Kunal Vijayakar heads to Nashik, for a feast crafted by true foodies
I was in Nashik recently. Now, when you say Nashik, most people assume you mean a winery weekend on the Sula estate or a visit to ‘Bhonu Queen’ Tanaz Godiwalla’s Summer Vines for some wine and dhansak. It was neither. I went with my cousin Rahul Velkar to spend an evening with his former classmate, Ashish Kaushik, who had promised me the meal of a lifetime.
Now this is what I love about real foodies. ‘Foodie’ is not just some term you anoint yourself with because you run to every new restaurant that opens. It’s a quality you develop out of an unnaturally keen interest in food, its myths and lore, the provenance of recipes, the nuances of cooking. And as Ashish talked to me about his passion for cooking, I knew I was in the presence of a real food aficionado.
He told me that he has always been a lover of food, and had moved to Nashik several years ago. Nashik had no great food scene at that time, so necessity turned mother of invention. Ashish and his lovely wife Jyoti started cooking like beasts. Digging out recipes, scouring for spices, hunting down ingredients, growing herbs, and nurturing suppliers of meat and fish like prized retainers.
It did not take me long to accept an invitation and we were soon driving up the Ghats to his home. The weather was several degrees cooler than in sweltering Mumbai. And like most people who live outside this city, Ashish and Jyoti have a real house, unlike the little cubby holes we call flats.
We settled into the chilly living room, kicked off our shoes, and accepted an offer of some tea. What arrived was high-tea. Scones with jam; brownies, the best I’ve ever had; homemade Punjabi samosas, golden-fried and stuffed with a spicy mix of potato, green peas and spices; crisp, hot jalebis. The jalebis and samosas were so fresh, that they came out only two at a time.
It was the longest tea session I’ve ever had. We sat on those sofas for over three hours, devouring the snacks with cups of freshly brewed coffee and discussing, what else, the meal for the evening.
As the sun went down, and the temperature dropped, we gathered up our warm clothes and headed to the roof. Jyoti had already kindled a little bonfire to keep us toasty and, with the help of some staff, was getting the barbecue going. Somewhere at the far end of the terrace, Ashish had set up a wood fire as well, with a cauldron full of oil over it.
As the temperature dropped further and a bottle of single malt was opened, the first round of snacks came around. They were moong daal bhajiyas, hot and crisp, the batter spiced well and whisked and aerated to produce light, fluffy and spicy treats. With a green mint-and-coriander chutney, these was just a teaser of what we had in store.
In the distance I could see Ashish with long skewers, slaving over the coals. I decided to pry. I went up to him; he was making mutton seekh kababs. I have never seen anyone make seekh kababs at home with such ease. Only a professional kababwala knows how to bind raw mince on a skewer and then grill it over a fire to perfection. Ashish explained to me that the bowl of mince was spiced with just basic masalas and ginger-garlic, so that the spices didn’t overpower the meat. There was no bread, bread crumbs, eggs or potato used to bind the meat together.
He explained that the secret is to buy meat with a little fat in it, and mince the meat in a mixer three times. The seekh kababs were soft, luscious and meaty, and with just a squeeze of lime and expensive onion slices, they were fit for a nawab.
He also did a round of paneer tikkas, again mildly spiced; and rawas, also done over the barbecue. We then came to the main course, for which he laid our pre-plated brass thaalis. Heavy, shiny, and holding half a dozen katoris each. This was going to be a home-style meal featuring Ashish and Jyoti’s greatest hits.
There was a brown patodi chi amti, a traditional Maharashtrian dish where diamond-shaped besan dumplings or patodi are cooked in a thick gravy, served along with a fiery red tomato-and-green-pea chutney. A thick, sour, yellow Marwari kadhi, with a flavour of hing and methi. And green onion sabzi, so fresh and ever so slightly sautéed that the vegetables stayed crunchy and did not disintegrate into a mush. And well-seasoned arvi, fried to perfection.
But the main dish was Khandeshi mutton. Although the Khandesh region of Maharashtra is in Jalgaon, it includes part of Nashik. This intense mutton curry, cooked with chillies and kaala masala, can only be described as hot-tempered. The gravy is thin, like a rassa, and blazing red oil (tarri) usually floats to the top of the vessel after the meat is cooked.
Khandeshi mutton along with hot jawar and bajra bhakris, green chillies and raw onion is a great challenge to cold weather. The salad was just coarsely chopped onions and tomatoes smoked with a dhangur. Such a simple way to add personality to an otherwise ordinary side.
The meal ended with cognac, and home-made ice-creams of pistachio, kesar pista and strawberry. It was a fabulous meal made by true foodies. I have just one complaint. While Ashish and Jyoti served up this huge feast, they had to spend most of their time in front of the fire to ensure we ate the very best. We missed having them at the table. But what can one do. These are the sacrifices real foodies make.