March 7th: Holi

Your veil of the saffron colour
makes my eyes drunk.
The jasmine wreath you wove me
thrills to my heart like praise.

From ‘The Gardener' by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Today is the Hindu spring festival of 'Holi' which is celebrated on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna. You might have seen the pictures of people in India throwing brightly coloured powders over each other to celebrate the feast.

Although Holi has a religious connection it’s really about celebrating the return of colour after the dark and monochrome winter season. The first literary reference is in the Sanskrit drama ‘Ratnavali’ written in the seventh century but Holi is older than that, probably originating way back in the Vedic beginnings of Hinduism in the Indian Iron Age. There are variations in the way Holi is celebrated across India but bonfires are popular and cleaning your house for spring is recommended! In some areas music plays an important part but everywhere it is colour that is the main characteristic of the festivities.

And there’s a reason for all those colours. Traditional Āyurvedic belief is that in spring when the weather is changeable, people are particularly vulnerable to illness. (That made me think of ‘Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out’ I never knew whether that meant the month or the blossom, I only knew that I would have to carry on wearing my hateful liberty bodice for a few more weeks.) In India the throwing of coloured powders over your friends and neighbours has a prophylactic significance, the colours being traditionally made from the medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic practitioners.

There is a special drink for Holi called thandai, which contains almonds, pistachios, rose petals or rosewater and traditionally, bhang – that’s cannabis to you and me. For coloured water, palash flowers are boiled and soaked over night to produced yellow water, which also had medicinal properties. Palash blossom thought of in the same way as snowdrops – both a herald and a celebration of spring.

The excitement of spring means that Holi festivities are marked by a relaxation of the norms of polite behaviour, strangers celebrate together regardless of caste, age and gender and I guess all that thandai helps too.

One of the main colours at Holi is of course saffron - and for throwing, its cheaper substitutes - turmeric and safflower. I love saffron - everything about it, its history, cultivation and folklore. I went to school with someone called Susan Croker – a croker being an ancient cultivator of saffron which is supposed to have been smuggled into Britain in the hollowed out staff of a mediaeval pilgrim.  It’s still commonly used in Cornwall where saffron loaf and saffron buns are sold in every bakery and it's worth buying the very best, the Spanish sort in little perspex boxes is the one I buy when I can find it.

Saffron has been used in Āyurvedic medicine since the very earliest time – an early treatise of 500BC mentions it and recent research reinforces its utility as an anti depressant. Nicholas Culpeper in his herbal of 1653 recommends that you do not eat too much saffron least you die of ‘immoderate laughter’. That seems to me like quite a good way to go.

So let’s make something that spreads a little sunshine.

Shrikand is brilliant desert after a searing curry and violets are one of the joys of spring in Cornwall. I bought two bunches of Parma violets today and they are smiling at me as I write. This is a Madhur Jaffrey recipe, as ever I've tinkered a bit.

Shrikand with crystallised violets
(for 2-3)
450g carton full fat yoghurt
1/4 tsp saffron filaments + 2 tsp warm milk
2 desertspoons of icing sugar
1 cardamom pod
Shelled crushed pistachio nuts (unsalted)
Crystallised violets - see below.

Strain the yoghurt through a j-cloth or muslin for 3 hours. Soak the saffron in the milk for one hour. Combine the yoghurt and saffron milk ( keep the filaments in) and add the sugar to taste.
Crush the cardamom seeds as fine as you can and add them to the yoghurt. Taste and add more cardamom or more sugar as you wish. Chill then decorate with the pistachios and violets.

One of the most useful things in my kitchen drawer is a fine paint brush. Whisk an egg white until just broken up but not all froth. Take the green sepals off the violets and paint the petals back and front with egg white then sprinkle with caster sugar. Leave in a dry place to harden. Totally edible and delicious.

I'm just mad about Saffron.
And Saffron's mad about me.
I'm just mad about Saffron.
She's just mad about me.
They call me Mellow Yellow,
Quite rightly.
They call me Mellow Yellow,
Quite rightly.
They call me Mellow Yellow.

From ‘Mellow Yellow’ (1966) by Donovan Philips Leitch (b 1946)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful account of Holi. I makes me think that Quakers also should have a festival - where I hope pleasure and the relaxing of boundaries would occur.

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

If Holi is all about celebrating the new season and colour, your photo is the perfect picture. I was looking at it for ages before I read your post because it was just so pretty! Lovely post too of course!

Mary Beth said...

Hi Liz,
Thanks to this lovely and informative post, I knew what the BBC reporter on our local "National Public Radio" stations was referring to the other day when he was talking about Holi. The sad thing is that people are being sickened this year by very cheaply made powder dyes that have suspect ingredients in them. Very distressing to hear.

BTW, how is it that in the photo the yogurt isn't yellow from the saffron? Or was it just the lighting? I have only in recent years come to use saffron even a tiny bit more when I first baked saffron buns for Saint Lucy's day. Oh my goodness, that stuff is amazing! I have been keeping an eye out for it now, pricing it and picking up tiny glass vials when the price seems right. Thanks for the tip about only using Spanish saffron. That is helpful. BTW, since saffron is usually so well-sealed, do you know how long it keeps left unopened? And then once it's opened?

You'll have to keep me posted about Cousin Matthew sightings! Such a charmer. How cool is that to have had him in your neck of the woods?

I am busy planning the menu for my St. Joseph Day dinner. I have a lovely collection of friends that gather with us every year. Such a nice excuse to do something festive smack dab in the middle of Lent.

All the best,
Your Namesake (an honor!)

Liz Woods said...

Thank you all! I'm away having a little festival of my own so greetings from a still wet and chilly Bavaria. I think as long as it's tightly sealed saffron keeps for quite a while, but use your nose, eventually the lovely earthy scent will fade. The lighting made the shrikand look paler than it was, but it was still only a pale banana colour. Powdered saffron would make it more yellow, but I've never used it. I did a post about St Joseph's feasts last year Mary-Beth, look back and you will find it. And..King Chalres I guess all this feast and festival stuff is not very Quakerly to be honest, but then as my Friend Jane says- she and I are naughty Quakers..