I doubt there’s a soul that can pin down when exactly my (Pathare Prabhu) clan started using an array of seemingly exotic ingredients in our regular cooking. Legend has it that we migrated from the hills of Nepal to the plains, moved to Rajasthan and finally to Mumbai via Gujarat. Over time, we adopted the Marathi language as our own, imitated the Marathi way of dressing (the traditional नऊ वारी साडी) and a lot of other cultural aspects. When it comes to the food though, the preferences are quite unlike most other Marathi folk. Our diet is primarily non-vegetarian, with seafood and meat being key to the cuisine.
Our ancestors took great pride in their aristocratic lineage and one would expect the recipes to call for prime cuts of meat and boneless fish (supposedly indicative of aristocracy). Ironically, though our favourite dishes comprise offal (भेजा, कलेजी and कपुरा), fish heads and bones (घोळीचे बघड and काटा ) and foraged vegetables viz. माचोळ (samphire – a seaweed), शेवळ (dragonstalk yam) कसरा (a tuber grown in the marshes of Alibaug). I’m going to try and introduce these unique ingredients to you that are gradually getting extinct and may eventually become mere remnants of our ancient culinary heritage.
The love for offal
There are no documented Parbhi recipes for pork and beef (religious taboo), and goat is unanimously the favourite meat among the clan.
Curiously however, consuming offal, which is traditionally associated with a lack of access to the better cuts due to their prohibitive cost is very popular. An old uncle often reminisces how goat liver would be slow cooked overnight over charcoal embers resulting in a sukka masala dish with the softest melt in your mouth texture for a winter Sunday’s lunch. Bheja is another favourite, cooked with onions or just coated in besan batter and deep fried into crisp pakoras.
The bit (pun intended!) that often evokes chuckles even amongst the most hardcore non vegetarian though, is ‘kapura’ (for the uninitiated, this is the local name for goat testicles). Almost every family cooks their Sunday meat curry with this part snuck in along with the prized shoulder cut, leaving many a purist aghast.
Ghol – the fish, the bones and the head
Ghol is the Parbhu’s favourite fish. The boneless chunks are a daily staple. These are fried, pickled, stewed and curried. However, the ingredient we really look forward to, is the bony spine from a large ghol. This style of cutting fish is unique to Mumbai and specifically mastered by our native Kolis. The ghol head aka bagad is also bought and cooked separately by many a PP enthusiast. The kata and bagad are highly revered parts and are treated with a great deal of respect.
The traditional ‘bhujna’ recipe is tweaked slightly when cooking these. Ginger, is added to the cold mix of crushed raw onions, garlic, chillies, coriander and oil when cooking kata or bagad. The bony bits lend a pretty unique gelatinous texture to the resulting curry -completely unlike the result of the same recipe using boneless ghol chunks.
Foraged local vegetables
Long before ‘eat local and eat seasonal’ became the catch phrase, our ancestors incorporated many ingenious vegetables in their seasonal delicacies. The local variant of samphire aka machol was once abundantly grown along the salt pan marshes (now known popularly for sighting migratory flamingoes). These were pureed and cooked with prawns and coconut milk into a delicious curry bursting with umami flavours called माचोळाचे सांभारे. This ingredient is almost extinct and I haven’t been able to procure any for the past 10 odd years!
Kasra is a tuber, again grown in the local marshes. every year when I buy these to cook a delicious halwa or add these to my winter hotch potch ghadaa (घडा is a winter recipe almost like undhiyu which has brinjals, papdi and a host of tubers and roots), I notice, as delicious as they are, how ugly they look and marvel at the ingenuity of the first individual who decided to pull them out of a marsh and peel and cook them in a dish!
Dragon stalk yam aka शेवळ is another such ingredient which is integral to Parbhi cuisine. This pre monsoon bloom is plucked, the fleshy stamens are stewed in tamarind and cooked into a curry with coconut milk and prawns. If cooked by a novice without acid-treating adequately, this can cause a great deal of discomfort on account of the oxalate content, causing anything from a mild rash to a horrible allergic swelling all over the body.
This article is a small attempt to familiarise the Marathi diaspora with a few exotic ingredients used by my tiny Maharashtrian clan, with techniques that are familiar and similar, yet so unique and distinct! I’d love to hear from the readers if any of your families or clans use these ingredients in your cooking. Because like they say, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing!”
Soumitra Velkar is a home chef and weekend caterer, who moonlights as an insurance professional and is deeply passionate about bringing Pathare Prabhu cuisine to the mainstream.