For hundreds of years, researchers, scholars and theologians have been hotly debating the identity of Soma, a sacramental substance that is frequently mentioned in the ancient Hindu book, Rig Veda. In ancient Indian texts, an unidentified plant’s juice called soma was an offering to the gods. Soma was a ritual drink of great importance during the Vedic period in the proto-Indo-Iranian region.

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The word soma is derived from an Indo-Iranian root “sav,” which means “to press” in Sanskrit.  “Sav-ma” was a drink prepared by pressing the stalks of the plant. In the Rigveda, there are several hymns and an entire book in praise of this exhilarating drink. However, the botanical identity of soma is still an unsolved mystery.

From ancient descriptions, the plant is described as having long stalks and a yellow or tawny color. The juice of the soma plant was highly valued for its exhilarating property.

Soma was considered shuddha (pure) and usually drunk only at ritual sacrifices. The drink was prepared by priests who pounded the plants, gathered the juice and filtered it through sheep’s wool and then mixed it with other ingredients, probably milk, yogurt and honey. After first being offered as a libation to the gods, the remainder of the soma was consumed by priests and devotees.

Typical descriptions of soma are associated with excitation and not hallucination. Soma is associated with the Hindu warrior god, Indra. It was imbibed before battle because it was believed to give speed and strength to warriors. According to legends, there were big soma factories in the Vijayanagar kingdom (South India, 12th Century) where heavy stone-mills were employed. About three to five harvests every year produced millions of doses.

Several attempts have been made to identify the soma plant. However, the plant identified today does not conform to the descriptions mentioned in earlier books.

Malar Gandhi is a freelance writer who specializes in Culinary Anthropology and Gourmet Indian Cooking. She also blogs about Indian Food atwww.kitchentantras.com

 


 

Panakkam  
Ingredients
1 tsp peppercorns, crushed
¼ tsp cardamom powder
1 inch ginger, grated
¼ cup palm sugar or brown sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
a few mint leaves to garnish

Method
Boil a cup of water, add the first three ingredients to it. Continue boiling for about 5-7 minutes. Filter this strong concoction and set aside to cool down.
Then, add palm sugar, lemon juice and 4-5 cups of chilled water to it. Garnish with mint leaves.
Serve chilled in short glasses.

Panchamritham
Ingredients
5-7 small bananas, peeled and mashed
10-12 dates, pitted and sliced
10 cashew nuts, halved
1 cup honey
¼ cup ghee
2 tsp cardamom powder
¼  tsp raw camphor

Method
Mix all the ingredients together. Mash it up in chunky bits, rather than smooth. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2-4 hours.
Serve chilled as a dessert.

Akkaravadisal
Ingredients
1 cup raw rice
¼ cup lentils (mung)
1 ¼ cups palm sugar
1 ½ cups evaporated milk
3 cups whole mill
¼ cup ghee
15-20 cashew nuts
15-25 raisins
½ tsp cardamom powder
1 pinch edible raw camphor

Method
Pour the whole milk into a pan, set in on a low fire and let it come to boil. Add the  rice and lentils and let it cook. Wait until it turns tender and mushy. Set aside.

In a separate pan, heat palm sugar with a cup of water. Prepare sugar syrup and pour this over the prepared rice.

Then add evaporated milk and cardamom powder to the sweetened rice and lentils. Cook this for two minutes over medium heat. Allow this to consolidate without much moisture.

In a separate pan, heat ghee. Add cashew nuts and fry till golden brown. Then add raisins to it and wait till it pops. Now, sprinkle this over the prepared rice and lentils. Serve warm or chilled.

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