Midway to Goa from Mumbai, off the NH66, is Guhagar — a pristine beach paradise and Maharashtra’s best kept secret. Even lesser known than Guhagar’s virgin beach is the city’s terrific vegetarian food — Ambe-haladiche lonache (fresh turmeric pickle), phanas chi bhajji (jackfruit fry), Kele koshimbir (Ripe banana-curd salad), Dalimb usal (butterbean curry) and more. Last month, chef Vishal Atreya, executive chef of JW Marriott Sahar, drove down to Guhagar and Diveagar — a more famous beach destination — to sample this food of Kokanastha (of Konkan) Brahmins, who are also known as Chitpavan Brahmins.
The journey began with a team briefing, says Atreya. “I asked my team of over a 100 what local food meant to them. When I got answers like ‘vada pav’, ‘misal’ and ‘usal’, I told them that they needed baptism into their own food.” Atreya — who moved from Delhi to Mumbai last year says — that his interest in culinary traditions such as those of Chitpavan Brahmins comes from his dislike of cooking with imported produce. “In Guhagar and Diveagar, most people grow paddy, coconuts and all their vegetables — including jackfruit and colocasia — in their backyards. How much more local could you get?” says Atreya, who travelled with a team of his chefs, including chef Rohit Joshi — who also belongs to the Chitpavan Brahmin community.
There are various legends about how the Chitpavan Brahmins settled down in Konkan. A Hindu legend goes that the mythological sage Parashurama converted fishermen into Brahminism, while yet another story tells the tale of shipwrecked Persian traders who never went back. Anthropologist VN Mandlik wrote in a study that Chitpavan Brahmins were immigrants from North India. However, Kokanastha cuisine has no parallels in any other Indian cooking tradition. “They use minimal spices and one type of spice in each dish,” says Atreya. Coconut and rice are the two pillars of Kokanastha cuisine. While there exists a spice mix called the goda masala — made by roasting and grinding desiccated coconut and different kinds of spices including dried red chillies cumin seed, sesame, cinnamon, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and peppercorn — it is used sparingly, says Atreya.
On his three-day trip to Guhagar and Diveagar, Atreya and his team sampled food at local eateries such as Savarkar Bhojanalay in Guhagar, and cooked with several families — including the Bapats and Joshis in Diveagar. “The food was more intense and the flavours were more distinct in Guhagar. I felt this perhaps because it’s a place that isn’t as commercial as Diveagar,” says Atreya. With stopovers at mango orchards and cashew nut plantations, the chefs saw farm-to-table cooking first hand. “The kaju chi usal is one of my favourite Kokanastha dishes. It is made with tender, young cashews,” says Atreya.
The team returned with over 50 recipes that are being tried and tested to great success at the Kokanastha festival that ends this weekend. “It’s simple cooking that reminds us of the tastes that have been lost to us,” says Atreya.
The Kokanastha Festival is on for dinner between 7-9pm at JW Marriott, Mumbai Sahar, until May 15.
Phanas chi bhajji
2 cups – Jackfruit (small cubes)
6 – Dried red chillies
1/2 tsp – Asafoetida
1 tsp – Cumin seed
1 tsp – Mustard seed
2 tbsp – Refined oil
1 tbsp – Tamarind pulp
1 cup – Fresh grated coconut
1/2 tsp – Turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1 tbsp – Jaggery
* Take oil in a pan. Add cumin and mustard seeds. Let it crackle.
* Add whole red chillies, turmeric powder and asafoetida.
* Boil the jackfruit cubes.
* Add boiled jackfruit, sauté and add tamarind pulp.
* Add grated coconut and salt to taste.
* Cover the pan and let the vegetable cook for 5 minutes.
* Garnish with fresh grated coconut, red chilli and fresh coriander and serve.
1 cup – Indrayani rice flour
1 tbsp – Ghee
A pinch of Salt
1 cup – Jaggery
1 cup – Fresh coconut
Nutmeg powder to taste
Cardamom powder to taste
* Heat the water and add rice flour, salt and 1 tsp of ghee. Mix and softly knead the dough.
* Rest the dough for an hour.
* Mix fresh grated coconut and jaggery and cook over a medium heat till jaggery is melted. Add nutmeg and cardamom powder.
* Make small balls of dough. Roll them flat and stuff them with the coconut-jaggery mixture.
* Shape them into a modak.
* Dip the bottom of the modak in water and place in colander lined with banana leaf.
* Place the colander on top of a pan with boiling water.
* Cover the colander and steam the modak for 10 minutes.
* Serve hot with Ghee.