The Glories of Raghava's Bag, Part 3


Dried Bitter Melon

Jan 18, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A journey through the nectarian contents of Raghava's Bag.

Powdered Bitter Vegetables

The next foodstuff found amidst the glorious raghavera-jhali is described in Caitanya-caritamrta Antya lila 10.15-16:

    "With great attention, Damayanti also made dried bitter vegetables into a powder."

Given how adept Bengali cooks are at grinding and powdering fresh spices, it should come as no surprise that they also powdered fresh-dried vegetables and fruits. And how a typical Bengali cook's skills compare to the transcendental skills of Raghava Pandit dasa's sister Damayanti, we cannot guess.

Here we read that Lord Caitanya was provided with a quantity of powdered bitter vegetables. The most likely bitter to come to mind is, of course, Karela, or Bitter Melon, which is a favourite of Mahaprabhu's. But there are numerous other bitter foodstuffs that might have been dried, powdered and stored away in Raghava's Bag. Two of the likely varieties are Fenugreek and Neem. Both find their way into a host of preparations, bringing high flavour and healthy benefit to dishes.

The broadest category of bitter vegetables is no doubt the 'leafy greens', a family which contains many edible leaves that are very flavourful and nutrient rich. They also keep their fresh taste for a long time when dried, powdered and stored.

Drying Bitter Greens

Generally, any vegetable can be considered a 'bitter' if it has a high degree of astringency. This is what causes the slightly rough, pasty film to develop on the tongue when eating. Greens in the kale, mustard and chard family are often bitter, along with many varieties of wild spinach. Lord Chaitanya collected and ate wild spinaches during His travels through Jharakand forest. Also included in this food family are the green tops of root vegetables like turnips and beets.

Dried Powdered Karela

The value of dried powdered Karela is well known today, not so much for its flavour as for its nutritional and medicinal value. Karela helps to lower blood glucose levels, and is sometimes called "plant insulin" by scientists, who have discovered that consuming Karela over long periods significantly lowers sugar levels in the blood and urine. Extracts of Karela are commonly used today for their purifying qualities, and diabetics take them as a daily supplement.

We can only assume that while packing Raghava's Bag, his sister Damayanti took great care to select foodstuffs for the Lord that would travel well, maintaining their flavour and freshness, as well as nutritional value. Also favourable would be bhoga items that kept a nice consistency over time, so that the Lord's preparations would be first class, even on a long journey.

The distance from Navadwip to Jagannath Puri is about 630 kilometers. At a comfortable walking speed, the average person might travel 5 km per hour. Walking 10 hours per day, it would take in the range of 12 to 13 days of steady travel to cover the distance to Puri, 'as the crow flies'. The Lord's party was setting out just before Ratha Yatra. Given typical weather in the region during the month of Asadha (June/July), we can see that fresh foods might last only for a few days at the start of the party's travels.

Dried Ground Vegetable

By including items like dried powdered vegetables in raghavera-jhali, Damayanti no doubt organized a carefully planned collection of goods that would serve the Lord very nicely. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur explains (Cc Antya 10 Summary) that Makaradhvaja Kara of Panihati accompanied Raghava Pandita, serving as the secretary in charge of accounting for the contents of the bags of food comprising raghavera-jhali. Makaradhvaja Kara no doubt paid close attention to the order in which the foodstuffs needed to be cooked and consumed in order to take best advantage of the bhoga. In Caitanya-caritamrta 10.40 we read:

    jhalira upara 'munsiba' makaradhvaja-kara prana-rupe jhali rakhe hana tatpara

    jhalira upara -- upon the bags; munsiba -- the superintendent; makaradhvaja-kara -- Makaradhvaja Kara; prana-rupe -- like his life; jhali rakhe -- he keeps the bags; hana tatpara -- with great attention.

    "The superintendent for all those bags was Makaradhvaja Kara, who kept them with great attention like his very life."

We also learn in Cc Adi 10.26 that:

    "The foods Damayanti cooked for Lord Caitanya when He was at Puri were carried in bags by her brother Raghava without the knowledge of others."

So while Makaradhvaja Kara kept an accounting of the contents of raghavera-jhali, he apparently did not know that the goods had come from Damayanti. Adi 10.27 also says that the Lord accepted the foodstuffs in Raghava's bags throughout the entire year, which tells us a lot about the quantity of preserved versus fresh foods included. (Although certainly, foods could remain vine-fresh all year, just for the pleasure of the Lord in His lila pastimes!)

There are many ways that the devotees cooking for Lord Caitanya's party might have used the powdered bitter vegetables in Raghava's Bag. For example, they could be used directly, sprinkled like podis on top of rice or dal, or on top of other cooked vegetables. The powders could be mixed in with cooking liquids to make a base sauce, adding flavour, color and thickening. Or they could be blended into yoghurt or curd for raita or other condiments. They could also be fried in hot oil, like chaunked spices.

To make powdered vegetables using bitter or other varieties, you only need to reduce the fresh produce to a very dry state. With most vegetables, it's best to blanch them first, to preserve the color, convert the enzymes and sugars just enough so they'll store nicely with high flavour.

Once cooled, shred rather than chop the vegetables, for easier grinding. Spread them out in a food dehydrator or on racks in the sun, and dry fully, then grind to a powder. For very fine powders, you can then force the powder through a sieve. Seal tightly in a clean container to ensure a long shelf life for the powdered vegetables.

While it's nice to have mixed vegetables, the best results are enjoyed by using only one type of vegetable in each batch of powder. This gives a more concentrated flavour to the powder. The individual powders can be mixed later, in preparations.


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