball. Use your fingers to press the sesame mixture into a ball shape, then roll it between your palms to make it smooth.
12) Keep making sesame balls while the mixture is warm and malleable. When it cools it hardens.
13) If rolling the mixture into balls seems daunting, you could place the mixture in a small greased baking pan. Pat the mixture flat and about 1/3″ thick, then cut it into squares before it cools and hardens.
These laddus can be stored for weeks. No need to refrigerate them!