IN THE COMMUNAL SPIRIT: Sikh Festival Celebrates Family and Food

(originally published in the spring 2005 issue of Flavours magazine)

By John Geary

Easter in Vancouver does not always involve hunting for eggs or eating the traditional roast ham or lamb. Baisakhi, a very popular East Indian springtime celebration, includes a parade, a cultural celebration – and plenty of food.

Originally a celebration of the spring harvest in the Punjab area, on March 30, 1699, Baisakhi took on greater importance to Sikhs. On that day, Guru Gobind Singh revealed his concept of the ‘Khalsa’ or Sikh spiritual brotherhood. Sikhs celebrate the birth of the Khalsa every Baisakhi (also spelled Vaisakhi) Day on or around April 13.

The Vancouver, Sikh community marks the occasion with a large, traffic-stopping parade that begins and finishes at the main temple or Gurdwara, at SE Marine Drive and Ross Street. Parade organizers try to schedule it during Easter weekend. That is not always possible though, when Easter takes place in March, like it does this spring. This spring’s parade is set for April 16.

The five-kilometre parade takes five hours to complete. The number five is important because when Guru Gobind Singh introduced the Khalsa, he baptized five followers, proclaiming them to be Panj Pyare, or “Five Beloved Ones.” He said whenever and wherever five baptized Sikhs come together, the Guru would be present.

“In our parade, we have five beloved ones at the front of the parade, to symbolize the original five,” says Jarnail Bhandal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society based in the Ross Street temple.

The parade includes 15 floats showcasing religious and cultural aspects of Sikh society.

“By including a cultural aspect, we get more involvement in the parade, something I don’t think we’d get focusing only on religion,” says Bhandal.

The cultural floats include demonstrations of bhangra and giddha dances. Bhangra is a vigorous Punjabi folk dance, traditionally done by men, and a common sight in northern Indian villages every harvest. Women perform a giddha dance.

Like any festive occasion, food, or perhaps more accurately, the sharing of food, plays an important part in the day’s activities. Sharing, or Vand Ke Chakna, is one of the three core values taught by Guru Nanak, Sikhism’s founder. This tenet urges followers to support the larger community by sharing the fruits of their labour with others. Throughout the day and following the parade, people gather to share food in the temple basement, celebrating the day communally rather than as separate family units.

Much Sikh food is vegetarian, as traditional Khalsa vows include abstinence from meat, tobacco, alcohol, and other intoxicants. Not all modern-day Sikhs are strict vegetarians, though.

“We are not prohibited from eating any kind of meat, but it is a tradition not to serve it in Sikh temples,” says Bhandal. “Only vegetarian food is served there.

“If we do eat meat, the animals have to be killed instantly and painlessly so there is no cruelty.”

While sharing food has always been, and will always be an important part of Baisakhi, sharing food is just one aspect of the sharing aspect of this annual event.

“The main purpose is to celebrate our heritage and try to share our pride and prosperity with the general community,” says Bhandal.

RECIPES:

Here, for you enjoyment is one traditional East Indian vegetarian dish and one meat dish.

Mutter Panir

This dish is a very traditional East Indian vegetarian dish that uses light seasoning, so the curry flavour is not overpowering. You can substitute other vegetables for the peas, if you like.

Ingredients:

2 medium onions, peeled and sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup (60 mL) ghee (clarified butter) or oil

1 tsp (5 mL) fresh grated ginger

½ tsp (2.5 mL) turmeric

½ tsp (2.5 mL) jeera or cumin

½ tsp (2.5 mL) chopped green chiles

1 tsp (5 mL) salt

½ lb (225 g) fresh or frozen green peas

1 lb (450 g) panir (Indian curd cheese), cut into 1-nch cubes (buy at East Indian store or make at home – see below)

fresh dhania or coriander

Panir

5 cups (1.2 litre) milk

1 cup (250 mL) unflavoured yogurt

2 tsp (10 mL) lemon juice

1-½ tsp (7.5 mL) salt

Directions

Panir

Pour milk into saucepan and bring to a boil over low heat. Remove from heat, cool to lukewarm. Beat in the yogurt, lemon juice and salt. Leave in a warm place at approximately 98 F (37 C) for 12 hours.

Strain the curds and whey through cheesecloth placed over a large bowl., allowing the whey to drip through. Leave for 30 minutes, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

Form the cloth into a rectangle around the cheese, then set under a heavy object. Leave for 3 hours, then remove weight and cloth, and cut into cubes. Serve it raw, fried or use it in a dish like mutter panir.

Makes 1 lb (450 g)

Main dish

Fry panir in ghee or oil until brown. Remove with slotted spoon, drain and set aside.

Cook onion in ghee or oil over medium heat until it just starts to turn brown. Add garlic and ginger, cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add turmeric, chili peppers and salt. Cook 5-10 minutes.

Add peas and panir, cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure not to break up the cubes of cheese.

Sprinkle with fresh green coriander or dhania then serve.

Serves 8-10.

Recipe courtesy of Kewal Pabla, Himalaya Restaurant, 6587 Main Street, Vancouver, B.C.

Lamb Korma

This is a very sweet-tasting dish, the seasoning is not strong or overpowering. It is very popular in northern India, where the Punjab is located.

Ingredients:

¾ cup (175 mL) unflavoured yogurt

2 tsp (10 mL) turmeric

3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

3 lbs (1.5 kg) cooked lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

½ cup (100 g) ghee (clarified butter) or oil

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

1 tsp (5 mL) tomato paste

1 tsp (5 mL) ground ginger

½ tsp (2.5 mL) cinnamon

5 whole cloves

5 whole green cardamoms

1 tbsp(15 mL) crushed coriander seeds

1 tsp (5 mL) cumin

½ tsp (2.5 mL) chilli powder

1 tsp (5 mL) salt

1 tsp (5 mL) pepper

1-½ tsp (7.5 mL) shredded coconut

1 tsp (5 mL) roasted almonds

1 tsp (5 mL) roasted cashews

Directions:

Blend yogurt, turmeric and 1 garlic clove in a food processor. Pour over meat to marinate, leaving in refrigerator overnight.

Heat the ghee or oil in a heavy pan. Add the onion and remaining garlic, frying gently until just lightly brown. Add tomato paste, spices (these spices in combination are called garam masala), salt and pepper and cook for another 3 minutes.

Add the meat with marinade and coconut, cover tightly with lid and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Scatter the almonds and cashews over the dish, then serve.

You can also make this without cooking the lamb first, although you will need to increase the cooking time slightly, about 20 to 30 minutes. Even with increased cooking time, the lamb may not be as tender as it would be if roasted first. This dish is a good one to make if you have leftover roast lamb.

Serves 4.

Recipe courtesy of Surinder Singh, All India Sweets & Restaurant, 6505 Main Street, Vancouver, B.C.