The word “core” has a lot of meaning right now as I write this since it represents my return to preparing food and serving stories. This series focuses on foods or components that shape communities, places, and individuals. The first one comes from my place ‘Virar’, a little less cosmopolitan but it has the same madness and chaos. And it’s not too far from Mumbai (we still call ourselves Mumbaikar, iykyk).
On a cold winter morning, the aroma of spice-pecked roasted chicken leads you to Agashi Bhujing Centre in Agashi , some five kilometres from the busy Virar station. The sparsely equipped centre doesn’t have a dine-in option. Agashi Chicken Bhujing, a third generation shop tucked inside a lane in Agashi, serves “bhujing” an unique meat and poha dish that has fans everywhere. This is the place that birthed the bhujing back in 1940’s and still going strong. The Marathi word bhujne, which implies roasting, is the root of the word bhujing. Many privileged locals who had frequent interaction with the British in the 1940s added “ing” to the dish. The dish is a mixture of Poha, chicken, potatoes with coarsely grounded masalas.
My take on it comes from avoiding to use chicken but keeping the meaty mouthfeel constant, hence the use of mushrooms, for extra umami as well. The choice of spices is simple, cloves, peppercorns, cumin, cinnamon. Mushroom first marinated with a paste made of chillies, garlic, ginger and roasted later mixed with cooked onions, further steamed to retain the moisture, and aids in cooking the poha. A flavourful brunch dish to enjoy on your lazy Sunday with G&T, or a chilled beer!
The street food scene in India is beyond ones imagination, its something thats constantly evolving & yet is grounded and carry forwards the legacy. One such delicacy is Kachori. Mostly found in many parts of India, but in different tastes, and textures. Lilva from Gujarat, Banarasi from Kashi thats softer, Delhi Kachoris thats served with aloo, Bengal’s delicate matar kachori, Maharashtra’s Shegaon kachori, Nagori kachori with halwa, the list goes on….But the best ones according to me are from Jodhpur, its place of origin.
During my trips to Jodhpur, I made sure to never miss on these beauties! Pyaz ki kachori, Mawa Kachori, or just plain ones with dahi are divine! My take on them is little bitter & tangy. Crispy kachori topped with black tea & tomato chutney, serves the purpose of making these kachoris ‘chaat-y’.
Fact: The kachori in the desert has spices that are usually known as ‘thanda masala’, essentially coriander and sounf, making these kachoris well-suited for the climate.
If there is something after Gulab Jamuns for me it has to be Phirni. Nothing beats the chilled & creamy Phirni that’s served and consumed in a Sakora, (earthen bowl). The origins of the dish is sort of blurry. Most people believe that it was introduced to India during Mughal era and served as creamy and lite dessert after a heavy meal.
I am shocked when people around tell me that its just kheer in another form. Well, I don’t deny that the use of rice makes it appear like a Kheer, but they completely miss the fact that Phirni is something that has a whole new texture. The texture and temperature is what makes Phirni different from the ‘average’ Kheer! I know many of you might not agree with me when I say Kheer is ordinary. It isn’t special to me because, if Ayurveda is to be considered Kheer should be made of millets, millets that are native to India. There are references of Kheer like dish with Jowar & Milk in Ayurveda.
Fact: A good Phirni that is served in earthen bowl will hold onto it when turned upside down.
Many of us know that Kebabs traveled to India from Arab origins. Even the traveller Ibn Battuta, mentions seeing people eating Kebab during his travels in India. We also believe that there is lot of Mughal influence in terms of using spices in our dishes. Now let me tell you a fascinating fact about “Kebabs”.
The culinary text ‘Manasolassa’ by King Somesvar has recipes of Kebabs made with spices, citrus juices and cooked on hot coal, the dish is called Bhaditrakam. Few of these recipes are complex and has use of various spices. The text is from 12th century and everything that we ‘know’ about the ‘influences’ is post this date. I have been reading about few recipes of Manasolassa and it just makes me question the origins of few dishes & techniques. The recipes include use of sheep blood to marinade, goat brain with fermented rice, meat folded into layers and grilled, meat beaten until it was thin, and the best of all, barbecued rats, will leave it here.
All of this makes me wonder, what a rich culinary scene we had even in 12th century. All of which just reached a level up with Sultanates and Mughals and other Royal kitchens of India. But then, ask yourself do you see any of these dishes around? Just a few places I guess, because its outnumbered by chicken, paneer tikkas & tandooris as they are easier to make, the masalas have nothing to offer, and yet we go bonkers over these dishes. I believe it’s time we start looking into our centuries old culinary traditions and techniques for inspiration.
The word Kebab, I believe is an evolved term originating from the words KAM (less) AB (water), which means using less water for cooking it.
Taking a stroll on marine drive while there is a storm brewing and clouds thundering is no less than magic. And just when it rains, you get earthy scent of wet soil but wait, you get whiff of something else too. That is the flavour of Monsoon, Makai.
If you ask, the best part for me was to see these Makai getting roasted on coal, the way Makaiwala fans the coal, they get bright red, smoke rises, you hear sudden pops, the Makaiwala would take a wedge of lemon and dig it in his special spice mix, rubbing the corn with it while I ask him to make it more zesty and spicy, everything is so poetic.
Wondering why I used the word Makai? Because, in Bombay the sellers had majority of Gujarati customers, and they started calling it Makai & not Bhutta, which is Northern Indian term. All of this made me create this dish, however I have used sweet corn here, & being my own makaiwala, i had to make inhouse spice mix too. The lemon has been replaced with lemon sponge.
Maize is believed to have originated in America and Christopher Columbus is believed to have introduced it to Europe – from where it reached Asia through colonies. However, some carvings in the Hoysala Dynasty temples built between 10th and 13th in Karnataka suggest the presence of maize in India.
The British brought maize to India because it had the advantage of growing quickly. But it wasn’t till about 300 years ago that it was widely cultivated in country. The common variety that we get in India is called Flint Corn- cobs with fresh, green and usually have plump and luscious kernels, tightly arranged. Makai is drastically raw and natural, compared to the European ones. So, it’s safe to say the masala makai is entirely an Indian invention.
Fact: The word corn doesn’t actually mean anything. In Europe, it is used for any kind of cereal grain.
Favourite time of the year when celebration has its own road to gratitude by welcoming the Creator, the Alpha, the Absolute being, the God of all things and God in all things! This is the time when our Mumbai instantly brightens up, the air fills with scent of sweets, vibrant flower garlands are to be seen around, every shop selling various decorations, all telling that city’s much loved God is here. There is synchronised chaos everywhere & the display of faith at its peak.
Lord Ganesh has in total 108 names, one being Modakpriya, meaning the one who loves modak. Seeing people repeatedly creating fruits, chocolate, paan, and what not modaks I decided on something that has been close to Ganpati, the hued hibiscus flower. The traditional Maharashtrian style Ukadiche Modak (steamed), which is prepared at home to offer during prayers, are made of rice flour, with a delicious stuffing of coconut and jaggery. Keeping the rich traditional recipe intact, I play here with different texture of same and adding an element of hibiscus. Shaping the modak is most difficult but fun part and that’s why I keep it open for the guest to shape it (if they have the guts to) or just roll it up. Red hibiscus flower is personally Ganesha’s favorite. Hibiscus is offered to Lord Ganesha and because they signify strength and power of subconscious. The five petal of this flower signifies, destroying the negative energy & welcoming the new positive energy from the universe.
There is one particular tale that I remember about why Ganpati loves modaks. The story goes like, Anusuya (wife of Atri, an ancient Rishi) invited Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, along with Lord Ganesha, to visit her and give her their blessings. Shiva was starving and wanted to food to be served but had to wait because it was Ganesh who was given the priortiy by Anusuya. Ganpati was served dishes after dishes but nothing could satiate his hunger, and then Anusuya served Him a sweet modak, which finally made Him full & He burped.
Fact: The festival that is celebrated at this time (Bhadrapada Hindu month) of the year is Ganesh Chaturthi, started by Tilak to bring community together. The “original” festival is on Ganesh Jayanti, called as Maghi Ganpati which is celebrated in Maagha Hindu month.
The inspiration for this dish comes from the west & our past. I have often seen people in the west eating meat with pomegranate sauce or glaze. So, why not try it with our vegetarians eaters favourite ‘Paneer’. I say Paneer is great pretender, why? because it will taste the way you want it to.
Paneer was well-known to both Persians and Persian-influenced Indian cultures. If you scroll through Iranian cookbooks, you will find mention of making ‘Panir’ by splitting milk. Even Shah Jahan’s kitchen had a paneer biryani, documented recipe can be found in Nuskha-e-Shahjhani. So you see, its safe to say that Paneer is pretentious!
If texts are believed Paneer was prepared as early as the times of the Indus Valley Civilization, when milk was curdled with a variety of sour green leaves, barks, berries and yoghurt. The ancient Vedas refer to two types of cheese: with pores and without, very similar to modern-day paneer. But later, the Aryans who invaded the region then introduced a taboo on curdling cow’s milk due to the extreme reverence given to the animal. Milk was highly valued so ‘spoiling’ it by curdling remained a taboo for many centuries.
After all this time and through different rulers and travellers, from Afghans to Persians to Mughals and later to the Portuguese, who settled in Calcutta in the seventeenth century, brought their traditional fresh cheeses, queijos frescos, thereby introducing the technique of curdling cow’s milk to this region and lifting the old taboo once and for all.
Fact: Traditional paneer differs from chhena not only from its historical origins. It has mild flavours of caramelised lactose and subtle tanginess of lactic acid.
They say Mumbai, I hear Vada Pav! Firstly, I am sorry to all the Mumbaikars viewing this post. Secondly, Since I started being active here, all I wanted was to give Vada Pav a different look. Thats it! I have done it, committed a sin! But hey, it just looks black, rest its Aapli Mumbaicha taste.
I have plated this gothic looking black vada with chai ki chutney. Yes, you read that right. Spicy & Tangy that’s what it taste like, with lingering taste of black tea. I couldn’t commit more crime by messing with the iconic taste of vada. So, adding the element of this chutney is what The H table is all about. And the idea behind plating, chutney slathered, sliced pav with piping hot vada, is there something to not like? I want the guest who eat this, experience the thrill of assembling a vada pav.
Finally, what can I say about this iconic dish, though it’s been just about 50 years young, its something that defines a Mumbaikar. It’s said that in late 70’s, Balasaheb Thackeray appealed to Maharashtrians to become entrepreneurs the way South Indians had by setting up Udupi restaurants. The motivated Ashok Vaidya, the inventor of Vada Pav, whose stall was stationed just outside Dadar station. The 1970s and 80s were tough times with textile mills strikes that eventually led to the closing of many. Resultantly, many former mill workers opened Vada Pav stalls of their own with the encouragement of Shiv Sena. And rest is history.
Fact: Vada pav is considered to be immunity boosters for Mumbaikar, no kidding!
India has a wide variety of sweet dishes, and it’s difficult to say which one is favoured by the masses. Gulab Jamun has always been my go to dessert and I am sure it’s safe to say, that this one is a crowd pleaser. With so many festivals and dishes being prepared around every state, city, and household, I call Gulab Jamun an ocassion free delicacy (if thats a category).
A dessert that dates back to medieval India. It’s believed that a Khansama from Shah Jahan’s royal kitchen was inspired by a Persian/Turkish dish and that gave birth to ‘our’ Gulab Jamun. Fascinatingly, the Persian sweet delight ‘Bamieh’ and the Turkish ‘Tulumba’ are both quite similar to the Gulab Jamun in terms of flavor, texture and ingredients.
Ideally the dough balls must be soaked in rose scented water but with increasing popularity and to please every taste bud, the rose syrup was replaced by sugar one. So, I wanted my Gulab Jamun to ‘soak in history’ hence the use of scented rose syrup. Uplifting it with use of chocolate, thats how I decide to please the taste buds. The use of salted caramel is to compensate for the missing sugar syrup, because hey, I can be my own Khansama.
Fact: The term Gulab Jamun, is derived from Persian words gul (flower) and ab (water), referring to the rose water scented syrup. Jamun is the Hindi-Urdu word for the Indian fruits that are similar in shape and size to a typical Gulab Jamun.
Surat, a city in southern Gujarat holds a special place in the history of dining. Our shastras suggests ‘Surat nu jaman ane Kashi nu maran‘ (dining in Surat and dying in Kashi) as the ultimate experience for the soul. Somewhere around 18th century Khaman, was invented by the Kathiawadis of Saurashtra as a smooth version that is known as nylon khaman. Now, there are 100’s of versions of Khaman sold in Surat, sev khamani, tam tam khaman, locho, locho pizza, italian locho, just to name a few.
In the city, Jay Jalaram Khaman at Chowk Bazaar founded by the Sakaria brothers, the decades old shop sold their innovative & exclusive Rasswala Khaman at 20p per plate. Its a dish that has Khaman served with a tangy and spicy Rass (gravy). Also, one can’t ignore a Gujarati’s love for chai! They even have a version of their, called as Kathiyawadi chai, a brewed concoction that uses different proportions of warming spices. Sounds like a perfect combo, isn’t it?
My idea of progressive one biter Khaman is drawn from this pleasing combination. Delicate spongy Khaman with airy foam that tastes exactly like a Kathiyawadi chai, tempered mustard seeds & shaved chilli to bring the much needed spice. I dedicate this dish to Gaggan Anand, the torch bearer of progressive Indian food and always being the much needed inspiration.
Fact: To all of you who might be unaware, Dhokla is made with fermented rice batter or sometimes with semolina, also called Khaata Dhokla and Khaman is prepared with gram flour which is steamed and later tempered with mustard seeds & curry leaves.