Friday, August 9, 2013

Menu for a Manoos: Cooking Marathi

Yes, I grew up in the UAE and the US, but as far as India is concerned, I am more of a Mumbaikar than anything else. After all, I was born in the city, and I spent a little over a year working there. Hence, of the small portion of my life that I did spend in India, the vast majority was spent in Mumbai.

But a cosmopolitan megalopolis like Mumbai offers few opportunities for those wishing to sample the cuisine of its mother state of Maharashtra, leaving one to find it in the odd restaurant or in Marathi homes. Indeed, my first real acquaintance with Marathi food was at the dinner table of one of my relatives, who married a Marathi. Living nearby during my aforementioned stint in the city, I would frequently find Marathi dishes on the menu when I visited.

The Marathis, whose warrior caste was classified as one of the "martial races" under colonial British ethnic taxonomy, bear the distinction of founding and ruling the subcontinent's last great empire, which encompassed most of modern-day India at its peak, and set sail one the few powerful blue water navies in the region's history.

Marathi cuisine shares some features with other Western Indian cuisines, putting the heat of Indian spices together with the sweetness of jaggery and the sourness of tamarind pulp, and using ground nuts, desiccated coconut and/or sesame seeds to add body. Of the dishes in the Marathi menu I planned for my party of 8, I had prior familiarity with only the cold dishes, so much of it was new territory for me on both the kitchen counter and the dining table.

One of my favorite Marathi dishes is the cold raita of red pumpkin, bhoplyache bharit. While the original recipe called for boiling of 3 cups of the Indian red pumpkin, I cut and baked mine instead (180C, until I could easily stick a chopstick into all the baking pieces), and scooped the pulp into a bowl before mashing it. I then added 2 cups of yogurt and 8 chopped green chilies, and mixed well.

For the tempering, I added a teaspoon and a half of garlic powder to 3 teaspoons of mustard seeds popping in hot oil, and poured this, sizzling hot, into the mixture prepared earlier.

Refrigerated for a couple of hours, and garnished with chopped cilantro just before serving, this dish is a good, cooling side dish, but it has enough flavor and bite of its own to be served with bread or eaten by itself as a snack.

My next dish was a black-eyed pea masala called chavlichi usal. This dish pretty much hinges on the masala mix, which I made by roasting 2 tablespoons of desiccated coconut and 4 teaspoons of cumin seeds, and grinding them with 8 chopped green chilies.

After adding a teaspoon of garlic powder, 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder, and 10 sliced garlic cloves to 4 teaspoons of mustard seeds sputtering in hot oil, and frying with two chopped onions until translucent, I added 3 cups (about 500g) of black-eyed peas I had soaked and boiled, along with enough water to just about leave the topmost layer of peas dry. I then stirred in the ground masala mix, 2 teaspoons of loosened tamarind pulp, 2 teaspoons of jaggery and a teaspoon of salt, cooking for a few more minutes before garnishing with chopped cilantro and serving. This turned out to be a tasty and hearty dish, going very well with the chapatis.

My next dish was stuffed mini-eggplants, bharli vangi. I prepared the stuffing by grinding a cup of roasted and skinned peanuts and 4 tablespoons of roasted sesame seeds into a coarse powder, then adding 3 tablespoons of coriander powder, 2 teaspoons of cumin powder, 2 teaspoons of garam masala, 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, and 3 teaspoons of red chili powder, along with a teaspoon of salt. After adding 2 tablespoons of jaggery and a 2 tablespoons of broken tamarind pulp, I mashed all of these into a paste, adding just enough water to ensure cohesion.

Mini-eggplants are not available everywhere; I found these in a West Zone in Karama. After removing the green stem parts, I cut two slits at right angles to each other, on the non-stem end, going almost all the way down to the stem end. I let them sit in lukewarm salt water for about 15 minutes.

Finally, I stuffed the stuffing into each eggplant, pinching the latter across the slits to get them to open up for the stuffing. I had these frying in a pan with the rest of the stuffing for about 10 minutes, then transferring them to a baking dish to roast at 180C for about 20 minutes, until the skins had become crackly short of burnt. After baking, the eggplants just fell apart when prodded with eating utensils, and the sweet/sour/nutty taste of the stuffing made it even better.

The chicken dish of chicken kolhapuri, named after the town of Kolhapur in southwest Maharashtra, involved the most complex and time-consuming preparation process of the evening. 20 large pieces of chicken on bone were bought for this purpose. After skinning them and marinating them for 15 minutes in 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder and 3 tablespoons of ginger-garlic paste, I let them cook for a few minutes, tossed into 2 teaspoons of black pepper, 4 small bay leaves and 2 inches of crushed cinnamon frying with a cup of chopped onions. Finally, I added a liter of hot water and simmered all of this, covered, for half an hour.

For the curry paste, I lightly browned 3 cups of sliced onions in oil, next adding 1.5 cups of desiccated coconut and browning that too, then adding 2 tablespoons of roasted sesame seeds and letting it all cool. After adding 2 cups of sliced tomato, 3 tablespoons of ginger-garlic paste and 2 tablespoons of coriander powder, I ground all of this to a paste. I then roasted the paste in a pan with 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds sputtering in hot oil, stirring in 3 tablespoons of red chili powder when done.

Finally, I strained out the chicken from the simmering pot, and tossed it with the roasted paste, salt and a bunch of chopped cilantro for a few minutes. I then poured the stock back in, and let it all simmer for another 15 minutes before serving.

Dessert was a Marathi variation on the Western Indian dessert shrikhand, known as amrakhand. It was made by beating 750g of strained yogurt (labneh or greek yogurt) with 3 cups of blended mango pulp, 3 cups of powdered sugar, a tablespoon of cardamom powder, a teaspoon of nutmeg powder and 10 strands of saffron. This simple sweet was served chilled like a fro-yo, and was appreciated by all.

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