It was a hot May afternoon when Manju Velkar walked into a house filled with her husband’s relatives. The 6-month anniversary of their marriage was being celebrated with a grand ceremonial feast. Typical fanfare for the Pathare Prabhu household, that Manju had married into–a community that takes their (sea)food extremely seriously.
She was aware of their elaborate culinary traditions and was excited to be experiencing them for the first time. Her husband, Soumitra, loved cooking after all and she looked forward to what his side of the family had to offer. She walked in with a huge appetite but was shocked at what hit her. The house was infused with a strange, pungent smell that reminded her of a stuffy, humid kitchen. Smiling stiffly at her relatives that welcomed her warmly, she looked over at her husband who seemed entirely indifferent to the stench. Discreetly, she texted him from across the room asking him what it was. He chuckled and responded saying that this was the typical smell of the baking sourdough used to prepare the famous Parbhi Pao, the special bread of the Pathare Prabhu community for which the yeast was fermented at the house, critical to get the right texture of these leavened bread.
Manju was intrigued and disgusted at the same time. She had heard of homemade bread before, but this was the first instance where she was hearing of even the yeast being cultivated at home. Soon enough, she was served the infamous Parbhi Pao. It was spongy but the texture was coarse. She dipped it in the thick and luscious aamras, an accompaniment to the bread, she was told. The sweet and salty flavours melted in her mouth. It was a flavour profile that could not have been expected. The rest of the meal proceeded with eclectic fish, mutton curries and other dishes with funny sounding names like Bhuzna, Kharkarla, and Methkut. Before long, the strange smells felt familiar and the food dissipated any seeds of doubt that might have arisen initially. For Manju, the conversion from curious outsider to appreciative insider was complete.
Parbhi Pao, the unique aroma of which may certainly strike unpleasant to those who are not accustomed to it, is just one of the many exclusive dishes of the Pathare Prabhu community and just like Manju, I was intrigued by this little-known community’s exotic culinary traditions. The Pathare Prabhu’s immigrated to Mumbai from Patan, Gujarat in the 13th century and were among the first few inhabitants of Bombay along with the Kolis. A tiny Maharashtrian Hindu community with a population of roughly 60,000; the PPs enjoyed a special status under the British and have always taken pride in their 100% literacy rate. Affluent and very progressive, the PPs’ eclectic culinary traditions are their greatest delight and a unique combination of Maharashtrian and coastal flavours with an English style of cooking. Today they are spread across the city and while no restaurant in Mumbai offers Pathare Prabhu delicacies, the community lets others explore their gastronomical delights through the various pop-ups they organise.
My first culinary exploration of the Pathare Prabhu community took me to Mrs. Kalpana Talpade’s house in Borivali. A participant in Master Chef 3, Mrs Kalpana, aged 64, is a very dynamic and a celebrated chef in the Pathare Prabhu Community who even has her own Youtube Channel called Kalpana’s Kitchen with around 18,000 followers and more than 35 lakh views. Seated across from me on the dining table, she talks to me with an almost disarming candour. “We are all about the seafood... and lots of mutton” she tells me, taking me through the various recipes.
From Chimbori che Khadkhadle (Crabs cooked in a spicy Garlic gravy) to Tomato chi Sheer (tomato and prawns cooked in coconut milk), the Bombil Methkut (Fresh Bombay duck fish cooked in a tangy pickle masala), the Kolambi che Atle (A tangy preparation with Prawns & tamarind) Cauliflower che Bhanavle (Baked dish with shrimps or prawns), Kairi che Kharone (preparation made of raw mango and coconut milk) Kalpana talks about many mouth-watering dishes. “The best thing about the Pathare Prabhu cuisine is that all our dishes are very easy to cook and can be prepared in a matter of few hours,” she says. All these communal recipes and traditions have been in her families for generations and have been heavily influenced by the British style of cooking. The PPs also bake many of their delights. The most popular is the Shingdya, a baked version of the otherwise sweet fried Karanji, often served on festivities.
Kalpana learned to cook from her mother, who at those times would use makeshift ovens made of sand. “She knew all these recipes by heart. My mother-in-law, however, was from a rich family and she did not know how to cook until she got married, so she used a cookbook,” Kalpana explains as she shuffles through old books and magazines through her bookshelf. She suddenly picks out an old one that reads Grahini Mitra (Homemaker’s Friend) on the cover. The pages are old, sepia-tinted and dusty and have the distinctive, earthy ‘old book’ smell. I go through the ingredients on the dog-eared page, trying to comprehend the long list of food items in whatever Marathi I could understand. “This is an almost 100-year-old book, written by a very affluent, well-travelled lady by the name of Lakshmibai Dhurandhar. I look at the diverse recipes that range from Dil Khush Biryani to Kharwas (Milk Pudding) to a variety of fish items, baked goods and numerous chutneys all penned down by this lady back in the 1920’s. “This is the Bible for Pathare Prabhus. All newlywed women are gifted this,” she states.
Sensing how hungry all this discussion about the delicious sounding food is making me, Kalpana very kindly offers me some. I am served with hot piping bowls of ‘Chimbori che Khadkhadle’ ( a spicy crab gravy named after the khad-khad sound it makes in the pan), ‘Methkut’ and two perfectly round chapatis to go with it. As I slurp the piquant crab curry, I realise how I can taste each of its varied flavours. It is a good combination of spicy, sour and peppery with a dominant essence of the soft fleshy crab inside it. The Methkut, on the other hand, has a prominent pickle-like taste to it and is absolutely delicious and tangy. Dipped in it, is the soft Bombil fish that melts in the mouth as soon as I bite in. Fortunately, unlike most of our coastal cuisines that have a very dominant coconut flavour to it, the Pathare Prabhu’s cuisine is spicier and eclectic with the coconut being a very subtle flavour, which is funny because most dishes are cooked in coconut milk. This is perhaps because of the many homemade spices that the PP’s use, the most common being the ‘Sambhare Masale’, the recipe of which is supposed to be a top secret, not to be shared outside the community. Kalpana makes these masalas at home on order but is forbidden to let the secret out. I bid adieu to Mrs Kalpana, thanking her for such an amazing lunch. On my way out, I promise to attend her PP pop-ups that happen the first month of every Sunday.
“One interesting thing about our cuisine is that the PPs don’t shell their prawns which makes it a very elaborate and meticulous dish to cook,” says Achala Kothare, another treasure trove of Pathare Prabhu cuisines who tells me more about the community. She tells me about the Ghada, one of the most favourite dishes of the PP’s. “It is like the Undyo, but with a lot many more vegetables, topped with prawns and it is put in a pot underground for it to cook well. It is quite popular in our ‘pot’-luck parties”, she chuckles. The PP’s although are a rice eating community, they do have various kinds of podis (rotis) in their cuisine, like the cashew roti, the almond roti, the banana roti etc. They host a grand feast every Monday evening of the shraavan month where an elaborate, typical PP thali is cooked to break the fast they keep.
Even with such a delicious seafood affair, the PPs cuisine remains confined to cookbooks and pop-ups with no restaurant serving it. “It is a very refined acquired taste, plus it is largely a non-vegetarian affair, that is why no restaurants have been successful. The pop-ups, however, are very well received,” says Aneesh Dhairyawan, a Pathare Prabhu and the founder of Authenticook, that do a series of events and pop ups dedicated to unique, authentic Indian Cuisines. Having organised 25 Pathare Prabhu pop-ups so far, Authenticook encourages conversations on culture and cuisines, so more and more people know about tinier communities that have a lot to offer. “We as a community love our food. It’s not only delicious, but simple to cook and really easy on the palate,” he adds.
While the Pathare Prabhus’ delectable and lip-smacking cuisine continues to thrive in their community and amongst a few dynamic foodies, it’s relatively unknown and unheard of inside and outside the city. Their lovely culinary tradition is a legacy that needs to be experienced by more people to understand not just the diversity of our coastal cuisine but also the versatility with which seafood can be prepared. Be it the unpleasant aroma of the Parbi Pao or the Khadkadla sound of the crab or the unforgettably amazing aftertaste of the Methkut, each dish in the Pathare Prabhu’s cuisine tells a story and is an experience that needs to be undertaken, for it pleases the stomach and the heart alike.
For more details on upcoming pop-ups visit Kalpana Talpade’s Facebook Page.
For more details on Authenticook Pop-Ups, visit their website.
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