Joy, Love, and Abundance: Why I’m Making “Seven Vegetables” for Diwali This Year (of All Years)
Diwali is tomorrow (November 14) and I will be, for the first time, making sata bhajyun (“seven vegetables”), a traditional Diwali dish from Sindh, from the southeastern corner of Pakistan. During the pandemic, I’ve turned towards making the dishes of my ancestral cuisine, from loli, a flatbread, for breakfast, to sai bhaji, a dal and lentil stew, for dinner.
I rejected many of these foods, as children of immigrants often do in an attempt to become more “American.” They were boring, like sai bhaji, which we ate at least twice a week, and utilitarian, like seyal maani, day-old rotis stewed in a tomato-onion masala. Yet now, these are the very foods that are comforting to me. I spend pandemic evenings, after my daughter has gone to bed, reading Sindhi food blogs and community cookbooks, watching YouTube videos, and browsing Instagram for recipes and inspiration. Boring and utilitarian is what I now crave, and, like many, I’ve sought — and found — comfort and stability in the kitchen in times of such deep uncertainty.
It seemed perfect, then, to make this one-pot, mixed vegetable dish which is always assembled as an offering to Lakshmi on the night of the new moon. She’s the goddess of wealth and good fortune — which is often interpreted quite literally — but I also consider her as the goddess of joy, love, and abundance, especially in these times. (I’m not religious but Diwali is an exception. It’s a tradition that I can’t let go.) We usually celebrate Diwali with friends and family, welcoming visitors with tea and sweets or reveling in others’ homes. This year we can’t do that, but this dish will signify that closeness and bounty. It’s a generous dish, says Sohna Jaisinghani, a nonagenarian home cook in Mumbai. “[The symbolism] is to offer everything to Lakshmi, and in return be blessed with everything,” she says. “There should not be anything missing from one’s life.”
Mixed vegetable curries are common in many South Asian cuisines, across language communities and faiths, but sata bhajyun is specifically a Sindhi Hindu dish. Sindhi food is a lesser-known South Asian sub-cuisine, and it’s rarely found outside home kitchens. My grandparents were born in Sindh, but in 1947 when the state became part of the newly-formed Pakistan after gaining independence from the British, they, like many Hindu Sindhis, headed to India across a hastily-drawn border in one of the largest and bloodiest mass movements in human history.
The cuisine continues to straddle two countries — Pakistan and India — but refuses to identify with either, writes Maryam Jillani in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper. “Sindhi food [is] influenced by Central Asian culinary traditions [and] certainly has strains of Mughal cuisine, [but] it is distinctive,” she says. “Despite the rich and accessible flavors of Sindhi food, it has not found its way to Pakistani or Indian mainstream cuisine.” Sindhi food is also beloved in the diaspora — my parents participated in a second scattering, as they immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, a decade during which so many migrants from Asia landed on American shores — and the diaspora remains allegiant to those traditional foods, as many exiled communities do.
The seven vegetables used in sata bhajyun include crunchy and fibrous lotus stem, which is featured prominently in Sindhi cuisine, and taro. According to Sapna Ajwani, founder of Sindhi Gusto, a London-based pop-up restaurant that specializes in Sindhi cuisine, sata bhajyun must also include kachri, a variety of wild melon native to Sindh and nearby Rajasthan, India. It’s “sour, slightly bitter, with a cucumber-y texture,” she says. Ajwani reconstitutes dehydrated kachri for her Diwali sata bhajyon; even in Mumbai, home to the largest Hindu Sindhi diaspora in India, she cannot access the fresh vegetable. “Without kachri, there is no sata bhajyon,” she says.
That being said, lotus root, taro, and kachri aren’t always easy to procure, even for me, a cook in New Jersey who has many Asian immigrant and Asian American markets nearby. I like to play in the kitchen. I often draw inspiration from the ingredients I harvest from my own backyard and buy from farmers markets around the region. Winter squashes, pumpkins, and greens like kale and Swiss chard are abundant this time of year, and I’ll incorporate them into my mix. Purists will balk at my substitutions, but I’ll stay true to the spirit of the dish: “Seven” is an auspicious number to many Hindus, and I’ll only use seven vegetables. Sata bhajyon is also made without onions and garlics, as alliums are verboten in foods used as religious offerings, and I’ll do the same.
While recipes for sata bhajyun, also known as chitti kuni, can be found online, as well as in independently published cookbooks, including in The Sindhi Kitchen by prolific Indian cookbook writer Aroona Reejhsinghani, these recipes are preserved in home kitchens like mine. I didn’t grow up with this dish; I came to it via a WhatsApp message from a family friend. Mastering foods that I once turned away from and trying to claim, as best I can, what has been lost and gained in war, migration, and globalization seems an apt nod to my past and my present in these tumultuous times. While Diwali looks drastically different this year, making sata bhajyun marks the holiday as special — the beginning of a new food tradition, one that will remind me of 2020, but will also speak to the hope and togetherness of future Diwalis.
Try a recipe: Sata Bhajyun from Sindhi Rasoi
Thank you to Sapna Ajwani, whose shared excerpts of her translated conversation with Sohna Jaisinghani.