Don’t be fooled by the unassuming looks of chef Prakash Pawaskar, executive sous chef of Trident, at Mumbai’s Nariman Point. He is, in reality, a connoisseur of the cuisine of Maharashtra.
As a matter of fact, Pawaskar’s links with the food of his home state go back to the times of Shivaji: The chef’s father-in-law, belonging to the Modi community, had a great grandfather who supplied pulses and spices to the great leader’s army.
As an 11-year-old, Pawaskar was inveigled into drying the family’s spices on a sunny terrace and then taking them to Lalbaug, in central Mumbai, to get them roasted and ground in front of him. Many families in the Parel-Lalbaug area have always had a couple of key spice blends ground once a year—a practice that continues till today. It is in the vacation month of May, well before the monsoon, that the spices are ground. Pawaskar, who hails from Maharashtra’s Vaish-Vani community, used to have the family’s supply of garam masala roasted and ground. Other communities, too, would bring similar spices to be ground, but the proportion of the ingredients and the degree of roasting would make all the difference.
Red hot: Lalbaug’s Mirchi Galli is busiest before the monsoon.
Thus, while garam masala (which is meant for a community which likes its lamb and chicken) contains bedgi chillies, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, bayleaf, and star anise, Goda masala, used by the Brahmin community, has far fewer chillies and includes jeera, haldi, roasted grated coconut and hing, and cinnamon and cloves. The downplayed spices make Goda masala suitable for use in vegetarian dishes.
The row of spice sellers in Lalbaug’s Mirchi Galli, most of whom are from Sangli, is the visible face of Maharashtrian spices in Mumbai. The city has a veritable army of anonymous housewives who make spice mixes for themselves and their neighbours and friends.
Most people tend to dismiss Maharashtrian food as being a trifle simple. It is nowhere near as popular at five-star banquets as say, Kashmiri and Punjabi food. Yet, in its very simplicity, nay austerity, is a certain elegance. Vegetables are never overcooked; the cooking medium is never visible; there is an underplayed sophistication in the play of tastes and textures, as exemplified in the iconic vada pao, a mere Rs6 a pop.
The dishes that are fading out of the Maharashtrian repertoire are not due to complicated procedures, but on account of their simplicity. Doodhachi Aamti, the ultra-simple, kadhi-like accompaniment to rice that is tempered with curry leaves, mustard seeds, ginger and garlic has to be made with the milk of a single cow. In the old days, it was a foregone conclusion that everyone in Pawaskar’s home-town of Sawantwadi possessed a cow. In today’s milieu, the basic ingredient for Doodhachi Aamti is a rarity in all but a remote village, and so there’s one dish less in the annals of Maharashtrian cookery. The logic is that if you use the milk of several cows, the dish is bound to split.
8 bedgi chillies
12 cloves of garlic
6 green chillies
½ tsp turmeric
1 bunch of coriander leaves
150g dry coconut
30g sesame seeds
1 tsp poppy seeds
100g onions (half sliced and half diced)
2 tsp dry garam masala powder (cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and star anise)
For the garam masala: 10g coriander seeds
1 tbsp peppercorns
3 cinnamon sticks
2 bay leaves
1 star anise
Grind ginger, garlic, green chilli, coriander leaves and turmeric. Marinate the mutton in this paste for half an hour. In a pan, sauté the diced onions in ghee, add the mutton, and stir-fry for 10 minutes. Add hot water, and cook in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes.
In a pan, sauté the whole spices for the garam masala. Add sesame, poppy seeds, bedgi chillies and sliced onion and make a paste. Add it to the mutton when it is almost tender. Add the coconut and dry garam masala powder. Cook for 10 minutes.
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