Diwali 2018: Maharajes take to freelancing as they have become wandering chef
With Diwali around the corner, we meet the maharajes or travelling cooks, who bring decades of culinary knowledge, and ghee-soaked delicacies, to the table
Over the last few decades, the title of maharaj has lost its flavour, though the cooking done by them continues to retain it. When old Mumbai homes enjoyed fuller families, they also enjoyed the services of a full-time maharaj. He ran the kitchen. As food historian and Padma Shri recipient, Pushpesh Pant, says, "He was a sovereign of his domain. The word 'maharaj' literally translates as great king. This title was obviously given to the professional family cooks to flatter them and retain them."
As families started to downsize, so did the duties of the maharaj. "The extended joint families are extinct and even large families can't afford a retainer of this kind," says Pant. "Today, there is no question of having a live-in maharaj. Eating habits, too, have changed and ritual purity or traditional recipes aren't a priority. It's not surprising that many a maharaj has taken to freelancing."
From the head chef, the maharaj has been demoted to the wandering chef: from home to home, kitchen to kitchen, occasion to occasion. He's now invited for weddings and funerals, casual get-togethers and Diwali dos, any affair in which the party size is too significant for a regular cook, and when guests need to be impressed.
Om Maharaj claims he does close to 50 parties a year. Pics/Ashish Raje
The fruit of child labour
We meet Om Maharaj, a serious, gentle man, on the sidelines of his cooking gig at Ahimsa Bhavan, a Jain sthanak, in Khar. Forty-five-year-old Om has lived and cooked in Mumbai for 30 years. He came here as a 15-year-old, from Madhubani zilla in Bihar. "I have never studied," he says. "There was a school in my village, but there was a lot of poverty. So, you had to earn."
Similarly, Ranveer Maharaj, 60, who is from Chirawa, Rajasthan, joined the workforce when he was 14. "My family is filled with farmers," he says. "Circumstances were such that I had to start cooking. My mother passed away, and meals became a problem. So, I had to join a hotel at a young age," he says. Another maharaj we speak to, Lallan Maharaj, says, "I came to Mumbai in 1991; I was 13. We are four brothers, and we are all cooks. I have only studied till class three. So, which office will hire me? My brothers had knowledge in this field, so I learnt [from them]. A new person, where will he go?"
There are thousands of maharajes in Mumbai, from all over the country, but their story pretty much begins in the same place: they learnt to cook so that they could feed themselves.
You can invite Lallan Maharaj over even to cook Diwali farsan. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
'Know how to guess'
More than anything, cooking requires intuition. That makes it an easier skill to acquire. A young adult, if there is fire in his belly and little else, can comfortably make his way around the kitchen. But, to become a maharaj, you need the blessing of a maharaj. Ranveer apprenticed with the famous Satyanarayan Maharaj, from the Marwari community, for a dozen years. Om says, "My guru was from Rajasthan, Ram Tirath Gupta. After a year or two, I left him, and joined Banwari Maharaj, from UP. Then I started working on my own." Since he struck out on his own, Om has trained four maharajes himself: his assistants who picked up the tricks of the trade in six to seven years.
Pushpesh Pant, Food Historian
Their orders come from word-of-mouth. Lallan, who takes up kitty parties as well, says, "Suppose I have made food at your house. When someone asks you for a maharaj, you recommend me. That's how I get orders. I have some knowledge of the cuisine of each community. I can make whatever you ask of me." That's a claim that should be taken with a pinch of salt: they each have their specialities. For Om, it's Indian sweets, from rasgulla to ghevar; for Ranveer, it's Marwari items such as dal-baati churma and panchmel ka saag; Lallan, who has also trained in restaurants and five-stars for 13 years, can be trusted to pull off Italian and Chinese dishes and English desserts convincingly.
Perhaps, because they deal mostly with homemakers, there's a tenderness in their demeanour. Chandravan Vishwakarma, manager at Ahimsa Bhavan, who has been engaging Om's services for the last 10 years, says, "His behaviour and language have a certain sweetness. There are some cooks who are a bit cruel and inflexible, so we don't get along with them." This is an important point that Vishwakarma makes: a maharaj isn't just an ordinary chef; he enters your house and represents your food. That's why he's been accorded a high status. As Lallan says, "In this line of work, the person who knows his job, doesn't need the title. I have not kept my name maharaj. It's all of you who call me maharajji. So, now, it has become a surname."
To book: Om Maharaj (veg dishes), Call: 9930086726
To book: Lallan Maharaj (non-veg dishes), Call: 8286868020.
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