Nagpur: A land of rare black chickens and an unusual love of besan
Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar continues its Maharashtrian food trail in the land of orange barfi and the Kadaknath.
The Kadaknath Chicken — all black, even the beak and flesh; very high in protein content — is a relatively rare Indian breed, so the meat costs nearly as much as mutton. The Kadaknath fowl has its roots in bordering Madhya Pradesh. Locals believe it is good for ‘health and vigour’. In other words, as an aphrodisiac.
The meat is gamey and tough, because of the high protein content, so it takes time to cook. In Nagpur, Kadaknath is cooked in true Varhadi style, in a black peppery masala as rugged as the climate of this hot, arid region.
Kadaknath gets a lot of respect at the table. It is eaten with a crisp, tissue-thin roti so that the flavour and texture of the chicken stand out. This roti is made from Lokwan wheat, a type found in Madhya Pradesh, kneaded with water to make a gooey dough, and cooked on a Matka Tawa. The roti is crushed in the plate and covered in the spicy Rassa.
Most Varhadi homes, however, are less obsessed with meat than with Besan. This region has a carnival of spicy vegetarian foods made with this flour, starting with the everyday Pithla Bhakri.
Here’s how they make it. Mustard seeds, cumin, hing, curry leaves and a green garlic-chilli paste are fried until brown. Besan mixed with water and turmeric is poured into the tadka and allowed to cook until the mixture thickens and forms a kind of paste, the Pithla.
This is a deliciously simple dish that can easily be carried to work or eaten as an early lunch with Jowar Bhakri, raw onion and Varhadi Thecha. Unlike other Maharashtrain Thechas, the Varhadi Thecha is made from red chilli, garlic and a veritable arsenal of spices.
Another specialty is the Kalnyachi Bhakri, a roti made from a mixture of urad daal and jowar. The jowar and black gram are ground to a fine flour called Kalana. The flour is mixed with warm water and salt and kneaded into, rolled out and slapped onto a tawa to bake.
The Kalnyachi Bhakri is typically eaten with vegetabl and tastes unbelievably good with a Patodi Rassa Bhaji — which is a dish of steamed dumplings made with besan, green chilli and coriander, cut in the shape of four-sided diamonds are cooked in a spicy red curry.
Another curry, but this time not so spicy, is Methicha Aalan, a soupy dish of methi leaves, besan and buttermilk, a bit like a Dahi Kadi.
But the signature vegetarian dish in Nagpur is Sandage, a mixture of daals like urad, masoor, tur, channa and moong, soaked and ground to a batter with chilli powder, hing and cumin. Small balls or chips are made from this batter and laid out in the sun to dry. The balls or chips are then cooked in a masala with brinjal, onion, daal or even fish.
The Nagpur region is also obsessed with rice or Bhaat, which is prepared in simple but innovative ways. On special occasions like weddings, guests are serve the Nagpuri Vada Bhaat. The Vada is like a bhajiya made of coarsely ground lentils, ginger, garlic and green chilli. Steamed rice flavoured with hing and a tadka is served in a mound. A little pit is made in the middle and the Vadas are gently crushed and placed in it. The Vada Bhaat is served with a yellow daal or kadi and Varhadi Thecha.
Bharda Bhaat is another very popular rice dish here. It’s like a Khichdi, made by mixing cooked spiced channa daal and rice.
Then there is Nagpuri Gola Bhaat, a masala rice served with balls made of besan and served with Tamarind Saar and curd on the side.
But the best meal in Maharashtra, in my opinion, is available in variants across the state, and it is the simple Varan Bhaat and Toop (Ghee). It’s a dish that brings you home, wherever you are.