Maharashtrian cuisine is complex. It has both coastal as well as inland influences and is heavily skewed to seasonal and local produce.
The staple meal in Maharashtra constitutes either rice or Indian bread accompanied by an array of side dishes. Bhath or rice dishes are served either pre-mixed as in Masale Bhath or as a portion of steamed rice that is then mixed with the gravies.
Bhakri is a sort of rustic Indian bread of the region made with wheat flour or millet flour. This is usually eaten with pitley, a chickpea-based thick gravy. Thalipeeth is a sort of dry pancake made with multi-grain flour, spiced with chopped onions, green chillies and coriander leaves. Dhirde is a softer pancake than Thalipeeth and made with rice flour.
Bhaji (dry vegetable dish) is normally made with seasonal produce and a good example would be Bharli Vangi which is small aubergines stuffed with spices and cooked until done. Varan and Aamti are variations of steamed, spiced and seasoned lentils in pouring consistency (the equivalent of the 'dal' as found in other regions of India) usually mixed with rice and eaten. Rassa is a more watery gravy that is as amenable to vegetables as it is to chicken.
Depending on the region and community, Maharashtrian food incorporates seafood, mutton and chicken. The coastal belt of Maharashtra, along with Mangalore, Goa and Karnataka is collectively known as the Konkan region. The profusion of coconut, cashew and kokum (a sour fruit used in the place of tamarind) in this region ensures a rich tangy base in which prawns or fish such as Bombil and Pomfret are cooked and served with rice. Inland non-vegetarian cuisine consists mainly of mutton (usually goat) and chicken cooked in a Rassa gravy.
Maharashtra has a plethora of snacks, some of which are meant to be consumed on days of upvas (fasting). Pohe is a breakfast snack where beaten rice is seasoned and cooked with pre-boiled potatoes and peanuts. It sometimes incorporates onions too. Sabudana Khichdi is made similarly, but with soaked sago instead of beaten rice. Kothimbir Vadi is a type of fritter made with chickpea flour and a profusion of chopped coriander leaves. Misal Pav is basically Pav bread served with a dish made up of sprouted green gram, a cooked potato 'bhaji', along with chopped onions, tomatoes and a topping of fine fritters.
A Maharashtrian meal is incomplete without dessert. Puran Poli is a sort of sweet chapati stuffed with yellow gram, sugar/jaggery and powdered cardamom. There's also the Karaji, a half-moon shaped flour dumpling with a sweet filling. These and other desserts are of particular significance during festivals.
Barring a few dishes, Maharashtrian cuisine is yet to gain popularity in other regions of India and one can only surmise that authentic Maharashtrian cuisine is to be found mainly in the homes with recipes handed down over the generations. However, one can savour Maharashtra's coastal cuisine, snacks and desserts in some restaurants in Mumbai.
- The Modak is usually made during the Ganesha Festival as it is considered to be the elephant-headed god's preferred dessert. A modak looks like a momo except that it contains a rich sweet filling of grated coconut and jaggery.
- The name 'Bombay Duck' or now, 'Mumbai Duck' refers to a fish, not an avian specie! It is also locally known as Bombil. Although speculations abound, there is no definite proof of how the name 'Bombay Duck' came to be.
- There are countless local legends as to how the Vada Pav came to be. Some say it was an experiment by a snack vendor outside Dadar Railway Station in Mumbai thirty-six years ago. Others say it evolved as a 'poor-man's food' to cater to workers in Mumbai's erstwhile cloth mills. This much is known - the Pav or Pao is a contribution of the Goans to Mumbai (Pao is Portuguese for 'bread') and Vada is the humble potato 'bonda' or dumpling inherent to many parts of India. The bread is slit across most of the way and a vada is placed in it with a sprinkling of spicy chilly-garlic powder.
- Shrikand is a sweetened yoghurt-based dessert that Maharashtra shares with the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Its origin is a matter of much debate. Sometimes, the juice of a ripe mango is mixed with the smoothly blended yoghurt to add a dash of seasonal flavour. Shrikand is usually also flavoured with saffron, chopped pistas and cardamom powder
- A typical Maharashtrian wedding meal ends in an offering of betel-leaf called 'vida'
(an edited version appeared in the March 2010 Issue of Culturama, formerly At A Glance. Pics by author)