Addictive. Potent Drug. Sinfully Spicy. Unforgettable. Here is a slice of the simple yet unabashedly exotic Maharastrian’s cuisine.
You can always know a Maharastrian neighbour by the whiff of aamti. A rather simple yet tasteful preparation of lentils (dal), it is one of the few Maharastrian dishes that emerged from the Vidharbha region and went straight up to Goa, and some parts of Southern Karnataka too. Thanks to its simplicity – even a girl of eleven can make it with ease – the dal today has over 51 different versions, and none of it involves any complexity of chopping or grinding.
Such was the popularity of this comfort simple dal that Maharaja Shivaji – one of the true blue blood king to rule Maharastra –learnt not only how to make it, but also made it a part of his army energizing meal. It was a great source of protein, easy to carry and could be made with meager resources.
However, aamti isn’t the only legendary dish that has a history to it. The vada (of the Mumbai famous vada pav) is yet another revolutioniser. A breakfast staple from Mumbai to Nasik to Alibaug and further, the vada was a Thursday special when the fish eating Pune Saraswat Brahmin didn’t get his meat dose. But it wasn’t till Bal Keshav Thackeray put it inside the Irani bun and distributed among his party workers, that vada pav really became VADA PAV- today a signature dish that the financial city is known for. Till then vada was a “sukkha nashta” (dry breakfast) served to traders on the move. A Gaud Saraswat cuisine specialty, the vada tells the story of its city through its filling.
From the ordinary batata masala, a staple in Mumbai and nearby areas, the vada’s filling takes on the quintessential coconut batata masala as you start heading to the coastal region of the Maharastra, which is known much for its local vegetarian fare as it is known for its lip-smackingly addictive fish and meat fare. The rise of vada pav led to the rise of its other brethrens like the famous Kutchi Dabeli and Usal and Missal. The former, a Kutch delicacy, was later transformed by adding spicy chutney and sev to make it more Mumbai-ishtyle. Of course Mumbaikars did their own addition of spices and onions to make the dish more addictive.
However, more than these famous snacks, what Maharastra is really known for is its non-vegetarian cuisine, especially the variety of fish preparation that bears a fond resemblance to the cooking style down south. Like the use of fresh grated coconut and coconut milk. The use of both fresh and dried kokum for the added tanginess; and, the coconut vinegar, which is omnipresent in most of the Goan dishes today. A reason for this could be the coastline that Maharastra shares with most of the other states, or as food historian point towards – the ‘make’ of the Maharastrian cuisine. Unlike other state cuisines, Maharastrian cuisine is a confluence of number of communities that made the state their home at different times like the Malvani, the Konkani Goan and Gaud Saraswat Brahmin cuisines. Later of course there has been an addition of Parsi (patra nu machchi and chicken farcha), the Bori, Irani and East Indian community. The most influential however has been the Konkani, the Malvani and of course the Saraswat Brahmin cooking style that have made most of the Maharastra culinary fare today.
Take for instance the bombil fry, which has come from the Saraswat community, for whom fish isn’t just another food from the sea, but a blessing from God. For centuries, fish was an integral part of every Saraswat Brahmin’s life. Such was the attraction towards fish, that each son or daughter born in the community was first taught about the fish and its importance. In fact, history speaks about a time when a Saraswat Brahmin girl’s talent was judged by how crispy her fried fish was. The barometer was simple: crispy from the outside and soft inside. The addition of rava (semolina) came to bring in more fishes into the fried genre. Oyster, which they called sea fruit, and crab curry was yet another innovation of the Saraswat clan, just like the numerous bhaji and saag (green leafy vegetable). The Kokum Khadhi, known for its tanginess, was yet another Saraswat gift to the Maharastrian cuisine, along with numerous pickles and papads.
The dried fish dishes, unlike much believed, is a Saraswat discovery, given that Brahmins back in time could neither till the land nor fish, and this became a way that they could regularly satiate their cravings for fish. Later on the Koli community, the first residents of Mumbai, took the tradition of drying fish to the tide over the monsoons, and periods of dry spell. Fish otherwise for Koli (fisherman community) people had a different albeit interesting existence. Exposed to both a variety of fishes and spices, theirs was more of gourmet style cooking. Even the fried fish had masala that were akin to those used in a rasa (curry). It was a brilliant form of cooking, given that unlike Saraswat, the Konkani and Malvani community enjoyed a fiery palate for dishes that were known for the spiciness of hot chillies along with sweetness of coconut and tanginess from kokum. It was on this base that most of the Goan dishes are based – especially the famous Goan Fish Curry, which isn’t as hot as the koliwada fish or the Malvani seafood variety, but has the three essential qualities – spiciness, tanginess and sweetness, all in equal proportion.
Most of Maharastrian cuisine started mostly as a fish-base dish before it was adapted for other forms of meat – especially chicken—in the later years. The reason for this was simple: Maharastrian cuisine was based on the principle of utilising local produce. Result, while the mix of spices and use of kokum and other souring agent with coconut remained the same – only in the North dry coconut took place of the fresh one – the style of cooking and main ingredients changed shape. So Malvani Fish Curry, by the time it reached the mainland of Pune, incorporated chicken as a main ingredient. Fish Koliwada, which was popularised by the immigrants of Pakistan, had a prawn variation too. And Kavda Curry, an extremely delicious dish made of a local Konkani bird called ‘Khavda’ had both a kurli (crab) and chicken variety. What differentiated the dishes besides the change of the main ingredients, which was according to the local produce, was also the spiciness. While Kohlapuri dishes were known for firing the taste buds, Malvani had a more palate coating experience. The other difference was the accompaniment. Like the belt of Alibaug was known for growing great quality of tendli and saag and eventually vegetarian dishes like avre bendi became a part of the meal served here. Khatkhate became the Goan vegetarian option. Made of seasonal exotic vegetables, it was one of the special stews made to celebrate weddings, anniversary and great occasions.
Incidentally, Khatkhate in Maharastra suffers from a mistaken identity. While the goan variation is a stew prepared during occasions, head towards Malvan and it becomes a ladu (sort of croissant), which is dry and crispy and had as breakfast.
Yet another fine example is the ukadiche modak, a favourite during Ganesh Chaturthi, and Malvani Malpua, which Asif Jha, a vizier of the Mughal Empire, popularised in his later years during ramzan, was again to digest the fiery coastal food of Maharastra.