Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Peda is Pedagogical

Dry harvest-field of Aegilops sp.

Wheat harvest - Image via Wikipedia by Alvesgaspar

Jump to Peda Recipe

One other thing I’ve always loved about autumn is the holidays, which are, by far, my favorite.  Sure, winter has the popular holidays (Christmas, Chanukah, Yule, etc.) with the warm fuzzy togetherness, passing out of gifts, lots and lots of lights, chestnuts roasting on an open fire… that kind of thing.  And spring has all the cool fertility festivals (even Easter is about new life).  And summer is all barbecue and fireworks and sweltering heat and hanging out by the lake with a cold beer and good friends.

Autumn, however, is the culmination season.

It’s the time of year that our ancestors revered because it meant all their hard work on the farm was finally paid off.  Even today, when so many of us do not share the agrarian lifestyles of our ancestors, autumn is still a culmination season.  It’s the World Series and football season and hunting season.  It’s the end of vacation season.   We are wrapping up the fiscal and calendar year and so are retailers (our consumer culture is driven in part by “Black Friday” and “end of year clearance sales” that actually start in October).  In fact, it’s the November shopping that retailers count on all year.  And, of course, we are still planning the big feasts that bear a different meaning to us now than it did to our ancestors.

It’s also a season of prudence and preparation.  It’s canning and preserving and freezing.  We’re in the last quarter of tax season, sending kids off to school, and stocking up freezers and cabinets and coat closets for winter.

And, as the adage goes, of reaping what you sow.  Literally, for farmers.

I think the sense of warm fuzzy hope is greater this time of year than the postcardy winter days, because the harvest is in hand, all the riches are there.  Or not (think “the Grasshopper and the Ant“).

That’s because the autumn holidays are all about being grateful for what we have and hope that we will make it through the dark, cold, relentless winter.

The Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving with the Iroquois for this reason.  Pre-Christian Europeans celebrated variations of Halloween (in Celtic-based Wicca, we call it Samhain) for this reason.  Yom Kippur, in many ways, is about reaping what you’ve sewn in your actions (it’s an atonement holiday).  (I’d like to say Eid ul Fitr falls into this category, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough to make that analysis–and I’m sure there are many other holidays that I’m missing.  Forgive me.)

Diwali, the festival of lights, is a prime fes...

Traditional Diwali lanterns - Image by dhondusaxena

And, similarly, Hindus celebrate Diwali–a holiday that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of light conquering the darkness (it always falls on a new moon), and of the blessings of the harvest (it marks the final harvest; also, this is when the beautiful goddess Lakshmi is said to bless her worshipers with both spiritual and worldly riches).  People light up their houses with candles and electric lights and bright colors everywhere, forcing away the dark of night.  (The lights part of Diwali also has midwinter holiday parallels, but that adds to Diwali’s awesomeness, in my opinion.)  There is feasting and sharing sweets.

It’s a holiday of thanksgiving and hope.  And, considering that my husband just got a promotion, I could offer up a little thanksgiving and be hopeful that things keep going for the better.

In 2011, Diwali falls on October 26.  That’s today, if you weren’t checking your calendar.

Raja Ravi Varma's painting of Lakshmi, showing...

The Goddess Lakshmi (Image via Wikipedia - public domain)

To honor their tradition, I attempted to make a popular treat served in some parts of India during Diwali: Peda (pronounced pay-dah).  There are two ways to make peda:  on the stove or in the microwave (I got the recipe from a Hindu friend).  I tried the stove version, but I will share both recipes here.

Microwave Peda

Ingredients

  • 1 can condensed milk (15 oz)
  • 1 1/4 cup milk powder
  • 3 Tbsp butter or margarine
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder (or more to taste)*
*If you can’t find cardamom in your local grocery store, there are several retailers online where you can purchase them.  Or, alternatively, you can substitute for 1/2 teaspoon each of cloves, allspice, and ginger (but it won’t taste quite the same).
Directions
  1. Combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl.
  2. Microwave them for about 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. You want it to get to a slightly sticky consistency that will hold its shape.
  3. Roll 2 Tbsp at a time into balls and press down so they look like cookies.
  4. Decorate with cardamom powder, almond slivers, or pistachio pieces.
Dharwad pedha

This is what they should look like. - Image via Wikipedia by Pamri

Stove Top Peda

Ingredients

  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 9 cups sugar

Directions
  1. Pour the milk into a large saucepan and heat on medium-low, stirring continuously.  This may take about 15 minutes.
  2. When the milk thickens, add the sugar and cardamom.  Reduce the heat to low.  Keep stirring continuously, or the milk will burn.
  3. The mixture will eventually have a brownish color and will get sticky enough to hold its shape.  (This could take as long as 30 minutes.)  Remove from heat.
  4. Roll 2 Tbsp at a time into balls and press down so they look like cookies.
  5. Decorate with cardamom powder, almond slivers, or pistachio pieces.

I think I overcooked the mixture. It was bubbling a lot and so it was difficult to tell whether it had reached the right consistency. When it cooled a little was when I realized I'd overcooked it. So I emphasize the need for low heat.

When I made the peda (using the stove top recipe), I accidentally let the mixture get too solid, so they didn’t come out nearly as pretty.  They did taste very good, however, although on the sweet side.  I found that they went well with a cup of unsweetened Darjeeling tea, although they’d do well with a cup of chai as well.

Peda is Pedagogical

When I served the dish to my children, I turned it into a bit of a cultural and geography lesson.

They are already familiar with the goddess Lakshmi, so I explained that these were sweets that people served on a special day to honor her and her husband Vishnu.  And I explained that people celebrate the special day by lighting up as many lights as they can, much like Christmas lights in America.

I proceeded to show them on a map where India was (I’ve done this a few times before when I’ve prepared curries) and explained that this is where the food comes from and where the stories about Lakshmi and Vishnu originated.  And then I explained how people from India traveled to the US and even to Kenya, where my husband (their father) is from.
This led to toddler-level discussions on how people share the things that matter to them whenever they travel, and if someone they meet likes it, it becomes theirs, too.

This is how mine turned out. The flattened balls were on the crumbly side, but they still tasted yummy!

Starkitten has already declared that all the peda is hers.

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