Mumbai Food: Aaji's kitchen cookbook has amazing recipes that no one knows
There's much more to Maharashtrian food than kande pohe and batata vada. A new cookbook, a family secret till now, serves up 110 ideas
A new cookbook, From Aaji's Kitchen, has recipes that no one, except an aaji, would know. There's dadpe pohe (pohe with grated cucumber and raw mango), gul pohe (pohe with jaggery), pej (rice porridge), kelfulachi bhaji (banana flower stir-fry), tak pole (buttermilk pancakes) and tikhat dhondas (spicy cucumber cake). In fact, according to 70-year-old Anagha Desai, the author of From Aaji's Kitchen (From Grandmother's Kitchen), tikhat dhondas is a dish that "nobody prepares mhanje nobody prepares." It's her sister-in-law's recipe, a family secret.
We meet Desai at her residence in Worli, where she has baked the dhondas for us. Her late husband, test cricketer Ramakant Desai's portrait hangs in the background, while her son Amod plays mother hen, prompting answers, and at one point, even the question: "Why don't you tell her, why you decided to write the book?" Desai answers, "Every time we used to come together in the family, the kids would discuss their grandmothers' cooking. One day, I said, 'I'll compile all the recipes for our family.'" From a personal project, it soon became a public project. As Amod adds, "A friend of mine, who is settled in Milan, said he wanted the recipe for varan-bhat. So, mum sat, typed out the whole thing and sent it to him. That was also another [turning] point, because people were hankering for this stuff."
Don't go by the name of the book; From Aaji's Kitchen actually includes hand-me-down recipes by all the cooks in Desai's family: from her grandmother to her sister-in-law. While tagging along with them, she would first take mental notes, then take written notes, which eventually became the book. "In those days, nobody taught you to cook," she says. "We observed and followed them, and we learned from them." Since hardly anyone undergoes apprenticeship in the kitchen today, the cookbook ensures you don't have to look over your mother's shoulder to mimic old recipes.
Along the coast
The Desais are originally from Vengurla, in the Sindhudurg district, and the 110 recipes can be broadly termed as coastal Maharashtrian food. Obviously, fish forms the heart of the cuisine - pomfret, mackerel, halwa, ladyfish, mandeli, sardines. The book also contains the family's version of popular dishes. "My grandmother's mutton curry was called Sunday mutton curry, because it was made only on Sundays," says Desai. "Sol kadhi is an extract from dry kokum. But, my sister-in-law used to prepare it from fresh fruit. Our way of preparing kopra pak is also different. We add potato to it for smoothness. We also make a special paste with ground coconut and roasted onions. That paste is most important because it gives thickness, body and taste to our gravies."
Anagha Desai, wife of late test cricketer Ramakant Desai, started work on the cookbook as a medium to compile some of the family favourites. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Even if you've lived in Mumbai forever, it's likely you haven't eaten some of these dishes. Is there any restaurant that has gul pohe and dadpe pohe on its menu? "Gul pohe used to be my tiffin in school," says Desai. "Actually, typical Maharashtrian food is hardly available in restaurants. We don't have so much oil and tomatoes and fried things in our cooking. Our sourness comes from kokum and tamarind. None of the sweets [such as fenugreek pancakes with sweet coconut milk] are available in any shop or restaurants." In a bid to correct this, Aaswad Restaurant in Dadar, is going to host a 10-day festival (from October 20) that will feature some of these dishes. Suryakant Sarjoshi, owner of Aaswad, says, "The basic motto of Aaswad is to promote traditional Maharashtrian dishes, which is not even being made in homes. For the festival, we've selected 10-15 unique items that most of the people don't know about."
Chemist to cook
Desai, who was a chemist with Agmark for 36 years and retired in 2006, took four years to write the book. "I have kept myself busy with this work only. What to do? You can't sit in the mall the whole day." What's true for the Desais is equally true for all our families. Our matriarchs, especially those in their twilight years, have recipes and stories that will disappear with them. Perhaps, just like Desai did, it's time to put our mothers and grandmothers to work and get those recipes on paper.
3-4 tbs ghee
1 cup semolina
1 cup grated cucumber (peeled and deseeded)
2.5 cups hot water
1 tsp salt
1 tbs jaggery
1/4 cup grated fresh coconut
1/4 cup cashew nuts (halved)
1/2 piece ginger
2-3 green chillies
1/2 piece cinnamon
1/2 tsp black pepper corn
1 tbs fennel seeds
1 tbs coriander seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
6 fresh turmeric leaves
- Grind ginger and green chillies to a fine paste. Powder cinnamon, black pepper, fennel seeds and coriander seeds.
- Heat 1 tbs ghee in a pan, add semolina, lower the heat and roast the semolina till it changes colour and gives a roasted aroma.
- In another pan, heat 1 tbs ghee, add grated cucumber, stir and cook for five minutes.
- Add hot water and increase the heat. As the water starts boiling, add roasted semolina and salt. Keep stirring continuously.
- Add ginger-chilli paste, jaggery, coconut, cashew nuts, ground spices powder and turmeric. Stir and cook the mixture till it thickens.
- Grease a cake tin with ghee. Spread three turmeric leaves at the bottom. Pour the thickened mixture in the tin. Place remaining turmeric leaves at the top.
- Bake in an oven at 180 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Serve hot or at room temperature.
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