**Soumitra Velkar works in Finance by day and drowns himself in the documentation of his beloved cuisine by night. His cooking is particularly delectable, as are his stories from a childhood spent in the shadow of his grandmother.**
My wife and I have been happily married for the last ten years and yet to this day, every time I’ve suggested we bring crisp Pathare Prabhu style puran polis (तेल पोळी) to go with a meat curry, I’m met with a horrified look that’s a mixture of scepticism and shock. I didn’t have too many interactions with Marathi food growing up. My whole gamut of family and cousins, whose culinary exploits matched mine, didn’t find anything strange about the aforementioned combo. Never being exposed to typical Marathi food like Bhaakris or Brahmin style soft puran polis till my marriage, I seriously came to conclude that my wife’s aversion to eating mutton with puran poli combo had to do with the fact that polis are a Maharashtrian dessert eaten stand-alone with tuup (somewhat like ukadiche modak) accompanying a festive taat. Cut to an occasion not long after our
wedding, I stumbled upon a family celebration at my wife’s, where every single invitee was wolfing down one लुसलुशीत poli after another with (drumroll) कटाची आमटी! Till date, I have been unable to understand why people who have no qualms about ‘this’ combination are horrified with the mere suggestion of ‘that’ one.
Over the past 10 years, I gradually realised that ritual foods and typical combinations intrinsic to a Pathare Prabhu household seem so alien to someone not accustomed to our ways. The first year of our marriage was full of such culinary revelations for my wife. She tasted quite a few firsts including, बाफोळं (essentially a diamond shaped idli) served with warm sweet masala milk, Parbhi style Pav (a native sourdough tradition) with Aam-Ras (Paayri only! Nothing else will do) and politely but firmly refused to subject her taste buds to the threatening assault of Kel-Bombil! Yes, ripe plantain and slimy bombil cooked together is actually an age old Pathare Prabhu dish!
Another one that shocks those unfamiliar with our love for seafood and meat and my wife simply refuses to try is the Pathare Prabhu winter delicacy called घडा. Ghadaa is a celebration of seasonal local produce. This undhiyu like concoction combines numerous varieties of papdi, brinjals, assorted tubers including particularly rare local ones (called कसरा), whole sugarcane sticks, ripe banana (yes…again) slow cooked together with mutton, prawns and chunks of ghol fish. All together in a single pot!
The first family picnic we went to, an aunt of mine kindly agreed to bring breakfast for a truckload of relatives (ok… it was a minibus carrying 12 of us) and decided to impress new suunbai with freshly made karandi pohe (PP style kaande batate pohe liberally embellished with baby prawns). बिच्चारी पुणेरी सूनबाई almost had a nervous breakdown trying to explain that she couldn’t bear the thought of eating prawn flavoured pohe first thing in the morning. All of my relatives still have a hearty laugh at the sight of her face when she got her first whiff of what looked deceptively like batate pohe but an aroma reminiscent
of Sassoon Docks after the auction.
Dassra, Diwali (Padwa), Gudi Padwa – three of the साडेतीन मुहु्र्त are marked in a Parbhi home by cooking Mutton Godé with Keshri Bhaat. This concept of a celebration being incomplete without non-veg food perplexed my in-laws time and again by the sheer dichotomy of following age old religious ritual enthusiastically, and an equal if not more enthusiasm in cooking and consuming non-veg food subsequently.
Diwali Padwa is a very important day in the Prabhu calendar. Families wake up early in the morning. All the dust and trash (कचरा) in the house is swept, collected and paraded in a tray around the house with the lady of the house chanting, ‘ईडा पिडा टळो.. बळीचे राज्य येवो’.
This is followed by ritual baths and another pooja, welcoming King Bali (akin to what Kerala does on Onam). And once the rituals are done with, the men step out to their favourite pastime of haggling with the fisherwoman for the choicest pomfrets. Because no Balipratipada lunch is complete without sinful deep fried, ‘चटणीचे सरंगे’.
It would be unfair to leave out a mention of our unique Diwali faraal known in Parbhi lingo as ‘sukdi’. We churn out the usual suspects like chakli, shev and shankarpali, but also some pretty unique traditional faraal. One of these is known as दुधी हलव्याची शिंगडी. This one is a laminated pastry shell encasing Dudhi halwa, shaped into karanji like crescents but baked instead of fried like regular Karanjis or the remarkably similar CKP style khajache kanavle.
Two more curious components of PP faraal are ‘ghevar’ and ‘churma ladoo’. These are quite similar to their Rajasthani namesakes, but with slight variations and tweaks, making them quintessentially Parbhi. Our ghevar have a crunchier texture and longer shelf life and the churma is completely made of rawa, with no wheat flour. These bear testimony to our ancient Kutch-Rajasthan roots (legend has it that we migrated to Mumbai via Rajasthan and Patan in Gujarat) and thus the culinary influence of that region on our food habits.
Speaking of wheat flour brings me to our obsession with maida and refined sugar. This, I think has to do with our close proximity to the gora sahib. We love maida, just like the Bengalis and also ensure that maida is proudly showcased in our cooking. From savoury prawn fritters called ‘pangoji’ to pithee saakhar filled ‘guravlya’, we use maida extensively in our cooking.
The other colonial influence on our culinary style is the ample use of baking in many of our recipes. There are century old documented baking recipes for shepherd’s pie, cabbage, besan and prawn bhanavle, mumbray (another savoury cake recipe which combines ripe banana with prawn or bombil), Parbhi Pav and shingdya. Our aajis and panjees made use of simple home style charcoal kilns (called bhaati) to produce these goodies in times when electric ovens were unheard of.
Despite having such a rich culinary heritage, due to our dwindling numbers, this glorious cuisine has stayed restricted to our home kitchens. An occasional restaurant menu may feature a token recipe, but these are few and far between. In the past couple of years, social media and the home chef pop up boom have led to a slightly wider reach and some exposure to our culinary traditions.
One lives in hope that some day, we may see a cookbook or a mainstream restaurant that will bring about a renaissance of this dying tradition!