Until a while ago, a small outlet of Purepur Kolhapur restaurant in a Mumbai suburb was my only window to Kolhapur’s cuisine. Eager to taste more, I planned a two-day road trip to the city in south-western Maharashtra. A former Maratha princely state in British India, the city’s royal past reflects in its cuisine, especially the non-vegetarian preparations.

Though Kolhapuri cuisine is commonly believed to be extremely spicy, it is not as hot as say, the food from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. That said, it does have bold and sharp flavours, thanks to the home-grown lavangi mirchi and the special Kolhapuri spice mix used. I was keen to sample what the city had to offer.

Rite of passage

Pouring rain made my journey to Kolhapur inordinately long and by the time I reached the city, I was hungry. For dinner, I picked Dehaati, a restaurant near the old Mumbai-Bangalore highway, which had a queue at the entrance even at 10 pm. Getting straight to business, I ordered a mutton fry thali with rice bhakri.

The thali that comes with tambda rassa (spicy red curry) and pandhra rassa (white curry) are a rite of passage for any food lover visiting Kolhapur. Prepared from mutton stock, these are served in unlimited quantities. The heat from the tambda rassa kicked in after two spoonfuls. The pandhra rassa, prepared using coconut milk, helped cool off the heat. The mutton fry was well-cooked and simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The mutton kheema vati was flavourful, and unlike the drier and oily versions served in Irani or Mughlai joints, it was cooked in a light gravy. For vegetarians there is the surprisingly delicious akka masoor thali, a lentil gravy made with ghee, which gives it a rich and creamy texture.

For breakfast the next morning, I headed to Hotel Bawada Misal in the Kasba-Bawada area. Open since 1923, it is the city’s oldest misal house and has been visited by celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Jeetendra and the late Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt. Kolhapuri misal has its own quirks, with thin potato slices part of the tikhat rassa (spicy curry), and garnished with grated coconut. It is accompanied by curd for those who can’t handle the heat. It was served with sliced bread instead of the traditional ladi pav.

To make room for lunch, I packed in some quick sightseeing. My first stop was New Palace. Completed in 1884, the black stone palatial structure continues to be the residence of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, with some chambers thrown open for visitors.

Counted among the Shakti Peeths, the Mahalaxmi temple is believed to have been built in the ninth century and is an important pilgrimage site. The lane behind it is full of stalls selling a variety of handcrafted leather Kolhapuri chappals. There are also stalls selling imitation, gold-plated versions of the Kolhapuri saaj, a traditional necklace with 21 leaves.

What’s the pickle?

For lunch I chose the two-storey Hotel Gandhar at the Shivaji Chowk roundabout. I ordered the famous mutton lonche, a surprisingly delicious mutton pickle of deep-fried pieces in a mix of local spices, coconut, sesame and poppy seeds.

After a brief break to watch the sunset at Rankala Lake, I took another pass at the mutton lonche at the Patlacha Wada resto bar, where I paired it with chilled beer. Though the mutton lonche wasn’t as great as the one I had for lunch, it went down well with the beer.

There was one last stop to make the next morning before leaving Kolhapur. From stalls at Panhala Fort, believed to be the place where Shivaji Maharaj spent the most time other than his childhood home, I tried Kolhapuri bhadang bhel. It’s spicier than its Mumbai counterpart thanks to the use of garlic and chilli powder. It was my final snack before I bid goodbye to the city that had succeeded in surprising me.

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