The cuisine of Maharashtra is like a rich tapestry, woven together by the various communities that have come to inhabit it through centuries. To really unearth the spectrum of the state’s culinary repertoire, one has to diligently excavate the layers underlying it, like an archaeologist. And soon, you will find stories, legends and folklore beginning to peep out. One of these tales is about the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, or the CKP, and their journey from the mountainous terrain close to Jammu and Kashmir, through Madhya Pradesh, to finally reach the coastal parts of Maharashtra.
The story of the community’s origin is steeped in myths and legends. The CKP have an ancient lineage, and are believed to have descended from King Chandrasen of the Haihaya family, the ruler of Ayodhya. It was during the 10th century, that the Shilahara dynasty of Konkan began to invite Brahmins, scribes and warriors from the northern Indo-Gangetic valley to settle in their lands, and thus started the long journey of the CKP community to Maharashtra.
Soon, they began to occupy many a prominent post in the royal administration, and that’s how, perhaps, the word ‘Prabhu’ – meaning a high-ranking government official — got added to the name. “CKPs were known to assist the best of kings, including the Peshwas. The surnames were assigned according to their role in the court. Today, one can find the community residing in pockets of Mumbai, Pune and Thane,” says Sameer Gupte, founder of the immensely popular CKP Food Fest, held regularly in Pune and Thane. Due to the community’s proximity to royalty, influences of some of that rich repast seeped into its cuisine as well. Especially during festivals, proficient cooks can be seen doling out rich desserts and sweetmeats, some of which are typical to the community. “Take the kanavle, for instance. Akin to the karanji, these are made with dry fruits and spices, mostly during Diwali,” says Gupte.
There was a time, some 10 years ago, when one would get to taste the cuisine of the CKP community only at the home of a friend or an acquaintance. However, today, efforts are being made to bring this culinary treasure trove out of home kitchens into restaurants as well. One of these is Kotwal’s Kitchen, located in a mall in Baner, Pune, where Ashwini and Mohit Kotwal whip up delicacies such as prawns kaalvan, or prawns cooked in a signature CKP-style thin coconut gravy, and vadi che sambhar, or gram flour cakes in gravy. “A lot of our friends loved our dishes, but couldn’t find these outside of our home. So, we opened Kotwal’s Kitchen to introduce the wider public to the wonderful dishes that make up the CKP cuisine,” says Ashwini. And the response is for all to see.
A similar case can be seen at Cloves Catering, Pune, as well, co-founded by Parikshit Vilekar. While five years ago, hardly anyone from outside the community would ask for CKP food, today, he caters to at least four to five non-CKP clients a week, who ask for specific specialties such as kadvya vaalacha birdhe, masoor aamti, aambat varan, sodey bharli vaangi, kolambicha lipta and maasyacha kaalvan. “To popularise the community’s fare even more, we plan to host small, private tables as well,” he says.
What imparts a distinct facet to the CKP cuisine is a certain hybridity – a perfect marriage of spices from Kashmir with local seasonal produce from Maharashtra. According to Vilekar, this union be seen in the use of poppy seeds [a stark influence of Kashmir] with coconut, kokum and tamarind — typical ingredients from coastal Maharashtra. The repast is also rich in fish and meat dishes. An article in the Outlook Traveller, by Shailendra Bhandare, talks about the community’s fondness for a good meal: “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, and also fashioned into a rice pulao, or sodyanchi khichdi. All three are unique to CKP households.” It’s no wonder then that members of the CKP community often refer to themselves as ‘Changla Khaanare Peenare’, or people who love to eat good food and enjoy a nice drink.
Some of the other distinct ingredients, besides dried shrimp, that can be found in all CKP kitchens are kadve vaal, or bitter cluster beans, and sukat, or dried shrimp. “Birdhe, a vegetarian curry, and khichadi, are extremely delicious and unlike dishes cooked elsewhere. Also interesting are bharla sarangi, or stuffed pomfret, masyache kaalvan, a fish curry and tallya masalyache mutton or chicken,” says Vilekar. An interesting fact about the stuffed pomfret – the masala varies according to the region that a person belongs to. For instance, a member of the community from Dahanu would stuff the pomfret with green chutney, while someone from Alibaug would fill it with shrimps. Then, there is ninaav, a sweet made in CKP homes just once a year. Though its preparation requires a tremendous amount of effort, the end result is quite worth the toil. “Another signature dish is the shevlachi bhaji, made with a dragon stalk yam, which grows wild in the coastal forests of Maharashtra. It’s only available in the months of June and July, and you need to forage for it,” says Gupte. It is this, and more, that he will be showcasing at the upcoming CKP Food Fest in January. As Ashwini Kotwal says: “CKP cuisine is an interesting piece of art, which has evolved through geographies and across time.”
Avantika Bhuyan is a journalist with a special interest in food, and is a new member of the Angat Pangat Facebook Group.
All images in this article are courtesy Parikshit Vilekar of Cloves Catering.