Lesson 3: A Rainy Season Prasāda
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The traditional offering of nourishing food for this celebration of Rakṣā Bandhan, as well as for Nāriyālī Pūrṇimā, is sweet coconut rice, Nāralī Bhāt. Its ingredients are each highly auspicious, as well as carefully selected and combined to help us all stay healthy in this season. In fact, there’s an amazing science to this recipe. And the end result is delicious.
The Auspicious Ingredients of Healthy Nāralī Bhāt
नारिकेल (Nārikela), Coconut
For as long as collected memories stretch back in time, coconuts have been held in great value as a universally auspicious gift to offer any deity or form of the divine. Filled with sweet nourishment and cool, enlivening water, they convey prayers and devotion when offered, and blessings when received. At the same time, coconuts are an important staple in kitchens across the Indian subcontinent and beyond. They play a significant role in healthy nourishment.
Coconuts have always had a huge presence in the religious and cultural, the culinary and medicinal traditions of the Indian subcontinent. It’s too vast and detailed to examine here. But we can reflect on a sampling.
Think of what it’s like to drink fresh coconut water when you’re feeling excruciatingly hot and dehydrated. It’s amazing how quickly it revives your spirits and refreshes your whole being. Perhaps this is why coconut water is offered with devotion as part of the traditional अभिषेक (abhiṣeka), ritual bathing, of forms of Lord Śiva. Its cool waters splash over this form of embodied Consciousness who is associated with fire and heat. Coconut water is even used as an emergency intravenous fluid in cases of severe dehydration in remote areas.
Coconuts are valued by those who offer nourishment, those who offer worship, and those who offer healing. In fact, one of the Sanskrit words for coconuts is श्रीफल (śrīphala), the fruit that embodies prosperity and auspiciousness, and brings beauty and growth. Coconut oil is even famous for bringing luster to the skin and helping hair growth thick and strong.
Ayurveda describes coconuts in similar terms. The abundant, dense “flesh” within a coconut shell is मधुर (madhura), sweet tasting, cooling, स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating – the perfect balance for dryness – as well as बृम्हण (bṛmhaṇa), nourishing and बल्य (balya), strengthening. It’s a bit heavy to digest, so it’s usually eaten in smaller quantities, mixed with foods that are light to digest, as it is in this recipe.
Coconut has a wonderful ability to stabilize aggravated vāta, the dry, airy and often depleting force, and also excess pitta or heat. So it’s quite enlivening, like a tonic, and remarkably good at relieving any kind of burning sensation. Don’t get nervous about coconuts and cholesterol. They have now been given the “good cholesterol” stamp. And this recipe uses coconut in moderation.
Coconut is valuable in this rainy season prasāda because it’s sweet, nourishing and lubricating qualities are excellent for balancing vāta doṣa. It is equally valuable if you are in a place where this season is an extension of summer, since coconut is so good at relieving heat within the body.
तण्डुल (taṇḍula), Rice
The beautiful long grains of basmati rice are also rich in symbolism and history, auspiciousness and nourishment. Here are a few glimpses of their story. Like coconuts, grains of rice are found on every āratī thāli, every tray of offerings for a deity. They are offered liberally in every sacred fire ritual, and as an expression of divine blessings when couples come together in marriage.
In the West, rice is often judged as a merely carb. Perhaps a better one since it’s gluten free. In the sacred traditions of the Indian subcontinent, however, cooked rice is synonymous with अन्न (anna), meaning food, prosperity, nourishment and growth.
When rice is used in sacred rituals, it is called अक्षत (akṣata), that which is whole and unbroken, and typically represents the earth element and fertility. It is revered as a gift from Lord Vishnu, the sustainer and nourisher of creation. So it has been valued as a major form of wealth and auspiciousness, and an ideal gift to offer anyone from a learned priest to a person who has fallen into poverty, to a ruler with many people to feed.
In the kitchens of everyone from farmers to kings, plain cooked rice is the staple daily form of sustenance. For celebrations, it is dressed up in ghee and rich spices, and made into elaborate sweet dishes. Those who fall sick are nuṛtured back to health with rice gruel. Yogis love it because it is sattvika – it promotes clarity and purity.
Ayurveda elaborates on the qualities within these small grains and their effect when we eat them. The classical texts of Ayurveda describe rice as mildly sweet, मधुर (madhura), in taste, which also means it is nourishing. Rice is लघु (laghu), light to digest, and स्निग्ध (snigdha), a little oily, softening and moistening. These are three important qualities we need to maintain good health in varṣa-ṛtu, the rainy or late summer season.
In addition, rice is सन्जीवन (sanjīvana), enlivening, बल्य (balya), strengthening, and बृम्हण (bṛmhaṇa), nourishing. And it pacifies all three doṣas: airy vāta, fiery pitta, and earthy, watery kapha, to put it very simply.
गुड (Guḍa), Jaggery
Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar, rich with minerals. It boosts both digestion and elimination, and gives a slow release energy boost. Jaggery adds an earthy sweetness to this dish.
Ayurveda describes guḍa, jaggery, as मधुर (madhura), sweet and nourishing, and also heavy to digest in excessive quantities. It’s उष्ण (uṣṇa) more heating than most of the other ingredients, so it creates good balance in this recipe.
घृत (Ghṛta), Ghee
Ghee or clarified butter, is the primary auspicious offering in sacred fire rituals. Just was it makes the flames of the sacred fire leap high and glow, it also make the ghee lamps on a home altar burn bright, and boosts the internal fire of our digestion. It helps our memory and intellect shine and our senses stay sharp.
So rather than thinking of ghee as mere cholesterol, understand that it plays a very important role in keeping the digestive fire strong, both in general, and in this rainy or late winter season. Along with this, it is an outstanding source of nourishment, strength, and immunity. It is definitely heavy though, which is why we generally consume it in small quantities.
Ghee is a mainstay of health in Ayurveda, both in medicinal formulas and health promoting home cuisine.
Ayurveda describes ghee as मधुर (madhura), sweet tasting (meaning that it is mild and nourishing), and शीत (shīta), cooling. Yet despite its coolness, the sum of its qualities actually makes it ideal for keeping both vāta and pitta, the airy and firey forces, calm while at the same time increasing the digestive fire.
Ghee is definitely स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating for the whole body, and helps us become more supple. You can even think of it as an internal moisturizer for dry skin. In fact, like the sacred fire and ghee lamps, it can make your skin glow.
शुष्कद्राक्षा (Śuṣkadrākṣa) Raisins
Ayurveda praises dark colored grapes and raisins for their health enhancing qualities, often declaring it the best of all fruits. It is described in the texts as मधुर (madhura), sweet in taste, शीत (shīta), cooling, स्निग्ध (snigdha), moistening, मृदु (mṛḍu), soft and relaxing, and also a little heavy to digest. Raisins help calm vāta (the airy, drying force) and cool pitta (the fiery, heating force), bringing them both into balance. These are important properties in varṣa ṛtu, the rainy, late summer season.
Black and purple grapes and raisins are well known for their ability to relieve extreme thirst and burning sensations: that feeling that you have too much heat trapped in your body. They are also help promote good bowel movements, and ease burning urine. You find grape juice listed as an ingredient in Ayurvedic formulas for all kinds of lung conditions and dry cough.
When you gather the ingredients for this recipe, note that you will need dark raisins, not the golden ones.
Now for the spices that make this sweet coconut rice easy to digest, as well as fragrant.
लवंग (Lavanga), Clove
Cloves are tiny dried flower buds that grow high in tropical trees. For nearly two centuries, people have been chewing cloves for relief from painful cavities, gum conditions and bad breath. Cloves are probably most famous nowadays as an aromatic spice.
But their fragrance and sharp flavor are not the only reason for their presence the famous garam masāla spice mix that’s used in cooking rich, heavy food. Cloves are a great aid in digestion, especially for avoiding hyper-acidity. They also help us avoid having undigested food sitting in our stomach causing problems, and reduce the possibility of gas and wind forming later on.
The texts of Ayurveda describe cloves are being both kaṭu, pungent and tikta, bitter in taste, and cooling. At the same time they are लघु (laghu), light to digest, तीक्ष्ण (tīkṣṇa), sharp and quickly penetrating, and स्निग्ध (snighda), lubricating and softening. It’s an interesting combination of qualities that result in cloves being good to pacify both excess pitta, heat, and kapha, the earthy, watery force that can be both stabilizing and heavy. At the same time, it doesn’t disturb vāta, the airy, ever moving and destabilizing force, since cloves are somewhat snigdha, lubricating.
Their presence creates balance in this sweet dish, and stimulates our digestive fire so this delicious prasāda can be digested quickly and harmoniously. It’s not that the ingredients are so inherently hard to digest, but because this season challenges digestion in general.
केसर (Kesara), Saffron
The deep red threads of saffron and the golden hue they release, are deeply interwoven in in the spiritual, medicinal, culinary and cultural traditions of the Indian sub-continent and beyond. Saffron creates the color of auspiciousness and knowledge. At the same time, it has been a prized ingredient in the rich cuisine of kings, and valued by yogis because even in tiny quantities it promotes a calm, balanced and bright state of mind.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, saffron is pungent and bitter in taste, and has a hot potency. At the same time it is लघु (laghu), light to digest, and स्निग्ध (snigdha), a little oily and softening. It balances all three doṣas, vāta, pitta and kapha.
Saffron is a significant aid in good digestion, which is the most important reason it is part of this recipe, along with its auspiciousness.
एला (Elā), Cardamom
Cardamom is a delightful, fragrant spice. While it is great for helping food get digested properly and avoiding gas. It’s also an effective mouth freshener.
Ayurveda describes cardamom as मधुर (madhura) slightly sweet, कटु (kaṭu), pungent, in taste. It is उष्ण (uṣṇa) heating – though not excessively, and तीक्ष्ण (tīkṣṇa) penetrating. It calms imbalances in all three doṣas or forces within the body, though it should be taken in moderation in hot weather or when there is aggravated heat in the body.
How to Make Sweetened Coconut Rice – Nārali Bhāt
- 1 cup bhasmati rice
- 3/4 cup grated coconut (fresh or frozen and defrosted but not dried)
- 3/4 cup jaggery, grated
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
- 9-10 cloves
- 3-4 whole green cardamom pods
- 4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1/4 cup dark raisins
- (Optional) a few almonds
- Wash the rice thoroughly, then drain the water and set aside.
- Soak the saffron strands in 1 tbs hot water
- In a small pan, warm 1/2 tbs of ghee and saute the raisins for about 2 minutes until they puff up. Remove the raisins from the ghee and set them aside.
- In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt all the remaining ghee at a low heat. Add the cloves and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, until they puff up and become aromatic. Be careful not to let them burn.
- Add the washed rice and stir it well until all the grains are well coated with ghee. They will develop a sheen.
- Gently pour in the hot water and the saffron strands (with their water) and cardamom pods and stir. Then add the coconut milk.
- Turn up the heat a little and bring the rice to a boil.
- Cover the saucepan to capture the steam and turn the heat to low.
- Cook the rice until most of the water has been absorbed, keeping an eye that it doesn’t burn on the bottom.
- Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, melt the jaggery at a medium to low heat. When it has become liquid, add the grated coconut and stir well so they are thoroughly mixed.
- Add the coconut and jaggery mixture to the mostly cooked rice. Stir gently but thoroughly, taking care not to break the rice grains, and fluff up the rice.
- Cover the saucepan and cook at a low heat for 4 to 5 minutes more. By this time the last traces of water should be absorbed.
- Transfer the sweetened coconut rice to a serving bowl and top with the sautéed raisins. Some people like to add a few chopped almonds as well.
- Offer this bowl of sweetened coconut rice to the deity you worship, to your brother or loved one, then share with friends and family.