Paat Pani – Memories from Marathwada

Preeti Deo’s cooking journey looks like something straight out of a Hollywood movie or an international bestseller. Well, it does bear some similarity with Julie and Julia. Like Julie Powell in the movie, Deo too cooked her way through a famous cookbook. Only, in her case the book was a collection of Maharashtrian recipes authored by Late Kamalabai Ogale. Ruchira is an iconic cookbook, almost a Bible to the Maharashtrian cooking and can be found in almost every Marathi household. Deo cooked 300 recipes from the book which took her three years. A feat achieved while she was staying in London where most Indian ingredients are not so easily available. “At times I would drive in snow to get to the distant markets to buy the ingredients,” she tells me over a phone interview.

Deo was recently in India to launch her own book which focuses on the recipes from the Marathwada region which consists of Aurangabad, Beed, Jalna, Latur, Osmanabad and other districts. Deo’s book Paat Pani is a collection of recipes from her maternal and paternal households as well as her mother in law’s kitchen; each section peppered with memories of family rituals based around food.

Paat Pani in Marathi means setting the meal. In a traditional Maharashtrian household, meal is served on banana leaf or a large metal plate called taat. An aasan (rectangular fabric) or a short legged stool called paat is placed to sit on and eat the meal. The plate is placed on a higher wooden stool called chaurang. Apart from the placement of meal, the serving of dishes too has a certain pattern. Salt is served first followed by lemon and condiments – pickles, chutneys, koshimbir (a condiment usually made with yogurt and cucumber) – all served on the left side of the plate. Sides or vegetable preparations and aamti (lentil preparation) or kadhi are placed on the right side. The centre stage is occupied by rice, flatbreads, fried accompaniments like papad etc. and dessert. The recipes in the book cover every element served in the meal.

Marathwada is a dry region and gets 30 per cent less rainfall than the rest of the country and hence doesn’t have access to fresh vegetables and greens during most part of the year especially summers. “People don’t know much about the cuisine of this part. While there isn’t enough fresh produce we do use a lot of valvaan (sundried products) in our cooking,” says Deo. During winter when green leafy vegetables and gourds are available, people sun-dry and store them to use in the latter part of the year. Vegetables like okra, chillies and cluster beans are coated with butter milk, seasoned with cumin powder and sun-dried. These, when fried, make for delicious accompaniments to the meal.

Deo, who belongs to Jalna, retraced her steps back to her hometown, called her ajji (maternal grandmother) and other family members to get the traditional recipes. Most of her memories – and the fondest ones – are associated with her tai (paternal grandmother) and her house in Aurangabad. “Tai used to wear a green shawl almost all the time, while sitting by stove making puran poli or drying mangoes in sun to make pickle. The shawl had faint aromas of caramelised jaggery, agarbatti, haldi kumkum; it was like a testimony to her life,” she says.

The book also touches upon some of the key ingredients or masalas. What garam masala is to north Indian cooking, kala masala is to Marathwada cooking. The dry roasted mix of various spices forms the base of most dishes. Metkut – a mix of lentils, wheat, rice and spices which are dry roasted and ground – is used in various ways; sprinkle it over hot rice, pohe or mix in yogurt to make quick dip.

The most interesting, and my favourite, part of the book is the section about hand-rolled pastas or valvat. These pastas, categorised into dry and fresh kinds, are made with sorghum flour, whole wheat flour and semolina, and eaten as savoury snacks or dessert. Shaping these pastas to make them resemble grains of rice, tiny shells or even little pearls is nothing less than a work of art.

ukad shengule (with spinach puree)

Paat Pani is available on Amazon.

The best meals of 2018 – Where and what I ate

It’s becoming a sort of ritual now…to round up the year with the best meals I have eaten and 2018 has been especially kind. It’s the year I really traveled for food and created itineraries for those who love to travel for food (I consult with Cox and Kings and created itineraries for their product Tour To Feast). 2018 was the year of learning about food of different communities and going absolutely hyper local.

So here they are…my most memorable meals of 2018.

deena kaka’s hing ki kachori, varanasi

Varanasi’s very own Soup Nazi, Deena Kaka runs this small kachori shop near Chowk area. The shop is literally on a footpath where people patiently wait while he fries the kachori. You can’t ask him to hurry up, you have to wait patiently and wait in the line or else you don’t get any kachori. . . Deena Kaka opens the shop for just 3 hours in the evening, fries 3 batches of kachoris and goes home. The price of one kachori is Rs 5 which hasn’t been increased in years. He doesn’t do it for money anymore, it’s purely for the love of food. And the love shows in his kachoris which are stuffed with aloo and fried in desi ghee. The air around the shop is thick with the aromas of hing which makes his kachoris stand out. He serves them with black gram and chutney. This plate of kachoris is the best food I have eaten in Varanasi.

Also Read: Varanasi – The city that runs on high vibration

Deena Kaka ki hing ki kachauri, Varanasi

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A walk in the woods: Vanvadi, Neral

On a Sunday morning, when half of Mumbai was submerged in torrential rains, I got on a train to Neral to learn about the forest foods of the Konkan region. The workshop was being organised by Vanvadi, a forest collective around 15 kms from Neral railway station. After almost a 45-min auto-rickshaw ride, I reach a place which is far removed from the urban development just a few kilometres away from one of the busiest cities in the world.

Vanvadi, Neral

More than two decades ago a bunch of like-minded people pooled-in their resources to buy undulating land in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats. “Ecological regeneration and local self-reliance was our primary aim,” says Bharat Mansata, an active founder-member of the collective. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more like-minded people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” he adds. The venture was tentatively named Vision Acres which was later changed to a more local name ‘Vanvadi’ which means forest settlement of forest farm.

Over the past 24 years, the 64 acre land has regenerated into a magnificent forest, dense and rich in biodiversity. A local adivasi family looks after and works at Vanvadi, almost since its inception. Bua, the eldest member of the family, guides us inside the forest to introduce us to various edible wild greens and plants that grow in abundance during monsoon. He gently navigates his way and points out various vines, plants and trees that either yield seasonally edible parts, or are useful to the adivasis in some other way.

Monsoon greens at Vanvadi, Neral

During the trail we spot ran suran (loth), a wild variety of yam which has a beautiful ruby red flower sprouting from the ground like mushroom. Its tender leafy growth is also consumed as a vegetable, cooked along with another forest plant bondara. Bua plucks a young leaf off a plant and hands it over to us to chew on, the leaf is bitter with a sour aftertaste. We also munch on tiny variety of awala and aliv, a fruit which looks like chikoo but has a sour aroma when it’s not fully ripened.

Pic Credits: Vanvadi Facebook Page

Vanvadi, with the help of local adivasis, has listed over 120 plant species in its forest which are useful to the locals in some way or the other. Out of these about 52 species provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root) at a certain time of year. However, early monsoon is the peak season for harvesting many wild greens – the fresh, tender growth of almost a dozen vine species. Certain trees have multiple uses like mahua’s leaves are turned into fodder, flowers are well known for brewing liquor but they’re also cooked in various ways (there are dozens of recipes in Central India that use mahua flower), fruit can be cooked like a vegetable and seed is crushed to yield cooking oil. The residual cake after extracting the oil works as manure for the crops. The wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments, agricultural tools etc. However, it’s sacrosanct to cut a mahua tree; the wood is only used if the tree dies.

Presently, less than 2 acres at Vanvadi are used for farming. Mansata tells us that the original plan was to plant mainly fruits and vegetables, the adivasis showed them that a variety of local millets like nachni, varie, kangu, jowar can also be grown on the gentler slopes; and rice too on relatively flat, lower-lying areas.

After our walk in the woods we come back to the mud cottage, the only house in the midst of the forest, for a lunch cooked by the adivasi family and the Vanvadi volunteers. On the menu there are greens like a wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leaves, and ulshya, all stir fried with minimal spices. For accompaniments there’s sesame and garlic chutney, koshimbir with mahua flower and dry black chana with dried mahua flower. We polish off the humble meal with nachni bhakri and local variety of rice.

Meal including local wild greens at Vanvadi

The forest regeneration has also helped the area solve the problem of water scarcity in summer. “We get around 8 ft of rain in an average year. With such a generous supply any water scarcity is a human failure, not nature’s short-coming,” says Mansata. The porous soil of the forest acts as a massive sponge to efficiently recharge the groundwater drawn from wells and bore-wells, while stream-bed check dams and reservoirs harvests rain as surface water bodies. . The land and its downstream villages now have water all year round, despite a proliferation of one-way extraction bore-wells in surrounding areas in recent years.

Vanvadi has had its fair share of struggles and fights too, mainly dealing with the builder community which is deforesting big chunks of land to build resorts and holiday homes. “When locals cut the trees for firewood or other use, they don’t damage the roots and most trees regenerate. However, the developers dig out the roots with JCBs, which is the major reason for soil erosion under heavy rain, which then silts up stream-bed water bodies,” says Mansata.

While there are challenges, Vanvadi is slowly growing as a space to host workshops, work camps, forest food trails and  ecology-related educational activities to understand the local flora and fauna, and the vital life-supporting ‘environmental services’ that the forest provides. Every year, starting on Dussera, it also hosts a Vanutsav or forest festival – to celebrate nature and community.

To stay updated with the events and workshops being conducted at Vanvadi, you can request to join their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/vanvadi.

An ode to Mumbai and everything I love about it

I don’t belong to Mumbai. Or shall I say that I thought I didn’t till recently. I have spent 14 years in this city, just 4 years short of the number of years I spent at my birthplace. It was around the same time – Ganesh Chaturthi – when I first set foot here oblivious to how my life was going to be tossed and turned around; that from being a jobless nobody, I will see my name (and recently my face too) published in some of the best magazines and newspapers. Every time I thought the city took away from me, it doubled it up and gave back, not always in ways I expected.

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How to eat well in Sri Lanka

I do not like kottu roti (the Sri Lankan/Tamilian street food made with flatbread, chicken, vegetables. Everything is fried on a tawa together and served in a big heap with a curry poured over it)

Now that we’re through with it let me talk about what I actually loved about Sri Lankan food. To be honest I absolutely disliked my first two meals there – string hoppers with fish curry and kottu roti. These were also some of the recommendation I got on social media. But the best ones were from my friend and teacher Kurush Dalal. He really knows Sri Lankan food well. This is a list of everything that I tried and loved in Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese meal in Colombo

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