Commonly known as the Festival of Colors, Holi is celebrated throughout India by people of every conceivable stratum. It’s a national holiday that originated as a spring harvest festival and this year will be celebrated on March 27. Although it’s associated with several Hindu legends, Holi is considered a secular holiday by most.
Anjali Kamra is a Kolkata (Calcutta) native and St. Louis resident who revels in celebrating Holi with her family and friends each year. She’s the founder and designer of a clothing and accessory company called Rungolee (a modified spelling of rangoli, which are symbolic paintings of intricate Indian patterns on a courtyard floor or front door). Though Kamra has long lived far from the holiday’s source, her celebrations are carried out with fewer modifications than you might think.
Holi is a two-day affair, with a bonfire on the first night that many say is meant to commemorate the fiery demise of an ancient king’s evil sister. Her name was Holika, and thus holi means “burning” in Hindi. The day after the bonfire, Kamra recalls, “we [would] all dress in white and … spend the morning spraying each other with pichkaris (syringe-like water pistols) full of colored water, rubbing dry color on each other’s faces and dunking people in a large tub full of colored water.”
After a thorough scrubbing and a change of clothes revelers ready themselves for the festival’s final event: a big garden party with lots of delicious food. Because India is massive and diverse, the foods associated with Holi vary from region to region, but one thing remains constant: Tradition dictates that sweets and desserts are prominently featured. At Kamra’s house, this gives her teenaged daughter a welcome excuse to make chocolate cake and brownies to serve alongside traditional kheer, a thin rice pudding. “We like to mix it up,” Kamra says.
Other traditional sweets associated with Holi include gulab jamun, milky dough balls that are fried and soaked in syrup that’s often rose-scented, and mishti doi, a yogurt-based dessert. Kamra explains mishti doi as “a mix of sweet and sour, flavored with saffron. It’s a hung curd – you take the yogurt and strain out all the water so it becomes coagulated, like pudding or custard.” It’s a dish for which Kolkata is so famous that “everyone who comes to Kolkata takes it back home on the plane,” says Kamra.
Kamra’s hometown sits on the banks of the Hugli River, a tributary of the Ganga (Ganges) that empties into the Bay of Bengal; the area’s abundant waterways make fish central to Bengali cuisine. Kamra recalls feasting on “fresh fish bought in the morning, dal puri (fried bread stuffed with spiced lentils) and eggplant cooked with panch puran (a blend of five spices).”
One of Kamra’s Holi must-makes is a fish curry from her mother’s recipe file that she says is “very much a Kolkata thing. The pungent mustard taste is very unusual, and it’s great with plain white rice.” The eggplant curry she serves at Holi is also one of her mother’s recipes, though it’s become one of Kamra’s signature dishes. In addition, she’ll serve stir-fried okra with potatoes and, in a nod to her time in Mumbai (Bombay), a classic street food called Bombay pau bhaji, a saucy vegetable masala served on soft, freshly butter-toasted rolls. Here in the States, she uses dinner rolls or even hamburger buns. She says, “The key is to rub a stick of butter on a pan and then toast the bread in that butter.”
Supermarkets are increasingly common in India, but many shoppers still make the rounds of their neighborhood green grocers, fish vendors and sweet shops. Home cooks may also pluck their produce from handcarts pushed down residential streets by wiry men who plod along, barking out what’s on offer – often staples like onions and tomatoes. Regardless of the source, quality is always top of mind. Kamra says, “I remember my dad going to buy the meat and fish himself, standing over and watching to make sure he got the best stuff.”
Kamra does much of her shopping at supermarkets, but for specialty ingredients like spices and Indian vegetables, she favors Global Foods Market in Kirkwood. The store’s country-by-country layout also suits the way she cooks. “I like trying an ingredient from another culture in my cooking and seeing how they go together,” she says. “Sometimes it’s terrible and sometimes it works, but if you don’t play, you don’t know.”
Like many experienced home cooks, Kamra relies on her instincts when spicing her dishes, but for anyone who’s serious about cooking Indian food, she recommends having cumin, coriander, chile powder, turmeric and lots of ginger and garlic on hand. If you want to experiment with the aforementioned Bengali spice mix panch puran, it’s composed of equal amounts of five seeds – cumin, black mustard, fennel, nigella and fenugreek – heated in oil to release their essences before vegetables and fish are added.
Holi celebrations typically include extended family members, but since Kamra’s are all still in India, she’ll invite a mix of Indian and American friends to join her immediate family. Just as in India, she’ll spend days “setting the table, doing the flowers, getting the house ready for friends and family to come over.” To welcome her guests and keep color front and center, Kamra will make a large rangoli and place it on the floor just inside her front door.
Kamra sometimes assembles her rangoli on a platter, upending tradition and making the decoration portable. To keep the color theme going, she’ll “set the whole table with little plates of rangoli.” Weather permitting, the meal will take place outside, which is also where she and her family (and her more adventurous guests) will fling colors at each other, which is called “playing Holi.”
There are at least two explanations of this tradition involving the young Lord Krishna and his female cowherd friends. Regardless of what celebrants believe, Krishna’s reputation for mischief gives everyone a license to let loose.
The color play also has a leveling effect. Because everyone’s in white, Kamra says, “it makes it very democratic, like everyone’s one. It’s not about the clothes you’re wearing. It’s just about having fun.” And that might be the best reason of all to celebrate Holi.
HOLI LUNCH MENU
Watermelon and Watercress Salad – A refreshing salad tossed with cilantro, ponzu sauce and chile-lime dressing
Okra-Potato Stir-fry – A Punjabi specialty
Bombay Pau Bhaji – A delicious mash of potatoes and buttery vegetables served with naan
Eggplant in Coconut Milk – From the southern coast of India
Mustard Fish Curry – Cod in a Bengal curry
Boondi Raita – A cumin-flavored dip made with small chickpea fritters
Kheer – Indian rice pudding