Festive Food Unlocked
This project provided opportunities for over 40 women of diverse South Asian Heritage in the Kingston area to gradually re-engage in a programme of in-person activities following long periods of isolation during the lockdowns and restrictions in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We shared our experiences of celebrating our diverse cultural festivals during this uncertain time, when we had to rely on social media to wish friends and family, share family recipes and reconnect with nature through planting.
Baisakhi is a spring harvest festival celebrated in Punjab on 13 April and marks the start of the solar new year. It is a day of thanksgiving for a rich harvest and praying for future prosperity. The day also marks the birth of Sikhism, in 1699.
People visit temples and gurdwaras where special services take place. Festivities include taking part in outdoor events with bhangra music and dance, browsing stalls selling handicrafts. Traditional foods and sweets such as suji halwa, jalebi, chole bhature and chaat are enjoyed.
“During lockdown, the day started with a visit to my local Gurdwara to pray. We waited in a queue to go in, with our masks on and keeping a social distance. We went in through one door, prayed and then came out through another door. Normally we would have eaten the langar (food cooked and served by the volunteers) with other worshippers, instead we were given packed food and prasad to take home.”
Eid al Fitr
The three-day celebration of Eid al Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, signifies the completion of the holy month of Ramadan. It is also known as ‘Sweet Eid’, because of the variety of sweet dishes eaten on this occasion including phirni, sheer khurma, gaajar halwa and bakhlava.
Eid is a time of thanksgiving and charity. It is a time of joy, of wearing new or best clothes, of being with family and friends, sharing foods and good wishes. A special day for children who receive presents or the traditional eidi.
“Growing up in India, where my family owned a rice mill, I remember my father would prepare grilled meats on hot coals and there would be a selection of vegetables from local farms to compliment the homemade biryani. Later warm phirni would be served for all to enjoy. Even now I still cook with my family’s recipe.”
Eid al Adha
The 4-day celebration of Eid al Adha, the feast of sacrifice marks the completion of the Hajj and is the most important event in the Islamic calendar.
It is also known as the ‘Salty Eid’ because of the variety of savoury dishes enjoyed which include seekh kebabs, lamb biryani, tava fried fish, and kofta curry.
It is traditionally celebrated with the symbolic sacrifice of an animal, the meat is shared amongst family, friends and the needy. The day is enjoyed visiting and receiving family and friends.
“Eid during lockdown was very different because my husband and I were isolating and keeping our distance from each other. We ate some dates for breakfast, then we prayed at home. I felt sad not being able to go to the Mosque for my Eid prayers. We had a late lunch of homemade lamb biryani and sevyia.”
Diwali is a 5-day festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. Homes are lit up with diyas or candles. Entrances to homes are decorated with rangoli designs.
People wear new clothes, exchange presents and enjoy special foods that include mathia, suwari, ghughara and ladoo. Fireworks and sparklers are enjoyed with family and friends. Each of the 5 days has a significance and is celebrated with different festive foods.
“During lockdown, we followed the priest leading the prayers on Zoom. Our children, who live nearby visited for a short while and stayed in the garden. Normally we would have celebrated by ordering in some food but this time everything was home cooked, using many ingredients grown at home, including curry leaves and methi.”
Christmas is a festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated on 25 December. The meal eaten varies according to regional cuisines and local traditions.
In many parts of the world, particularly former British colonies, the meal shared has some connection with the English Christmas dinner including roast turkey, bread sauce, Christmas pudding and mince pies.
“The lockdown dampened the Christmas spirit, we just met in our bubble with Mum coming over. We had Christmas dinner together, a roast dinner with a pudding. It was lovely to eat together after such a very long time.”
Lohri is celebrated on 13 January and marks the end of the winter season and is one of the most prominent events in the Punjabi calendar. The harvest of sugar cane and Rabi crops are celebrated.
It is celebrated primarily by Sikhs and Hindus from the Punjab, it is celebrated around a bonfire where people give offerings of popcorn, peanuts and rayveri and sing Lohri songs and dance to the rhythm of the dhol. Traditionally a meal of sarson da saag with makki di roti is enjoyed with a glass of lassi.
On a bride’s first Lohri, she is presented with clothes and jewellery by her in-laws and on a new born’s first Lohri, the child and mother both receive gifts.
“I remember my younger brother’s first Lohri, he was only 5 months old. It was a great occasion as he was the first son after 6 daughters. Family and friends gave shagan and enjoyed the feast. There was so much laughter, singing and dancing around the bonfire. I enjoyed my mum’s kheer.”
Makar Sankranti is a pan-Indian solar festival, it marks the start of the longer days and shorter nights. It is a time when crops have been harvested and the hard work in the fields is almost over.
A time to socialise with family and friends, share food with the animals and donate to charity. In Gujarat it is also known as the Kite festival, celebrated with sesame seed ladoos, jaggery, millet khichdi and pakoras.
“Back home, in India, we used to make ghugara and offer it to a calf that would visit our street and give money to charity. We spent the rest of the day flying kites. During lockdown we improvised using ingredients that were at home and made sesame seed ladoos.”
The two-day festival of Pongal is celebrated in South India and by Sri Lankan Tamils, giving thanks for a generous harvest. It indicates the end of the farming season. The farmers also perform puja to the earth for giving good crops.
Pongal translates as ‘to boil’ and is also the name given to the sweet milk rice dish prepared for this festival, in a specially decorated pot. Other festive foods include jalebi, murukku and vadai.
The second day is dedicated to the oxen for assisting the farmers. The animals are adorned with garlands and multi coloured beads.
“I recall as a child when we lived in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, making Pongal outside our home, and celebrating the festival with my parents, sisters and brother by lighting sparklers and firecrackers. Now living in England, I make Pongal indoors using the kitchen cooker. Each year, I continue this tradition and it reminds me of those good times with my family.”
The festival of Holi marks the arrival of spring. On the eve of the festival, people light bonfires to ward off evil spirits.
Wheat sheaves, coconut and green chickpeas are thrown into bonfires and whole wheat or corn is cooked in matkis and enjoyed the next day. Other festive foods include gujiya, coconut, popcorn and potato and peas curry.
People of all ages spray each other with coloured water and powder and take part in lively processions.
“My favourite memory of Holi is having Mum’s homemade gujiya and leaving the house in the morning with bags full of powdered colours, to join our friends. We threw colours on one another and on passers-by. By the end of the day our mother couldn’t distinguish us from our friends as we were all completely covered in colours.”