Friday, March 05, 2010

Maharashtrian Cuisine

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)

24 by City - Mysore

Start the day with a walk around Kukkara Halli Kere ('Kere' is Lake in Kannada, the local language). This man-made lake near the Mysore University was created in 1864 and is home to more than 180 species of birds like Painted Stork, Little Grebe, White breasted Kingfisher, Ibis, Purple Moorhen, Cormorants, Common Coot, Herons . There is a walkway that skirts the lake, making it a 4.5 km long walk. Open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.  

Drive through the old parts of the city around the Palace to get a feel for the architecture. Some interesting structures are the clock tower in the Town Hall, the Law Courts, Crawford Hall, Mysore University campus, the Metropole, K.R.Hospital, K.R. Circle, Gun House etc.

The Mysore palace was designed by British architect, Henry Irwin  and built in the Indo-Saracenic style. It is the seat of the Wodeyar dynasty of Mysore. During the spectacular 10-day Dussehra festival in September/October, the Palace and the city come vibrantly alive. Pick up an audio-guide and saunter through the various rooms with their exhibits. Absorb the grandeur of the Courtyard, the Private Audience Room, the Public Durbar Hall and the Marriage Hall. The Mysore Palace is open on all days from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.On weekends and festival days, the Mysore Palace is illuminated between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Also known as Chamarajendra Zoological Garden, the Mysore Zoo is one of the oldest in the country with a fascinating collection of fauna including some rare species. The Mysore zoo is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm on all days except Tuesday.

Also known as the Chamarajendra Art Gallery, it houses a wonderful collection of exhibits collected by the Mysore royal family including art by Raja Ravi Varma and Svetoslav Roerich. Don't miss Woman with the Lamp (also called Glow of Hope) by S.L. Haldankar and the French clock with its parade of miniature soldiers that comes out to mark the hour. The gallery is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.

Inspired by Germany's Cologne Cathedral, the exquisite St. Philomena's Cathedral was built in the Neo-Gothic style. The cathedral is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Situated just outside Mysore city, Chamundi Betta (Betta is the Kannada word for hill) is best visited at dusk for the views it offers. The temple of resident deity Chamundeshwari attracts pilgrims here who ascended the hill by a vehicle or by a separate foot path. Other attractions include giant statues of Mahishasura (a demon who was slayed by the goddess Chamundeshwari) and Nandi (the bull who is the mount of Lord Shiva).

Shop for Mysore Silk sarees at the Silk Factory and for artefacts at the Government-run Cauvery Handicrafts outlets.

Catch a performance at Rangayana, an open-air theatre that hosts cultural festivals. Check local listings.

Try the Akki Roti (Rice Flour pancake), Vangibhath (Spiced Aubergines Rice), Bisi Bele Bhath (Spicy tamarind-jaggery-pulse rice), obbattu or holige (yellow gram with coconut or jaggery stuffed in thin chapattis) and Mysore Pak (brittle or soft dessert of chickpea flour and sugar). Note: Most eateries close as early as 9 p.m. in Mysore.

(an edited version appeared in the March 2010 Issue of Culturama, formerly At A Glance. Pic by author)

Mysore Painting

Mysore Painting is a traditional art form that evolved in what is today the city of Mysore in South India. It received great patronage in the Mysore royal court and today, authentic antique pieces are prized for their intricate brushwork and aesthetic colours.
Chandrika, an artist of the Mysore painting style shared with us a few samples of old Mysore paintings. She elaborates, “The Mysore Painting style is derived from the Vijayanagar style. About a hundred years ago, the board used to be prepared by the artist using newspapers and a white sheet on which to sketch and then paint. A base coat of Maida paste (all-purpose flour) and copper sulphate enhanced the quality of the paper as well as kept the pests away. Natural dyes like oxides were used as paint after mixing with Arabic Gum. This ensured longevity of the colours. Pure gold leaf was used to enhance the richness of the painting.”
The subject of a Mysore Painting is usually Hindu gods and goddesses, celestial mounts and various other characters significant to Hindu mythology. Chandrika says, “If you take the subject of Krishna, there are so may forms that are painted. Other subjects include Kodanda Rama (Rama wielding a bow), Rama Pattabhisheka (the coronation of Rama) and Dharmaraya Pattabhisheka (the coronation of Yudhishtira). It is not uncommon to see about forty to fifty characters in the same painting.”
Chandrika also showed us a set of paintings rendered in the Mysore style by her father, Mr. Ramanarasaiah who was a Mysore royal court artist and a full-time curator of the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery in Mysore. These paintings individually depict the Indian god of love, Kama Deva and Rati, his consort.

Dr. Veena Shekar, an art historian says, “The technique adopted by the artists and iconography are elaborated in Sritattvanidhi supposedly written by Krishnaraja Wodeyar. I am not sure if the authorship is proven.” This is a manual compiled in the 19th century under the patronage of the then Maharaja of Mysore, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1799 – 1868). Among other things, it illustrates the various forms of the main gods of the Hindu pantheon along with descriptors to enable painters, sculptors and dancers to get the basics as well as nuances right in their depictions.
Dr Shekar adds, “There is another book which the later artists of Mysore used - the Sivatattvaratnakara by Basava Bhoopala.” This is an even older document, a sort of encyclopedia written in the Sanskrit language by the Keladi Nayak ruler, Basava Bhoopala in 1699.
The Mysore Painting form is often confused with that of Thanjavur Painting (also called Tanjore Painting) owing to the similarity of subjects and commercialisation of the art form. Fundamentally, a Mysore Painting is intricate while a Thanjavur Painting is ornate. According to some, both forms originated in the Vijayanagar kingdom of yore and individual styles evolved under the patronage of the local kingdoms in Thanjavur and Mysore.
The colours of a Mysore painting are discrete, often appearing muted. The features of the deities are usually serene. However, a Thanjavur Painting uses a more vibrant colour scheme and the expressions are keen. Mysore Painting is more intricate, with the details being painted in. Thanjavur Painting on the other hand, has more relief embellishment in the form of embedded gem stones.
In terms of material, Thanjavur Painting is done on cloth mounted on wood whereas Mysore Painting is done on paper. Even the materials used for the base and the binding medium are different. Some even claim that Thanjavur Painting employs the use of gold-coated silver foil while authentic Mysore painting uses pure gold leaf.
A typical Mysore Painting today is usually sized between 11” x 12” and a maximum of 30”x40”. An authentic Mysore-style Painting, depending on size, costs anywhere between Rs.2000 to over Rs. 12000. An antique costs anywhere between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 1 lakh. The pricing depends not only on size but also the intricacy involved in the subject.
(an edited version appeared in the March 2010 Issue of Culturama, formerly At A Glance. Pic by author)