Maharashtrian cuisine, a melting pot

Whether Sambhaji took Sambhar to the South or it was the Udupi restaurants cooks who brought their hybrid Sambhar to Maharashtra is a debate that will carry on till eternity.
Image for representation. (Photo | Pexels)
Image for representation. (Photo | Pexels)

Mumbai street food has done as much disservice to Maharashtrian cuisine as Bollywood has done to Marathi language and culture. Hearing the Hindi of Bombay films, the rest of India cannot imagine the richness of Marathi language. Despite kitsch and money power, Hindi films could not triumph over regional cinema Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, or Bengali. But closer home it overshadowed the formidable heritage of Marathi cinema and theatre, which continues to produce seminal work even today. Similarly, eating Vada Pav, Misal Pav, Pav Bhaji (the last arguably has its origins in Gujarat) few would guess Maharashtra has a fabulous culinary repertoire. 

Nowadays every third Bengali I meet in Kolkata has children working in Pune. The other two usually have family in Bangalore or Hyderabad. But it was not so common in the eighties when I landed as a rookie manager of a multinational in Pune, which was undoubtedly the cultural capital of Maharashtra. Unlike today’s kids who generally live in the outlying IT hubs of Hinjewadi or Nagar Road, I found living quarters near Deccan Gymkhana, which one would compare with Ballygunge in Kolkata, Mylapore in Chennai, or the Defence Colony of yore in Delhi. It was home to the affluent Maharashtrian gentry. My Saraswat Brahmin neighbours in Abhiman Apartments on a by-lane of Prabhat Road were excited to have a fish-eating Bengali in their midst. Mr Vishnu (VG) Kanietkar, a legendary retired officer of the old Indian Police (IP not IPS) cadre – asked me, “Young man, how do you cook your curry, do you make it with fish fins or fish tail?” I was flummoxed and answered something to the effect of fish curry is fish curry, we make it with fish, what else? It can have the tail and maybe some fins too if it is Koi or Magur (catfish) but it is essentially all fish." He looked askance at his wife, the venerable Kusum tai, wondering if a Bong bumpkin has inveigled his way into their elite society. 

The mystery of the fins was solved much later when I went to visit the Deshmukhs - Tara and Dilip - who had come to settle in Pune, after uncle Dilip’s retirement from the Calcutta Port Trust, where he piloted ships from the sand-heads to the Kidderpore docks. They were proudly CKPs (Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus), who considered themselves to be the connoisseurs of the good life among the Marathis.

The societal rivalry between the Konkanasthas and Kayasthas is well known. CKPs are outstanding cooks and believe their cuisine is vastly superior to that of the snooty Konkanasthas, who use a surfeit of Khopra (dried coconut) and Kokum. In comparison to the fair-skinned and light-eyed traditional Saraswat beauties, CKP women are smouldering (remember Smita Patil?), who are happy to join their spouses for a drink in the evenings. Tara pishi, as I came to call her as she was a friend of an aunt, explained – the parsimonious Saraswats cook their curry separately with bits of fins or the tail to give it a fishy taste and then have it with paper-thin slices of pomfret or Surmai either added to the curry or fried separately.

Subsequently, another Saraswat friend, while admitting that they like to slice their fish finely, explained it was only to test the freshness of the catch. She did not sound very convincing. So what? I am willing to give an arm and a leg for her Varan Bhat with Toop (Ghee) and Amti Dal.

But the fight doesn't end there. Not all Deshmukhs are CKPs. My young colleague Narendra was a Deshastha Brahmin. They come from the hot parched Khandesh region in the North West. Their food is rustic and hard working as the climate and terrain demand. Millet breads (Bajra and Jowar ke Bhakri), Varancha Gola (a thick dal almost resembling a ball) the tantalising Thecha (a fiery paste of green chillies and lime crushed together). In fact, Batata Vada (Potato Chops), Kanda Bhaji (Onion fritters) and dry Garlic chutney are Deshastha specialities. 

In recent years Malwani restaurants have flooded Mumbai. Admittedly some of them are good. During our salad days there, we had to trudge to Sindhudurg and Gomantak in Dadar or Anant Ashram in Girgaum for coastal Maharashtrian food. But, what passes as Kolhapuri Chicken across the country is a travesty of the real Tamba Rasa and Pandra Rasa. Hardly anyone outside of Maharashtra, or Vidarbha, would have heard about Saoji Food - with its Garlic Tadka in boiling oil on the side. In fact, I do not know of any other state where food is so distinctly divided along caste and regions. 

 Among various theories on how Maharashtra derived its name, the one I subscribe to is that of “Mahadev (Shiva)’s Rashtra”. The erstwhile Bombay Presidency was bounded on the north by Balochistan, the Punjab and Rajputana; on the east by Indore, the Central Provinces and Hyderabad; on the south by Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Mysore. Within these limits were the Portuguese settlements of Goa, Daman and Diu, and the native state of Baroda. Thus in terms of geographic area and population, it was comparable to a large part of Europe. While size does matter (that could be another explanation for the choice of the prefix “Maha”), Shiva’s rule is mightier. Significantly, six of His twelve Jyotirlingas - were situated in the greater Bombay province. Of them three, Trimbakeshwar (Nashik), Bhimashankar (Pune) and Ghrishneshwar (Aurangabad) still remain in Maharashtra and the other three are now in Gujarat (Somnath) and Madhya Pradesh (Ujjain, Omkareshwar). Hence, it is likely that Mahadev’s claim prevailed over others. 

Thus the real story of diversity and range of Maharashtrian cuisine lies in the culinary influences of its sub-regions and neighbourhood. To trace the food anthropology of Maharashtra one needs to understand the geography. 

Whether Sambhaji took Sambhar to the South or it was the Udupi restaurants cooks who brought their hybrid Sambhar to Maharashtra is a debate that will carry on till eternity like who invented the Rosogolla - the Odias or Bengalis. But, as a wise man once said, if your purpose in life is to eat mangoes why try to count how many trees are there in the orchard. Focus on the food and forget the roots. 

(Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator.)

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