**Swapneel Prabhu is a gifted singer and Michelin-worthy chef. His culinary escapades stem from his deep-rooted experiences, making his dishes not just a gastronomic delight but also an evocative sensory experience.**
Angat Pangat has been a great place for discovery and learning about Maharashtrian culture in general and the cuisine of the state in particular. So, ever since the announcement of the Angat Pangat Diwali Ank, I was elated at the prospect of the treasure trove of knowledge it was going to throw open for a novice such as me.
I was tremendously excited about the idea and also considered sending in a small article about some childhood memory associated with the festival. I toyed with a few ideas but rejected them for they seemed pretty ‘regular’ to me. I had been raking my brain to come up with something interesting and worthy of the Inaugural issue of the Ank, but I had hit a wall. After many a futile attempt, I was bracing myself for and trying to come to terms with the disappointment that after all, I may not be able to send any contribution, even if only ordinary, for the Angat Pangat Diwali Ank.
That’s when Saee, like a Godsent came to my rescue and suggested I consider writing on ‘The Fine Art of Maharashtrian Cuisine’. This was just the inspiration and impetus I needed and it could not have come at a better time. Following this thread, I started thinking about the possible ideas through which I could showcase the nuanced finesse of Maharashtrian cuisine. The initial excitement was soon replaced by trepidation and the realisation of what a herculean task it was going to be.
After a lot of anxious pondering, an idea started taking shape. It occurred to me that I should not treat this as a demonstration to showcase the depth and expanse of the cuisine. That mammoth task is for an expert or academician which I am not. So, this became an exercise of attentive introspection. It took the form of soul searching while looking through the lens of Maharashtrian Cuisine.
This shift in focus and approach made the whole endeavour extremely rewarding and enriching. And thus, with my extremely limited understanding of the cuisine and even more limited knowledge of the technicalities and skills involved, I set out designing an eight-course degustation menu, constructed around classic Maharashtrian flavours. The naive approach of a student held me in good stead. On my own small level, I came up with some reimagined and refined (for lack of a better word) versions of traditional Maharashtrian food.
I have taken care not to disturb the soul of the cuisine. Staying true to the essence of the dishes and taking great caution to avoid frivolous gimmickry. This is just simple, honest, real cooking by a student of Maharashtrian Cuisine.
Course 1: PB & J (Pavta Bharit aani Jondhala) Cornetts
As a little boy, I spent Diwali vacations with my maternal grandparents at their home in Belgaum. Most of the extended family would descend upon their modest dwelling and for the next fortnight, it would be transformed into a magical place. The perfectly square kitchen with soot-covered, textured walls (the modern day textured slate platters fade in comparison) was the last room in the unimaginative, linear arrangement of the house. It was her place of worship, and cooking; her way of devotion. On the floor, built against one of the walls was the Chool; the sanctum sanctorum in this temple. On many quiet afternoons when the rest of the brood caught up on their siesta, I sat in rapt attention, listening to stories she narrated set against the baritone background of the grinding stone. Jadiamma, as I call my grandmother, was an extremely resourceful and enterprising homemaker. The fine balance of discipline and creativity with which she managed her kitchen remains an aspiration. One that has eluded me so far. It was fascinating to witness how she transformed simple ingredients into things of wonder. When I think of Jadiamma in that house, the image that stands out is of her making Bhakri. One particular meal that’s etched in my memory is this Vangyache Bharit she made. Taking a refreshing detour from her usual recipe, she added a handful of Pavte (Fresh Green Beans), nonchalantly demonstrating just how accommodating and flexible Maharashtrian recipes can be in. The inspired innovation made the mundane Bharit so delightfully novel. She had served it with Bhakri and batonnets of radish. There was some sweet curd for those who fancied it and house-made Sandgi Mirchi which I finished even before I touched the Bhakri. Seeing this, Belgav Ajoba, the doting grandfather that he was, stealthily slipped his share in my plate.
I used this magical childhood memory to create the first course. I fashioned a cone out of the classic Bhakri dough and baked it in the oven to get the crispy texture. Once baked, the cones were lightly toasted on fire to give them the hallmark Bhakri personality. I then piped-in alternate layers of the Bharit with Pavte and a hung curd and radish raita. The filled cones were then topped with toasted, nutty popped sorghum (Jodhlyachya Lahya) rolled in hung curd. The magic dust of crushed fried Sandgi Mirchi made for a spunky garnish.
Course 2: Pulled Mori/Mushi (Baby Shark) Tacos
Pedro Kaka and his family owned boats/trawlers that fished off the Vasai-Virar coast. The family was known to my aunt and they would often send across some rare prized catch from the days sortie. Visits to Arnala beach were preceded by an inevitable pitstop at Pedro Kaka’s. On the rare occasion, we kids would also get a joy ride in one of their boats.
On one particular summer afternoon while on our way to the beach, we took a brief halt at their house, as was customary. We then proceeded to the waterfront. Later in the afternoon, one of their girls, came looking for us. She simply said “Aaine jevan pathavlai” (Mom has sent food/lunch). It was essentially the most amazing, dream picnic basket ever. The cane basket had soft, warm Rice Bhakri (‘Rotis’ I think they are called), some fish cooked in a thick flavourful masala and some brilliant fried fish. We were touched and moved beyond words by this show of Koli hospitality and generosity.
To celebrate and pay homage to this native community of Mumbai and the surrounding region, I made a soft-shelled taco. I used Mori/Mushi (Baby shark) loved for its meaty texture and flavour. The firm fleshed fish lends itself beautifully to such preparations. The recipe called for Koli Masala. Making one from scratch was great education and deeply satisfying. I cooked, what is known as Mori/Mushi mutton with this masala. I then gently flaked the fish discarding the cartilaginous central bone. I spooned this onto a petit rice bhakri which served as the Tortilla. I then placed some poha-crumbed, super crispy squid rings on it. The picnic baskets would always also have some Kolim which are strongly flavoured, briney, pickled tiny shrimps. Think of it as the Maharashtrian equivalent of Belacan. A charred green tomato and raw mango chutney/salsa tied together the dish and provided a much-needed burst of freshness and vibrancy topped with a few dill fronds.
After plating the course, I noticed that the plate resembled a blue lagoon enclosed by what looked like a sandy beach. A happy and apt coincidence for an ode to one of my favourite sub-cuisines of Maharashtra. One that adds incredible character, colour and charm.
Course 3: Kolambiche Bhanole with a Khadkhadla Sauce (Prawn Cakes with Shell Sauce)
Talking about seafood, few cuisines use it with the brilliance that is seen in Pathare Prabhu cuisine. The art of extracting and imparting maximum flavour through minimal ingredients is incredibly appealing and impressive. And that is just one aspect of the multifaceted cuisine.The Pathare Prabhu (and also the CKP school) have probably got a non-vegetarian/seafood version of every classic recipe and that makes it a cuisine after my own heart.
The native community of Mumbai uses local ingredients in innovative ways employing possibly every known cooking technique. The third course in the degustation had to be one from Pathare Prabhu cuisine. I made Kolambiche Bhanole. It’s almost like a steamed (sometimes baked) terrine marbled with succulent prawns. A vegetarian version of which uses Kobi (Cabbage).
I served a portion of the Kolambiche Bhanole with a Khadkhala Sauce. A match made in food heaven. A side of shredded cabbage dressed simply in lime juice and seasoning introduced freshness and kept the course satisfying yet light.
Course 4: Shahaala-Amsul Sorbet (Tender Coconut and Kokum Sorbet)
After the three courses, I thought it would be an appropriate time to sit back and reflect on the entrees and refresh the palate for the upcoming mains. So, I decided to do a palate cleanser for the fourth course.
Maharashtra is blessed with a rich bounty of some wondrous seasonal native fruits amongst other produce. Barring a few that steal all the thunder, many are left largely underappreciated and neglected. These gems find little or no place and use in commercial establishments and kitchens outside the Maharashtrian household.
With precisely that thought, I made a Shahaala (Tender Coconut) and Amsul (Kokum) Sorbet. We have a huge Ratamba tree on the land surrounding our ancestral house. As kids, we would wake up every morning and go on a recee of the garden to check if we had some ripe Ratambe. That beautiful, sole Ratmaba tree surrounded by happy coconut palms with the wind in their hair, grooving to the reggae of the sea was certainly an inspiration behind this course.
Bor is a childhood favourite and another native fruit that has been long neglected and at the receiving end of step motherly treatment. I thought it deserved a spot of pride on the plate. I made a Borkut with scintillating flavours that make the mouth pucker and that one can’t get enough of.
The plate was coming together but called for a textural element. But it had to be delicate, dainty and in sync with the other components. I remembered how I would devour Dinkache Laadu that Jadiamma would make for my aunt when she had her children. So much so that she would make a separate batch for me. I had found the missing piece of the jigsaw. I made a Dink Laadu coral crisp.
On Diwali morning after our Abhangya Snaan, Jadiamma would send each of us grandchildren with a plate of Pharaal for the neighbours. Carrying that plate of goodies while resisting the temptation from a certain horned guy on my left shoulder was a test of integrity that tempered our character.
The coral crisp with the blushing sorbet reminded me of the Laadu peeping from under the lacey cloth cover that would be placed on the plate of Pharaal. The floral pattern on the Borkut brought back memories of the pretty Rangoli without which Diwali is incomplete. A sign that I had tapped into the right memories.
Course 5: Varanphal Tortellini (Stuffed Pasta in Lentil Sauce)
After much deliberation, I chose Varanphal as the fifth course and the first main. The ultimate Maharashtrian comfort food had to be reimagined for the degustation. I made stuffed Varanphal Tortellini. To make the course interesting, to take away predictability and to add an element of surprise, the tortellini on the plate had different fillings.
One was stuffed with a Methi-Batata (Fenugreek leaves and Potato) Bhaaji and the other had a Lal Bhopla (Pumpkin) Bhaaji. The variety of Methi that grows along sandy shores, has crisp, succulent stalks and provided a great bite.
Puneri Varan which is a family favourite was the sauce that the Varanphal were cooked in and served with. The recipe calls for tomatoes and I charred some to add a smoky spin and introduce another layer of flavour. A drizzle of pulpy, marmaladey, sweet, sour and spicy Limbaacha Loncha (Lime Pickle) helped cut the richness and brought some acidity to the table. A fragrant Phodni (Tempering) with earthy Jeere (Cumin Seeds), the pop of Mohari (Mustard Seeds) and crispy chiffonade of Kadhilimba (Curry Leaves) and a pinch of aromatic Hing (Asafoetida) rounded off the dish. Finally, I topped it with some fried potato skin tossed in Lasun (Garlic) Chutney, just like a Pasta would be made moreish with the addition of crispy, flavour-packed Pangritata.
It made perfect sense to garnish this ‘Pasta’ Course with a few sprigs of Methi leaves, the original Maharashtrian microgreens.
Course 6: Sticky Saoji-Orange Glazed Chicken Wings with Gola Bhaat
This was by far, the most challenging course in the entire spread, simply because I have the least exposure to and experience of Nagpur and Varhadi food. I did not want to go down the predictable and trodden path. From a culinary stand point, Saoji and Oranges are synonymous with Nagpur. I thought it would only be fitting to put the two together. Sticky Saoji-Orange Wings seemed like an interesting flavour combination and an innovation with traditional, regional flavours. Saoji being notorious for the spice levels, adding some acidity from the oranges to take the edge off just a bit, made a lot of sense.
I made a Gola Bhaat as the starch on the plate as I thought it would provide a perfect canvas for the Saoji-Orange Wings. As I set out to cook and put the course together, it proved to be a fulfilling and rewarding journey. That of discovering surprising flavours and a whole new style of cooking.
The Besan Golas (Chickpea Flour Balls) was such a revalation and worked brilliantly with the other flavours on the plate. The natural sugars in the orange caramelised to give the wings a stunning glaze and the Saoji sauce it’s iconic lip-smacking flavour. The colour of the rice found resonance in the flavour of the glazed wings.
This Foray into the world of Varhadi Cuisine has opened a whole new world of flavours. One I can’t wait to venture further and deeper into.
Course 7: Mutton En Croute with Tambda Rassa.
A meal I had on a farm near Kolhapur remains one of my most cherished food memories. The robust cuisine of the region with bold, assertive flavours holds a special place in my heart. I had to make the iconic Tambda Rass. That was non-negotiable. Making the Kanda-Lasun Masala and other spice mixes for making the flavour packed brothy Rassa was such a valuable insight into the refined and often misinterpreted world of Kolhapuri food. The gradual and thoughtful building of layers of flavour is a labour of love and cannot be rushed. Seemingly simple steps like dry roasting, frying the spices and aromats make such a huge difference to the finished product.
To go with the Tambada Rassa, I took on the the rather intimidating task of attempting something like an En Croute on the lines of the ‘Wellington’. I decided to make the laminated pastry used for Kanavle/Sathyachya Karanjya. This was my first try at the extremely technical and what I am told is a temperamental pastry. I mixed in some smoky, fiery Thecha into the dough (detrempe) to give it that distinctly savoury flavour and also because I just cannot imagine a Kolhapuri meal without Thecha. A recipe can only take you so far. I have always believed it is to be used as a map. I decided to go by instinct and intuition and patiently layered the dough with the beurrage.
For the Stuffing, I decided to use strips of roasted boneless mutton. The duxelle is a semi mashed dry Usal of Kale Vatane and Kelphool (Banana Blossom) with freshly scraped coconut for a hint of sweetness and of course, texture. I assembled the ‘En Croute’ and baked it till it was golden and flaky and served it with the sublime and heady Tambda Rassa on the side. Assembling this dish and then seeing it turn out the way I had envisioned was so reassuring and a testimony to the sheer range of the repertoire in a Maharashtrian kitchen.
Course 8: Halad-Miri Kharvas and Kunda Crisps (Turmeric and Pepper Panna Cotta with Milk Fudge Crisps)
The last course of a meal often proves to be the most challenging and it was no different for me. I was spoilt for choice with the vast array of Maharashtrian sweets and desserts available. I wanted the degustation experience to culminate on a high. The last course has to leave a lasting impression.
I decide to make a Kharvas and after running from pillar to post also managed to source some colostrum. I decide to make the Saraswat version. Long before turmeric latte was dubbed as an elixir, the sub cuisine added it to Kharvas. It’s a brilliant trick to mask the peculiar smell Cheek/Colostrum can have, it also serves as a natural food colour, imparting that gorgeous sunset hue. Black pepper aids in digestion and is such a surprise to find this spice in desserts. Regular milk is replaced with coconut milk and jaggery is used in place of sugar. This gives a deeper, earthy sweetness as opposed to the bright but sometimes superficial sweetness of refined sugar. The result is a sublime dessert that dreams are made of. The jiggle of a well-made Kharvas can give a run to the wobble of the Pannacottas of the world.
To break the textural monotony, I made some Kunda and turned it into crisps dotted with Charoli; the quintessential Maharashtrian dessert nut. The Kunda also added a chewy texture and a deep caramelly aftertaste, making it a balanced and indulgent course to end the degustation with.