This is one cuisine where less is more. Understated, nuanced, balanced...and err...humuorless? I mean, not the cuisine, but it's representative...the quietly formidable Barve Bai. Neat and trim in her pastel voile saree, ample mane swept into a no-nonsense bun, her only concession to lavishness being the diamond kudis in her ears and thick black Mangalsutra in her neck. Facing her, in sharp contrast, stood old me—in my grubby track pants, crumpled Tee and a short bob that screamed irresponsibility for anyone who had never entertained the thought of an attire other than the traditional.
Well, like it or not, here she was this professional cook-cum-teacher, who for a fee, specialized in teaching young hopefuls (usually brides) the rudiments of Marathi Brahminical cuisine (no casteism intended, just a broad definition of cooking-style). A cuisine where waste and lavishness are neither encouraged nor desired. A cuisine where balance and discipline are key to culinary nirvana. Easy enough words those—balance and discipline—except in cases where the students' mental make-up is short of both.
This lacuna was slowly becoming clear to Barve Bai—in less than 30 minutes of our acquaintance, but ever the professional, she said nothing, revealed nothing—except for the slight pursing of the lips. Well, guess what? I wasn't a student either by choice or inclination. I was one by force. An elder in the family had 'gently suggested' cooking lessons for the newlywed me and even paid the fees to turn the prospect into reality. So here we were, Barve Bai and I—forced to make the best of each other over the next ten days.
On the dot of 10 the next morning, my lessons began in earnest. First came the bad news. She disapproved of the vegetables I had chosen—not that she had any issues in teaching me how to make bhindi, or tondli (Ivy guard) but the subzi, per she, assured me briskly was no good. "A good housewife must get the bazaar right, to begin with," she said.
Fresh means fresh
Then came the bad, err, worse news. She was continuing with the lessons anyway. Marathi food, she assured me, is not for the lazy and heavy-handed. The masalas must be fresh, measured and in perfect proportion. And no, you cannot cheat with extra doses of oil, ginger garlic or green chillies. Or even red ones for the matter. "We Marathi folks like to taste the original flavour of the bhajis we are cooking—be it the delicately flavoured kobi (cabbage), the festive gobi (cauliflower), the ubiquitous bhindi or the endless procession of sprouts and dals."
Over the next few days came the finer points. The garnishings like coriander had to be crisp and alert – and finely chopped. The freshly grated coconut had to be well, freshly grated, and the coconut milk in the sol kadhi (an appetizing drink made of kokum and coconut milk and seasoned with garlic, coriander and green chillis) had to be freshly coaxed out of tender green coconut, and not Maggi-desiccated powder.
She passed some pretty bogus sounding (but largely true) diktats too – The way you cut the bhaji affects the taste and the aesthetic value of the veggies. Since I could never cut the bhaji to her exact specifications, I was swiftly relegated to the category of her slightly dim students. But she stuck on.
Excess is frowned upon
My fauji, rootless existence had to be rescued from the badlands of the North that specialized in seasonings with fistfuls of ghee, and well, generous doses of just about everything. After all, how else do you show the guests how welcome they are? To this query, Barve bai's answer was simple enough: By taking care to choose the choicest ingredients, making your very own goda masala (the mainstay in several preparations) and caring enough to measure each constituent just so.
Excess coriander in the bhaji served no purpose except to float in ever-lasting ugliness, betraying the cook's clumsiness; similarly, the chincha gool (tamarind jaggery) that rounded off several dals and bhajis in a glorious yin yang of sweet and sour, had to be dealt a gentle hand. Excess ghee in sheera only translated into extra grocery bills—and not taste. Not when you add bananas to it—for the festive touch.
Similarly, the basundi (the Maharashtrian version of rabdi) is slow-cooked for hours for the yummiest results; the milk must turn a gentle shade of pink and the layers of milk solids must come up every now and then in your mouth. That certainly won't happen if you dump a can of Milkmaid condensed milk into the pan. All yoghurt-based preparations must have a tupatli phodni (ghee ka tadka) and needless to say, good ghee is only made at home.
That was not all. There was a decided virtue and logic in making only an x-number of rotis (be it ghadichya polya—big chappatis laced with oil) or phulkas (those dainty little works of art), because it saved time, effort and precious resources.
Chutneys are meant to be fresh, the pounded ground nuts in the tomato or panchamrut must be the correct, rough-hewn of texture and no more than enough—so as to avoid a tummy ache. Bhajis must be made in limited quantities, quantity-wise and quality-wise.
Companions to every meal
Everything is best consumed there and then, for purposes of both taste and health. Taak and koshimbir (our version of chaas and mixed veg raita) were a must with every meal and not an afterthought. On a hot, sweltering day—and well there are plenty of those in this part of the country, the homemaker who had thoughtfully provided them to her family and guests would certainly be blessed.
The kothimbir vadis, (or coriander dumplings) were best steamed or at the most lightly fried for best taste and certainly not soaked in oil. There was also a thing called kelyachi bhaji, made out of raw bananas—a refreshing departure from potatoes.
Puran polis could be sweetened with jaggery or sugar as per choice. However, if jaggery is your choice, be prepared to lose out on the luxuriant texture that only refined sugar can provide. By the way, sada varan (yellow dal) was actually just that with a hint of ghee, hing, haldi, salt and freshly squeezed lemons.
Marathi food equals moderation
No over the top flavours, and certainly no over-cooking. Sedate, balanced and nuanced—that is Marathi cooking done right. Easier said than done though. Moderation needs practice and nuance needs the patience of preparation. I had none of these to spare back then. Not that Barve bai cared. She had instructed me what she had to—and she was off.
Years later, when I serve my family and friends a healthy yet tasty meal that does not give them a tummy ache even if they over-eat, I realize Barve bai's was a cooking tutorial done right. Besides, less is more. Even as far as the effort on my part is concerned. That's what is most important to a cook as lazy at heart as I am.