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Caste conscious cuisine of Maharashtra

Photo Credit: Abhijit Bhatlekar
09 Min Read

Food remains categorically divided on caste lines in Maharashtra . Bet you didn--t know that.

It is not just filling of the stomach, but a sacrifice to the Brahma manifest,” goes the last line of a Marathi prayer recited before eating. This sums up the Maharashtrian attitude to food. Maharashtrian food traditions have not changed much—a ‘dinner set’ composed of a terracotta platter, three bowls and a water-pot found in excavations at Inamgaon (800-1000 BC) indicates that the basic composition of what constitutes a thali in Maharashtra has remained the same since protohistoric times.

Food remains categorically divided on caste lines in Maharashtra. Caste categorises whether one is vegetarian or not—which means Maharashtrian Brahmins have developed a meatless food paradise, from simple dal preparations called aamti, to beans and cereals made into runny or dry usals, to sweet and savoury rice like masalebhat or sakharbhat. Rituals and customs in Brahmin households meant traditional offerings were made to deities worshipped in household shrines.

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Particular festivals, too, came with dishes associated with them. For headstrong gods like Khandoba, roast aubergines mashed into bhareet, flavoured with raw onions, turmeric and chillies constitutes an offering, while the goddess Gauri who strides alongside Ganesha during the popular post-monsoon festival is appeased with savoury pancakes (ghawan) with a chickpea-based, mildly sweet, paste called ghatale. Rice, grated coconut and jaggery are cooked and made into fried wonton-like karanjis or delicately fashioned, steamed modaks. A variation sees the dumpling wrapped in turmeric leaves and steamed to yield the delicious panagi. Amongst sweet-savoury preparations, the puran poli remains quintessentially Maha-rashtrian. Made out of wheat flour dough and chickpea dal cooked into a mush with jaggery and cardamom, it is best eaten with milk or ghee. Shrikhand, or strained and beaten cottage cheese flavoured with saffron and cardamom, is also a typical Maharashtrian dish, often consumed with puri.

But wheat, for most upcountry Maharashtrians, was traditionally a festive grain. The staple carbohydrate was sorghum or millets, or even rusky grain like the red nachani. They would all be made into bhakari, the unleavened bread, and eaten with a vegetable preparation like zunka. Zunka-bhakar remains the staple food of agrarian Maharashtra. It is a simple yet delicious preparation, made with chickpea flour and cooked till dry with onions and chillies. A watery or gooey version of the zunka leads us to pithle, another Maharashtrian favourite. Accompaniments are pungent garlic chutney, a chunk of jaggery and often thick, creamy curds set in small earthenware pots. A stodgy meal like this demands a siesta, which contributes to the sleepy vistas the Deccan plateau often offers on a hot afternoon.

The best place to have country fare like this is atop the hillfort of Simhagad near Pune, where hospitable inhabitants from nearby villages solicit visitors for made-to-order lunches at a ludicrously low price. The smoky aroma of bhakaris, roasted on firewood in open hearths, adds to their appeal. Like wheat, rice too is cooked only on special occasions in upcountry Maharashtra. Noteworthy amongst rice dishes is the wadabhat from Nagpur, which is made by squashing small deepfried dumplings into the rice, and eaten with generous helpings of spiced hot oil added and tossed with it.

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Snacks have been an important part of the food routine in Maharashtrian households. A good number of snackie dishes are available in eateries that dot the strongholds of the Marathi community in metropolitan Mumbai—Dadar and Girgaum. Most sprang up during the rise of the urban Maharashtrian middle class in the early 20th century, calling themselves arogya-bhuvana (‘health houses’) in what was a Marathi version of a food spa. The proprietors of these were Brahmins trying to find a niche amidst the growing, mostly white-collared population of these areas that aspired to a bourgeois city life. The food these places served, and continue to serve, was simple in the cooking and easy on the palate.

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Some enterprising restaurateurs even invented dishes—like batata puri and piyush. The former are quick-fried balls of puréed sago and potato, served with sweet-and-sour chutney; the latter is a watered-down version of shrikhand. Excellent examples of both can be had at Shivaji Park’s Aaswad restaurant or the older and more revered Prakash, a stone’s throw away. Kothimbir wadi—essentially the humble zunka made with coriander allowed to set, cut up and deep-fried—tastes best at Adarsh on Ranade Road near Dadar station. Thalipeeth, a pancake made with a myriad of mixed flours, typ-ically by dry roasting the grains before they are ground, is superb with a ball of melt-in-your-mouth butter. Simple dishes such as batata pohey and upma also found their way into the ‘health house’ fare.

Upwas or ‘abstinence’ is a traditional Maharashtrian food affair. Literally meaning ‘fast’, upwas denotes selective eating wherein certain ingredients are allowed while others are considered taboo. Strangely enough, New World entrants into Maharashtrian kitchens are allowed while the traditional staples are kept out—so sago, groundnuts, chillies, cumin and water chestnuts with a range of tubers like potato are fine but rice, wheat, sorghum, millets and chickpeas are not! The abstinence days bring with them a speciality cuisine. Thus, the day following Ganesh Chaturthi is marked by excluding foods cultivated using cattle labour. This tradition has given Maharashtra a unique vegetable stew, made entirely out of a range of wild leaves, roots and cobs with several other ingredients, which have no English equivalent for their names. It is delicious; the flavours are brought out by steady simmering of all the unnamed vegetables. Other upwas dishes worth a go include the sabudana khichdi, liberally tossed with crushed peanuts and a thalipeeth made with grains which are ‘allowed’. Some Maharashtrian restaurants cater for upwas dishes on the two or three abstinence days in a year and draw crowds of connoisseurs for this rare treat.

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Proletarian Mumbai grew between bourgeois Dadar and Girgaum, in the ‘mill lands’ of Parel and Lalbaug. Here generations of textile mill workers, mainly from Western Maharashtra and the Konkan coast, generated a culture that verged on the utopian when it came to communal living, working and co-existing. In contrast to Dadar and Girgaum, Parel and Lalbaug produced a cuisine which was fiery in its elements. The hot and spicy misal, made by mixing ingredients such as an usal of beans, potato bhaji, and a generous helping of pharsan, ruled. Misal also made its way into a milder ‘health house’ version; an upwas version was also invented, the pharaali misal. Alongside misal, it is batata wada that gives proletarian Marathi food culture its real flavour. The pau perfected by Goan and Muslim bakers made a perfect accompaniment for both the misal and the batata wada. Sandwiched in a bun and doused with sweet and hot chutneys, the wada gives a McDonald’s burger the run, when it comes to appeal, taste, nutritional value and convenience. Wada-pau is truly the ‘fast food’ that Maharashtrian workers gave to the streets of Mumbai and it continues to thrive.

Non-vegetarian food in Maharashtra is associated with castes like the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus (CKPs) and the Marathas. The latter’s stronghold includes the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra but uncharacteristically for the cash crops they grow, their food habits border on the state’s hottest. Everyone knows the red-hot Mutton or Chicken Kolhapuri that is a milder version of the rassaa or mutton stew made with liberal use of spices and chilli. But Kolhapur has more secrets up its sleeve. The ‘white curry’ or paandharaa rassaa is a Kolhapuri speciality: deceptively pale, it retains its fieriness due to a liberal use of white mustard and pepper. In coastal Konkan, the coconut dominates in the curries, which are eaten with pancakes of fermented rice flour, known as ambolis.

The CKPs and other ‘Prabhu’ variations are known for their love of food. Dried shrimp or sodey form a staple of CKP diet, added to pounded rice (sodey-pohey), cooked with spices and aubergines (wangi-sodey) and also fashioned into a rice pulao, or sodyanchi khichdi. All three are unique to CKP households and are rarely found on restaurant menus. The Pathare Prabhus were one of the oldest inhabitants of Bombay island and have another rare distinction—a member of this caste, Laxmibai Dhurandhar, wrote the first Marathi cookbook named Gruhinimitra. Recipes listed make liberal use of dry fruits, fats such as ghee and oil and sugar and milk when it comes to sweets, reflecting the love of food and the general wealth the community had. There are unusual dishes to be found—such as game, which includes a range of wild birds like pigeons, doves, partridges and quails all made into a stew. A typically Pathare Prabhu dish, made with the lovely bombil or Bombay Duck, sees ripe bananas mashed and filled into the belly of the succulent fish. This is the kelebombil, which is then fried to yield a unique texture. Unique to Maharashtrian communities, Pathare Prabhu women enjoyed liquor at social functions. Decked from head to toe in fabulous jewellery, they wore heavy noserings or naths that dangled before their lips and had to be lifted for a sip. ‘Lifting the nath’ therefore became a synonym for drinking in the Pathare Prabhu jargon!

No description of non-vegetarian Marathi food would be complete without mentioning the Bhandari restaurants. The Bhandaris are a coastal community associated with toddy tapping, and eating-houses run by them were once the mainstay of the proletariat that served the white-collared intelligentsia of Girgaum. The baloos, or farm-labourers from Konkan, flocked to Mumbai in search of better prospects in the early 20th century, leaving their families in the villages. They survived in the chawls of Girgaum, serving as domestic help to a whole breed of middle-class Maharashtrians. These solitary creatures craved for occasional indulgence and it came to them as small pleasures, in foods such as offal.

Much as the Brahmins opened health houses for the top rung of the Maharashtrian social ladder, the Bhandaris served the labourers the rejects of the higher classes by creating a hot, spicy and meagre cuisine. Nothing went waste— brains were a delicacy and liver, kidneys and spleen the norm, but even intestines were cooked into tenacious threads and eaten with bhakaris or pau. The Bhandari restaurants were smirked at by the Maharashtrian bourgeoisie, yet a few interlopers visited them regularly. As property prices zoomed sky-high in the post-1970s decades, the Maharashtrian feel of Girgaum eroded rapidly, with many families moving out to distant suburbs. The middle-class culture thriving in chawls and wadis was gone and the institutions that it supported went with it. Very few of the Bhandari restaurants survive and these too are fast vanishing—like Dhanaji near the Girgaum Metropolitan Courts—taking a food tradition with them into oblivion.

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