Gontvaals for Good Friday

Gontvaal Beans by Francesca Pereira

The last week of Lent is supposed to be a time of intense prayer, penance, and fasting, for Christians. But fasting very often makes us acutely aware of food. Even the most simple and humble food that we may reject in times of feasting, takes on a different appeal while fasting. Gontvaal beans are one such food.

Most Mumbai Christians would have eaten plain boiled gontvaals after Sunday Church services in Lent, and on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Women sit on the roadside, outside churches with baskets full of these boiled beans, which they sell in conical paper packets. It is street food in its simplest form. Just plain boiled gontvaal beans…no finely chopped onions and fresh coriander leaves, no squeeze of lime juice, no dash of chili powder. But it is comfort food at its best and most nutritious. Instantly dispelling hunger pangs after a few hours of fasting, prior to lengthy church services.

As a child, I had assumed that because of their street food packaging, gontvaals were also a ‘poor’ man’s food. When I had children of my own I saw the price rising over the years, from Rs 5/-to Rs 20/- per conical packet. Which made me presume that the ladies selling them were inflating prices because we live in the “ Queen of Mumbai suburbs”.

How wrong I have been in thinking so. Let me explain.

In March 2016, on Palm Sunday, a well known Mumbai choir (of which I am a member) was invited by a suburban gymkhana to perform a Lenten Cantata, on the gymkhana premises. After the performance, the choir was offered dinner. “It’s vegetarian dinner….we could not serve meat because its Lent,” one of the waiters informed us apologetically, worried that we might be disappointed about the food. Not a single one of us complained though, even though most of us are non-vegetarians.

In between the first course of tomato soup and the main Indian Chinese vegetarian dishes, was the appetizer which turned out to be the highlight of the meal — plain boiled gontvaals served not in conical packets but in eco-friendly leaf bowls! They were an instant hit with everyone!

“ I haven’t had gontvaals in ages,” said one member with a big smile on her face and a small bowlful in each hand.

“ I know…so tasty….I’m going back for a second helping,” declared one of the backstage boys.

“Reminds me of my childhood,” said a senior member, an almost beatific expression on his face, as he savored each spoonful.

Gontvaal Beans by Francesca Pereira

I looked around me. Here were about 30 grown men and women, seated in posh air-conditioned comfort, around tables with white table linen and fine chinaware, while devouring what was supposed to be a fasting food, served in throwaway but thankfully biodegradable containers.

Later, I thanked the head waiter for this unexpected but thoughtful and seasonal touch to the dinner menu. His response was effusive. “Thank you, Madam,…thank you, thank you…where all we went searching for these beans …. Only one supplier in the market had (dried/ uncooked) gontvaals.”

He was right; on enquiring in a few local grocery shops, (dried) gontvaals were indeed in short supply that year.

This was worrisome. It meant that either farmers had not sown gontvaals that year, because they were no more profitable to grow. Or farmers had sown the beans but had not harvested good yield. This, in turn, could indicate that climate change is drastically affecting our local indigenous and highly nutritious supplementary food crops. And the tragic irony of this is that the urban elite in Mumbai would still be able to buy exotic expensive imported “superfood” grains from high-end organic food stores. But for all the money in the world, would not be able to enjoy the nutritional benefits of indigenous food grains. For those of us who do not have all the money in the world…well…we settle for a less balanced diet. While the farmer who is at the start of the food chain starves.

In 2017 and 2018 too, gontvaal beans have not been substantially available in retail stores. Where retailers did manage to procure them, the (dried) beans retailed at Rs 180–200/- per kilo! This year (a friend of mine informed me) that gontvaals are available at select retail stores only if you pre-order them!!

Economics aside, trying to find out the scientific and English name for gontvaals has not yielded any definitive results. Could gontvaals be an East Indian Marathi dialect word for ‘vaal’ beans? Or are they a specific type of vaal bean? Are they a variety of fava beans or broad beans or haricot beans or bell beans or lima beans? No one who has enjoyed gontvaals knows for sure.

Some of my friends (in the 45–55 years age bracket) who are originally from Goa or Mangalore feel that eating gontvaals on Good Friday is more of a Mumbai tradition. A friend (in the same age bracket) who is an East Indian but spent her childhood in Pune, Nasik, and Ahmednagar, said that as far back as she can remember, in those places, this particular food tradition was non-existent. So it seems that this is a tradition within the East Indian sub-community (an indigenous Christian population in and around Mumbai, Thane, and Vasai). This minuscule community, especially in suburban Mumbai, has over the last 100 years lost touch with its traditional farming and fishing occupations, as the community became increasingly urbanized.

That still leaves an important question, of where gontvaals were grown in yesteryears and where they are grown now, unanswered. Though we ourselves, grow foodgrains and fruit on our farm, which is in Palghar district, near Mumbai, we have not grown gontvaals. But a neighboring farmer from the Warli community did grow them for a couple of years. We were the grateful recipients of a mini-sackful of beans in the summer of 2016 and 2017. Farmers in this area are totally dependent on the monsoon-fed rice crop. And only if there is a good monsoon, then we also plant either harbara/chana or vaal beans or tur or urad dal, after the rice season, as there would be sufficient moisture retained in the soil. Sadly last summer and this summer too we did not receive any gontvaals from our neighboring farmers. Nor did they have any to sell to us. Is this due to insufficient governmental support to farmers? Or is climate change to blame? Your guess is as good as mine.

Gontvaal Beans by Francesca Pereira

Why then, do we in Mumbai eat gontvaals during Lent, instead of boiled gram which is served at quasi-religious community gatherings, at other times of the year? People had to stretch their memories to answer this. Many admitted they did not know. But two reasons (as some recalled what their elders had told them) seem plausible.

“Maybe because it’s a bean that can be sprouted…and scripture says unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it will not bear fruit… so it reminds us of Jesus’ passion and death.”

“ Maybe because it’s in season only during Lent and because it tastes slightly bitter…so reminds us of the Passover meal which Israelites ate before fleeing out of slavery in Egypt, as told in the Bible… they ate bitter herbs and unleavened bread … and also you could associate the bitter taste with suffering.”

So this year, if the dried gontvaals sold at grocery stores, or the boiled gontvaals sold outside churches seem overpriced to you, think again. Are they really overpriced?

But if you do go ahead and buy them, you will have definitely supported a local farmer. And brought an Easter blessing into his or her life.!

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Francesca Pereira

Francesca Pereira

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