On the special days when Patholi is being folded and steamed in the kitchens of coastal districts of Karnataka, the sweet aroma of fresh turmeric leaves fills up the homes. The oblong turmeric leaves exude a refreshingly sweet aroma when crushed between your fingers or added to rice or kheer. Nagarpanchami is one such day.
Nagarpanchami, also known as Nag Panchami in the rest of the country, is one of the main festivals celebrated in coastal Karnataka. It is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight in the month of Shravan.
Reliance on maale-nakshatra or the rain star (maale is rain in Kannada) is a common belief among the farming communities around Uttara Kannada and beyond. Traditionally, 12 stars are believed to bring rain, and Nag Panchami is marked by the arrival of the Ashlesha Nakshatra (one of the rain stars) marked by incessant rain lashing the verdant green coast.
The coastal districts are covered by thick forests and naturally, this area has rich wildlife and bird species. Reptiles are found in plenty. Monsoon is when the snake holes and burrows get inundated with water and the reptiles crawl out to seek shelter in gardens and often, in homes. People worship and welcome the snakes by celebrating the auspicious Nagarpanchami during this period.
Like other dishes, the food cooked in the region is heavily influenced by seasonal produce. Since fresh turmeric leaves are available in abundance around Nag Panchami, it inevitably makes its way into most of the dishes cooked during this season.
Patholi or Haldikolyanche Patholi, also known as Suli rotti in local parlance, is a sweet dish offered to the snakes on this day. The turmeric leaf cakes are made with rice batter flattened on the leaf. A filling of freshly grated coconut mixed with jaggery is stuffed into the rice dough that has been flattened on the leaf. These fragrant rice cakes are then sealed by wrapping the turmeric leaves and placed in a steamer.
How to make Patholi
Haldi leaves or turmeric leaves are known as arashina ele in Kannada, and grown in almost all the homes that can afford a patch of soil, along the Konkan coast. The leaves have a rich, sweet aroma, and also have varied health benefits.
Make the filling
Grated coconut and liquid jaggery (found mostly in Uttara Kannada district) are mixed and lightly fried until the mixture turns a golden brown in colour. You can also use regular jaggery in the Patholi recipe, and allow it to melt in the pan before adding the fresh coconut. (PS: Melting jaggery in a cast iron pan increases its iron content). Certain Konkani-style Patholi recipes directly mix in the jaggery instead of heating it.
Make the rice dough
Next, the dough is prepared with rice flour mixed with a small measure of warm water, and salt to taste. Some people may add some wheat flour, for its binding properties. This is kneaded into a soft dough and set aside.
The leaves are then washed and patted dry after which the dough/batter is evenly flattened on the inside of the leaf. The thinner the spread, the better the taste. A spoonful of the coconut and jaggery filling is spread along the centre or the midrib of the leaf.
The leaf is then slowly folded and slightly pressed on the edges to seal the filling. The folded leaves are then placed inside a steamer and cooked for 10 minutes.
You’ll know it’s done when the sweet aroma of turmeric leaves wafts from the steamer. Piping hot Patholi is usually served with ghee.
What is interesting is that separate patholis are prepared and served to the snakes along with milk. These are prepared without using salt in the batter because it is believed that salt repels a snake and thus has to be avoided in the food served to it.
Have I witnessed a snake feasting on patholis? Not really, but the aroma of the turmeric-flavoured Suli rotti brings back memories of the festival of Nagarpanchami, the incessant rain pounding the courtyard and the hot patholis I relished while watching mother make them during the monsoon.