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When is a Poha like a Misal? When you’re in spice-loving Nagpur

Maskaa Marke with Kunal Vijayakar travels to the land of juicy oranges and jet-black chickens.

mumbai Updated: Dec 07, 2018 21:06 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
Cuisines of Maharashtra,Kunal Vijayakar,Nagpur
Saoji Mutton at Vidarbh King restaurant, Thane. The cuisine of Nagpur is called Saoji after a centuries-old sub-community of traditional handloom weavers.

My pursuit of Maharashtrian regional food takes me this week to the Vidharbha region of north-eastern Maharashtra. This is an area that borders three other states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. The region’s largest city is Nagpur, which is also incidentally the geographical centre of India — the zero mile marker is here. I last visited Nagpur several years ago, and of course oranges play a vital role in the lives of its people.

The Nagpur santra is a countryside fruit, pockmarked and slightly disfigured looking, unlike the perfectly round imported (and possibly over-groomed) variety. The Nagpur orange is sour and sweet and can be found everywhere in the city, including at railway platforms. As a through train pulls into the station, orange sellers rush to the windows and passengers respond in excitement as an impromptu bazaar is conducted right there. A flurry of quick bargaining, wrapping and money exchange is done before the train slowly starts to pull out.

The orange finds its way into a lot of mithai and barfi in Nagpur, but is hardly ever used in cooking. And that’s because real Nagpuri food has no place for sweet; it’s explosive and combustive.

Take the Tarri Poha. Puffed rice, soaked and cooked with potatoes, turmeric and green chilli. The Nagpurkars pour a spicy red curry (tarri) made with gram or green peas on the poha and then garnish it with chopped onions, more green chilli, coriander and sev. It’s a staple breakfast and you see street hawkers crowded with customers eating platefuls of Tarri Poha.

The people of Nagpur will add a red hot spicy curry to anything. Even Batata Wada, which is doused in a similar red curry and served as Batata Wada Rassa.

The cuisine of Nagpur is called Varhadi or Saoji. The Saojis were a centuries-old sub-community of traditional handloom weavers from within the Halba Koshti community. As the demand for spun cotton declined, they began to offer commercially the other big thing their tribe was known for — their food, predominantly non-vegetarian, packed with flavour, uniquely spiced.

Nagpur is full of Saoji restaurants all serving spicy meat cooked in a dark masala, but I decided to look for a home-cooked meal. I finally found a local housewife, who spoke a wonderful mixture of Marathi and Hindi, and agreed to cook me some Saoji Mutton.

This cuisine uses four basic masalas, two dry and two wet. Let me try and explain. When I say dry, I mean powders. Saoji has two, a Bhukri masala with 12 different spices, and a Kaala masala with 20 spices. The wet ones are a freshly ground paste of onion, garlic, ginger and roasted cumin called Batlo; and one made of khus khus (poppy seed), cashew, coriander seed, and sometimes almonds. This last paste adds body and smoothness to a dish.

The spice, heat and colour in the food come from a lot of black pepper and Bhiwapur chillies, named for the nearby region where they grow. In some of the dishes, the masalas are boiled before frying, to ease the fire in the taste!

The most iconic Saoji dish is the Mutton Varhadi Rassa, a thick gravy cooked with all four masalas. The Rassa is eaten with crisp chapatis. Locals will order the dish, crush the chapatti, pour the rassa and meat over it and garnish with onion and fried garlic. It’s flavour upon flavour upon flavour!

In Saoji cuisine, every part of the goat is used — kidney, the liver, brain, trotters, intestines, all of it. Popular snacks in Saoji restaurants include Khur Sukka (trotters), Kapoora Sukka (sweet bread) and a dish made with lamb intestines. The way they do it, I began to feel the offal tasted better than the meat.

Mutton is for special occasions. The everyday staple in Saoji / Varhadi homes in Nagpur is Gavthi (or free-range, country) chicken. And for really special occasions, they bring out the rare Indian Kadaknath breed of chicken — which is all-black, even the beak, meat and wattles. More on that — and the Nagpuri wedding feast — next time!

First Published: Dec 07, 2018 21:06 IST