Mapping India’s Wedding Traditions Through Its Culinary Offerings

Beyond The Regular Daawats: The rich traditions of Indian weddings are amplified by every communities’ traditional food and tastes. While some thrive even today, others remain temptingly alive through folklore. By Vernika Awal

Planning for the big, fat Indian wedding (and now, possibly, the more intimate and personalised one) often begins by narrowing down on the wedding menu; sometimes, as soon as the marriage is finalised. Caterers, today, set up an unending line of counters that look to scale the length and breadth of Indian and global cuisines. A few dishes and their very traditional ingredients, however, never fail to find a place in the very heart of our weddings. Such time-honoured variants are considered auspicious and are an integral part of the ceremonies. Scouring the four corners of India, one realises how much of what we savour is steeped in rich heritage and ancestral pride.

Sustenance in the North

An assortment of sweet and savoury fried snacks, known as bhaji in Punjab. Image: Courtesy of Vernika Awal

In a Punjabi Khatri household, the wedding functions begin in full swing only after a traditional ceremony known as chakki chung. Performed by the mother of the bride or groom, along with the other married women of the house, it is a curtain-raiser to the proceedings. A handful of wholewheat is added to an old chakki (grindstone), and the ladies of the house grind it into a fine flour. This same flour is then kneaded into a dough, with the imprint of the mother’s fingers. The halwai (confectioner) then deep-fries it, and a portion of it is placed in the soil with a prayer to the weather gods to prevent meeh jhakkar (rains and storms).

A portion of the ground flour, along with some of the fried wheat, is used to make sweets, and these dishes cooked in the shaadiwala ghar (wedding house) are served as shagun ka prasad (auspicious offering).

Today, deep-frying is not a ubiquitous practice, but adding flour has remained a quiet but pivotal ingredient in Punjab; serving as a layer of tradition behind all the bling that one sees upfront. Even now, this special flour is used to make kada prasad (a sweet dish) and rotis at weddings.

Another wedding tradition in Punjab is the bhaji—a box of deep-fried sweets and savoury snacks gifted to every guest from the bride’s family. This is also sent with the bride during vidaai (farewell). A symbolic addition now, the bhaji was once a vital necessity, as the bride’s family and their guests would often travel long distances over days to return from a wedding; hence, making it essential sustenance.

North of Punjab, it is customary for a traditional bride’s family from Himachal Pradesh to gift takeera (soaked, dried, and pounded wheat), badiya and moti sevaiya (sweet vermicelli) to the groom’s family. Nitika Sood Kuthiala, a home chef and an expert in Himachali food, explains, “These are usually dry-food items. The rationale was to keep something available for the bride to rustle up when she goes to her new home. They’re typically prepared months in advance by the women of the family. Passing it on to a bride is considered a blessing, today.”

Crisp and crunchy Himachali mathis, a popular fried snack. Image: Courtesy of Nikita Sood

Datyaloo—an entire meal comprising chickpeas, dahi bhalle (yoghurt-based dish), peas-paneer, vegetables, pulao, a sweet dish, and puris—is yet another traditional offering that has withstood the test of time. This elaborate meal is made to ensure enough food is available in the wedding house, allowing the family to focus on the preparations. Samhoota da bhatt, a special meal prepared for lunch after samhoot (the haldi ceremony), also finds its place in current culinary wedding traditions—it features black urad dal, cooked compulsorily along with rice, madra (legumes and curd), khatta (black chickpea curry) and meetha (sweet rice).

Kuthiala also highlights how the dham, an auspicious meal cooked across Himachal Pradesh, forms a vital part of not just weddings, but most festive occasions. Even today, the dham is served at the bride’s home before the wedding, and at the groom’s, after.

Diversity of the West

Serving of prakadi, a speciality of Himachal Pradesh. Image: Courtesy of Nikita Sood

Smita Deo, a renowned chef and culinary veteran from north Karnataka, elaborates on the resplendent celebratory traditions of Karwar. Deo says, “After the wedding rituals [in northern Karnataka], a lavish five-course lunch is served on a banana leaf. Tables covered in simple, white cloth are laid in long rows, and the full spread comprises salt, lemon, kakdi huler (a chutney with cucumber), fruit sa sasam (citrus fruit chutney), upinkai (fresh mango pickle), appalam (papad), bhajias, and upkaris (sautéed vegetables). Beyond this, the muga randoi (moong curry) is ever-present, next to a val val (mixed vegetable stew) or a gajbaje randoi (mixed vegetable curry). In summers, ambya umman (ripe mango curry) and ansa fansa bhaji (pineapple and jackfruit curry) is served, as well. Finally, dalitoi (dal cooked with ginger and chillies and tempered with coconut oil), rasam and sambar are served right at the end, followed by (in this order) puliyogare (tamarind rice), bisi bele bath, lemon rice and finally, curd rice.  All this, along with a delicious glass of taak (buttermilk).” Alongside any contemporary menus, this extensive traditional Karwar meal is an integral part of weddings even today.

Interestingly, even within Western India, culinary traditions vary significantly. For instance, in Maharashtra, food preferences change with communities and topography. Saee Koranne Khandekar, a Maharashtrian cuisine expert and celebrated cookbook author, explains how, along with the variety, what’s acceptable in some communities is absolutely avoided in others. “Alu cha phatphada is a sweet-sour-spicy colocasia leaf curry with bits of coconut and peanuts, and is a wedding staple in the plateau region of Maharashtra. Towards southwestern Maharashtra, it is a complete no-no as this dish is made there for shraadh (a solemn Hindu period).”

Kangri dham, an auspicious part of Himachali tradition. Image: Courtesy of Nikita Sood

Even with the diversity, many components in a Hindu-Maharashtrian wedding feast are of similar significance to what’s served in northern Karnataka. But, the traditions range far and wide. As Khandekar says, “While biryani and kebabs have made their way to Muslim-Marathi weddings today, they originally have very different customs. Customarily, the village would be invited for lunch, and a rich goat curry will be served with aromatic rice, along with some sweets.” On the other hand, Khandekar explains how in east-Indian weddings, fugiya—a bread made using a loose, leavened dough pinched into small balls and fried—is served with curry. “Traditionally, the women of the house would make this bread themselves, as they sing folk songs,” she adds.

The rich practices of the East

In West Bengal, the tradition of the anondo naaru (laddoo) is rich. Priyadarshini Chatterjee, a noted food writer, explains how a laddoo made of pounded rice, sesame, coconut, and jaggery is common in many families on joyous occasions, such as weddings. This naaru is fried in mustard oil and is prepared by the women of the house.

Perhaps even more iconic is the aiburo bhaat—a traditional ‘final’ meal of singlehood. In light of fast-fading community traditions, this remains a rich custom among Bengalis. At the bride’s end, it has the added significance of being her ‘last’ meal at her maternal home. Interestingly, instead of having fixed items on the menu, the aiburo bhaat comprises the favourite food of the to-be-wedded, but the paayesh (a sweet rice pudding) has found ubiquity in it—no matter how different the family traditions are.

An elaborate feast comprising the favourite sweet and savoury dishes of the bride and groom, aiburo bhaat is a much-loved tradition in Bengali weddings. Image: Courtesy of Shubhra Chatterji

In Assam, certain ethnic communities welcome the bride home with baati ghuruwa. As per Gitika Saikia, a stalwart of Assamese and northeastern tribal cuisines, nine married women of the family welcome the newlywed to her marital home by feeding her rohi (first press of rice wine) from a bell-metal bowl, with a piece of pork meat. “The idea behind this tradition is to welcome the bride in a positive way, wherein the nine married women signify the blessings of nine generations,” Saikia explains.

50-item marathon in the South

Laid out on a banana leaf, the sadhya meal serves a range of mouthwatering curries, vegetables, rice, pickles, and sweet preparations. Image: Courtesy of Vernika Awal

Chef Marina Balakrishnan, founder of Oottupura takes us to our final quadrant in Kerala, where the wedding sadhya has a massive spread. “In a Hindu-Keralite wedding, the sadhya is served with almost 30-50 items on it. There are accompaniments such as inji puli (sweet-sour and spicy Keralite curry), pickles and banana chips, alongside avial (coconut curry with rice), sambar and pachadi (fresh pickles). Two payasams (sweetened vermicelli pudding) are always present on the sadhya menu as well,” she says.

Balakrishnan also touches upon the diversity of the region, based on religion, too. She explains, “In Muslim weddings of the Malabar area, the biryani is served as the main dish, while other dishes such as the Malabar parotta (a flaky bread) and chicken curry, along with pathiri (rice-flour pancake) are served, too. On the other hand, in Syrian-Christian weddings, there is an elaborate menu with palappam-stew (rice and coconut pancakes with stew) and seafood.”

A Culinary Journey

This entire journey tells us how food emerges as a bond connecting families and generations. And when it comes to weddings, it takes on an even deeper meaning—certainly more than the elaborate buffets that mainstream wedding fare is associated with today. It is, effectively, a thread that ties the country together, even when our traditions vary.

Related: How To Create Mindful Wedding Menus? Experts Tell You

Anushka Goel

Anushka has previously worked with publications such as the Times of India and Being Indian. A graduate from Xavier Institute of Communications, she specialises in entertainment, food and travel. She also likes to write about sustainability and beauty. When not working, you can catch her reading a book, tending to her plants, cooking or playing an instrument.

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