Keertida Phadke, a trained chef who has lived across three continents contemplates on what it means to be Marathi outside of Maharashtra, by tracking the food, culture and festivities of the Marathi diaspora across the world.
Recently, on a bleak monsoon day, I was burrowing deep into YouTube’s rabbit hole when I chanced upon a BBC video of Ganesh Chaturthi being celebrated in Pakistan. I enlarged the video player – my screen was filled with saree-clad women and kurta-wearing men thronging a temple in Karachi. These revellers were Marathis from and in Pakistan. In the video, they spoke my mother tongue amply sprinkled with Hindi words, punctuated with awkward pauses. They seemed to be jogging their memories for words that were once familiar, phrases that they now struggled to hold on to.
Just as I began to wonder about the prasad served to Karachi’s Ganpati (or Ganesh-ji as many referred to him), and about how a modak would translate across the border, I saw a plateful of lumpy dumplings cross my screen. The wrapping for these sweets was made with rice flour as is typical, but their usual fudgy filling of fresh coconut and jaggery had been adapted to what was more easily available locally – a dry and white mix of what appeared to be desiccated coconut and khoa, mixed with some dry fruits.
It’s a false correlation to equate being Marathi with a specific religious identity. Nothing exemplifies this better than the Bene Israelis, who arrived on the coast of Maharashtra over 2,000 years ago. They managed to retain their religious identity while assimilating with the Marathi milieu, absorbing its culture. This influenced their lifestyle, food, and language to the extent that they consider Marathi their mother tongue. They even make puran poli for specific religious occasions, as detailed by Esther David in Bene Appetit, her book on the cuisine of Indian Jews. Most Bene Israelis migrated from India after Independence, and I recently received a WhatsApp forward showing a visibly Jewish man (who supposedly moved to Israel 50 years ago) playing the harmonium and breaking into a Marathi song. While I don’t know the veracity of the video, I did read about a Mumbai University initiative offering a Marathi language course at the Tel Aviv University in 2016, and have also heard reports of a Marathi magazine, by and of the community, being popular both among the few members left back home, as well as in Israel.
The idea of Marathi-ness being expressed in far-away lands has been a motif in my own life – I spent four formative years of my childhood in Tokyo at a time when we knew of just one Indian grocer in Japan. He was over 500 kilometres away in Osaka, and would courier across to us the toor dal needed for our daily amti. Aai-Baba would improvise with hitherto unknown vegetables, such as slender green asparagus, and add it to this amti, approximating their visual resemblance to long moringa pods that are traditionally employed. This soupy amti, spears of asparagus bobbing in it, was ladled over local short, sticky Japanese rice. This rice soon became a staple in our household – given it was closer in appearance and appeal to the rice that my father from Konkan grew up eating– rather than the solo desi option of dry, long-grained Basmati rice.
The food fabric of our Marathi household changed with being displaced, even after we returned to Pune in the early 90s. Even today, we always have a bag (or two) of Japanese rice in the pantry. It is always cooked in the Asian rice cooker (not a pressure cooker) we lugged back from Japan. One of our go-to pairings has this rice served with tomato saar (made with freshly pressed creamy coconut milk and pulpy tomatoes), alongside a crispy cross between bhaje and tempura. To make this, we dip vegetables like pumpkin, baby corn and mushroom in a light tempura-inspired batter sans eggs, and then deep-fry them in peanut oil.
But I didn’t need to jog my memory to distant lands once-lived-in to see how Marathi-ness expressed itself outside of Maharashtra. After returning from Tokyo, and settling down in peak-Pune, I was acutely aware that my maternal Hyderabadi family was a different sort of Marathi than our ‘proper’ Puneri neighbours. While we spoke Marathi at home, Urdu and Telugu influences also peppered our speech. We used seib instead of safarchanda (apple), dasti instead of rumaal (handkerchief), snan for an everyday anghol (bath). This unique confluence extended even to our food, with both chakali and murukku being made on festive occasions, biryani being relished with as much gusto as khichadi, and mudda bhaaji – a very Marathi palak-dal – taking on a distinctly tangier Telangana flavour.
My association with the Marathi diaspora took on a new dimension post-marriage, with my in-laws being a Marathi family with roots in present-day Madhya Pradesh, a state with a large Marathi population owing, in large part, to the Peshwas establishing Maratha seats of power in Indore (Holkar), Gwalior and Ujjain (Scindia), Dewas (Pawar) during the 1700s. My father-in-law breaks into Hindi frequently while conversing with his siblings, so kuloop becomes taala, kaneek becomes atta, dalimba becomes anar, and sev is sprinkled liberally on his poha, an iconic Indori breakfast item (which is said to trace its origins to and popularity to the ruling Marathi Holkar dynasty).
I’m not about to get into a debate about the provenance of poha. However the many final forms this widely popular dish takes – based on what was locally available – is of interest to me as a chef. I’ve always seen my pohe (not poha) cooked in peanut oil, with onions, potatoes and peanuts, finished with a mandatory flourish of freshly grated coconut. This is absolutely not how Surabhi Gadre, a real estate strategist who now lives in Mumbai, remembers it being made while growing up in a Konkanastha kitchen in central India. Sur’s father’s family traditionally hails from around Ratnagiri much like mine, but they migrated with the Peshwas and settled down in Timirni – a town nearly 1,000 kilometres away. Her poha was cooked in vegetable oil, without peanuts, but always with a host of vegetables including cauliflower – virtually unheard of in Konkan – and then finished with sev, never coconut.
The presence of a white blanket of coconut softly covering a plateful of pohe is so deeply embedded in the culinary psyche of coastal Marathi folks, that when my brother first saw Indori poha served simply with sev and a few scattered pomegranate pearls, he couldn’t help but voice his disbelief at this conspicuous lack of coconut.
Food – what it is, how we cook it and eat it – is so visceral to our identity that deviating from what we have seen and have come to accept as a norm can end up unmooring us. So when I think of families like the Gadres – Marathi folk who migrated to lands completely removed from theirs and then cooked on the basis of what naturally grew there – I also think of the women in these families, juggling all sorts of jugaad to narrow the gap between expectations and reality. I think of cooks simultaneously adapting, translating, approximating, and exploring ways to retain their culinary identity, possibly at the cost of convenience.
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. A preparation that was purportedly invented due to the stress of unavailable ingredients was sambar. When the Maratha royal kitchen was unable to find kokum – which is typically used as a souring agent for dals and curries in coastal Marathi homes – they replaced it with local tamarind instead.
Here’s the story behind it. Venkoji, Shivaji’s half-brother established a Maratha kingdom in Thanjavur in the mid-1600s which lasted for nearly two centuries. The Marathi migration to Thanjavur during this time resulted in a diaspora cuisine that has forged its identity by retaining, reinventing, and innovating. Their delicate balance in holding on to traditional foods, while absorbing influences from the extensive Tamil repertoire, manifests itself in the community’s food and culture in several ways. Sometimes, both cuisines are represented concurrently: both til gul as well as sakkarai pongal are made on Makar Sankranti. In some cases, old Marathi words are retained for understandably Tamil preparations: dhirda for dosai, saar for rasam. The Thanjavur Marathi community continues to speak a Marathi that has been fossilised in the 17th century. I wonder how preparations like pitla and tencha, which have the same or similar names as the Marathi staples, are totally different in Thanjavur. Is the Thanjavur version the original? Or did they evolve while holding onto the name?
A unique culinary technique seen only in Tanjore-Marathi cooking is the roasting of grated fresh coconut to make up for the unavailability of khobra (dried coconut kernels), a Marathi pantry staple. While approximating dried khobra is easier when there are fresh coconuts in sight, finding a substitute for ola naral (wet coconut) can be a task. Sachin Vaishampayan, who responded to my Instagram story looking to connect with folks from the Marathi diaspora with a detailed Google Sheet, is from a family that migrated to Uttar Pradesh (first Karwi, then Lucknow) from the Konkan over two centuries ago, now uses coconut sparingly, if at all. Instead, they employ hacks, like soaking slices of dry coconut in milk when fresh coconut is called for, and using either dry coconut/ khoa for filling modaks instead of fresh coconut.
As we approach the season of modaks this year, a sweet that is firmly lodged in the Marathi psyche as a mandatory Ganpati must-make and must-have, I recall the excitement of shaping a few with my Aai in Paris, where I lived for five years. We used the rice flour we had bought from a Chinese store for the wrapping, and for the stuffing we employed frozen grated coconut from the Sri Lankan supermarket in Gare du Nord. As I pinched the top off the steaming hot modaks and drizzled molten toop into the fudgy cavity, I was – for a split second – back in Pune.
This modak in my hand, first imagined in a faraway land, stitched together with help from distant communities, had become an edible medium that transported me to a past, and in the present, it comforted me with an easy, untranslatable familiarity.