Rituparna Roy talks to mothers, grandmothers and nutritionists around the country as she documents prenatal dietary traditions across communities in India.
“You can eat everything, but avoid shell fish and MSG,” my OB-GYN prescribed, at my first pregnancy scan. Advice poured in from all quarters: what to eat and what to avoid, but I was blindsided by hunger and an insatiable yearning for the food I grew up eating.
I craved freshwater fish like rohu and tangra, the greens from our backyard, and Maa’s gurer payesh, or kheer made with date palm jaggery. A healthy and nutritious diet was key, and eating out was not an option. Before things could get worse, I flew home to find solace in my mother’s cooking.
Back when my mother-in-law was expecting her first child, her mother-in-law would lovingly prepare a breakfast of varan-bhaat (Maharashtrian-style daal-chawal) with a dollop of homemade ghee, to start the day before catching the Mumbai local to work. Her lunch dabba would typically be chapatis and usal, prepared with onions, garlic, traditional spices and sprouted beans like moong, hyacinth or moth beans. The varan-bhaat would keep her full until lunch, and the usal provide protein, crucial for the developing baby.
“After delivery, my mother cooked a lot of seafood for me,” she tells me. As CKP Maharashtrians (Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu), well known for their affinity toward fish and meat, it wasn’t long before crabs and bombil made an appearance on the table. “My mother’s recipes were simple: she would fry some onion and garlic in homemade ghee, add dry coconut and lots of black pepper before putting the crabs in, to make curry.” Breast-feeding mothers must keep themselves warm with heat-inducing foods so that the newborn does not catch a cold from the mother. This was happily accepted by my mother-in-law who, it turns out, loved the peppery notes of this curry.
In times before pre-natal scans and dieticians were available, expectant mothers relied on advice from older women in the family. Mothers and mothers-in-laws, aunts and house help, were experts in the field — their repertoire of healing recipes and medicinal cures vigilantly passed down to each new generation. My paternal aunt who was born, raised and married in east Pakistan (now Bangladesh), remembers being fed a preparation of homemade ghee, ginger and nolen gur to fight post-partum infections. Warm and sweet, with top notes of ginger, it was easy to enjoy this delicious mixture.
Much of India’s food traditions and customs during (and after) pregnancy revolve around socio-cultural and geographical factors. Here in Mumbai, the coastline provides plenty of fresh seafood, including crabs. Further east, expectant mothers are advised freshwater fish for their high nutrition content. Food researcher and historian Pritha Sen says, “In Bengal, pregnant women are typically advised choto maach, or smaller varieties of fish, as they are more nutritious. Also maagur or cat fish, known to purify the blood.” In some homes, women are also advised kaalo jeere baata — a paste made of crushed nigella seeds, with ghee and rice. “The use of nigella seeds is common in Bengali cooking, and is known to heal the uterus, and increase the production of breast milk.”
In Kashmir, a prenatal diet is rooted in foods that are local, and cooked everyday. As voracious meat eaters, lamb is staple in the Valley. Shazia Manzoor, a Srinagar-based bank employee and mother of two, was advised plenty of lamb meat in the form of soups, stews and Wazwan specialities like rogan josh, when she was expecting. Local cheese, sewai kheer, and the comforting, sweet phirni, were some of the local delicacies she was given, post-delivery.
But today, young mothers often find abiding by traditional diets a challenge, given the time constraints of a full-time career. Chef and proprietor of Theobroma, Kainaz Messman’s diet remained largely unchanged both during and after pregnancy. “I ate everything. But while I was breastfeeding, I was fed a lot of badam pak, a delicious Parsi almond and mava fudge, generally considered a nutritious snack, packed with energy,” she says. Not to forget ravo, Parsi semolina cooked in sweetened milk and sprinkled with dry fruits. “Ravo is supposed to ease back pain and stimulate milk production,” she says.
The restaurant world may only recently have embraced the benefits of eating seasonal, respecting the weather and produce, but unsurprisingly, the seasons have always played a role in traditional prenatal diets. “Maharashtrian Brahmins prepare nachni cha ambil, a cooling drink using finger millet, if the mother has birthed in the summer. More bajra and jaggery if she has birthed in the winter. Basically, foods that are high in calcium and iron to aid lactation, and keep the body warm, and digestion easy,” Saee Koranne-Khandekar, the food consultant and cookbook author, tells me. The diet is altered as soon as the new mother comes home with her baby. “She is encouraged to eat well, and eat before the rest of the family so that she gets hot meals on time. Leftovers are absolutely forbidden,” she adds.
Mumbai-based food writer and consultant Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal remembers her Gujarati naani preparing raab after her delivery. “She would stir a tablespoon of semolina in one and half cups of milk, with sugar, ghee and cardamom powder – or mix jaggery with wholewheat flour, nutmeg and ghee. I was told it is a digestif to eventually induce sleep, which is crucial for new mums who are sleep deprived and exhausted,” says the mother of two. Rushina was also fed gaund ka laddoos, made of natural gum found extensively in the western and northern parts of the country, while breast-feeding, thanks to her Garhwali mother-in-law.
Zahabia Motorwala stayed with her mother for 40 days after her delivery, and was fed a variety of sweets in the form of halwas and churma. Bajra and jowar rotis were a staple, with soups made of nalli or lamb bone marrow, and a special mukhwas. “Made with dried dates, ajwain, dry roasted coconut, lots of dry fruits and rock salt, I would snack on it all day as a mouth freshener,” says Zahabia, who belongs to the Dawoodi Bohra community. The halwa she tells me is called beda mesoob, a speciality prepared with eggs, sugar, ghee and dry fruits. The churma-like malida, a festive delicacy is made from wholewheat flour that is first kneaded with semolina, jaggery and ghee, then deep fried, powdered and mixed with dry fruits to give it a sand-like texture. Just like Rushina, she was given lots of raab; a culinary tell-tale, as the Bohras hail from Gujarat too.
And as the sun goes down over the Arabian Sea in the coastal state of Goa, locals make merry with Vinho do Porto or the classic port wine. “Apart from typical Goan fish curries, usually with Lady fish and mullets, I remember there was always one glass of port wine reserved for me after dinner,” says Kavita Kane, a Pune-based journalist and author who belongs to the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community in Goa.
Down south in Tamil Nadu, expectant mothers are given a teaspoon of sesame oil with roundels of dried ginger and jaggery, for smooth bowel movement before going to bed. Usha Hariharaputhran, a 62-year-old homemaker, gave her pregnant daughter plain rice porridge or kanji to keep her energised. Post-delivery it was kashayam – a bitter herbal decoction made with medicinal herbs that aid muscle recovery and keep illness at bay. “Kashayam is boiled and reduced over several hours; a new mother has to drink it daily for a month.”
In a country where pre-natal sex detection is illegal, women use food to guess the gender of the baby at godh bharai functions (or baby showers). At Bengali ceremonies, a young boy is made to sit with the expectant mother, feeding her payesh or kheer to ensure the baby is male; Maharashtrians play a game during dohale jevan where she is offered a choice of two sweets, hidden. One contains a male name, another a female name. “For instance, barfi and jilebi are female, while pedha and modak are male. The sweet she chooses is believed to reveal the sex of the baby,” laughs Saee.
As I prepare to return to Mumbai next month, my mother-in-law scours the fish markets of Versova for fresh crabs and bombil. With a little luck, the peppery notes of her crab curry will be as comforting to me in my first days as a mother as they were to her.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based freelance features writer. She spends her free time cooking, travelling and obsessing over her balcony garden. She can be found on Instagram @rituparna_r
Banner image credit: Saee Koranne Khandekar
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