As soon as the rains have receded, Maharashtra emerges from its water-soaked shell and goes on a spree of festivals that lasts almost till November.. As such, the food at this time takes a turn with regional specialities coming to the fore.
When in Maharashtra, eat as the Maharashtrians do. And that’s not just a play on what you should be doing while in Rome but a fact of life that will have you coming back for more. If you have the dosas and idlis in the south and the rasogollas in the east and the tandooris in the north, what is it that Maharashtra has to offer?
In Maharashtra, almost every auspicious occasion has a specific food preparation – mostly sweet – as a part of the meal. The predominant use of some ingredients like rice, wheat, coconut and jaggery in these preparations since ancient times is not only associated with various sacred beliefs but primarily based on the staple produce in this region and their high nutritional values. While rice and wheat are sources of carbohydrates, jaggery is rich in iron.
Coconut and Jaggery
The coconut tree – Cocos Nucifera – has been identified as a ‘kalpavruksha’ which means a complete tree in Sanskrit, the implication being that every part of the tree is put to use. The fruit also has cultural and religious significance and is a part of every Hindu ritual. Due to its purity and nutritional value, coconut milk is ever-refreshing and soothing, recommended during the recovery of most ailments. A source of protein, the coconut fruit is also rich in various micro-nutrients and is considered an essential element in brain development by traditional Indian medicine.
Jaggery or ‘gul’ (in Marathi) is an unrefined form of sugar made from sugarcane, which also is a principal crop of Maharashtra. Popularly know as ‘panela’ in Mexico and South America, jaggery is a rich source of iron which helps in blood purification and for curing anemia. As compared to refined sugar, jaggery is a healthier sweetener which retains natural minerals and vitamins from sugarcane. Maharashtra, in fact, is one of the highest producers and consumers of jaggery and it is an essential part of every Maharashtrian kitchen, so much so that a typical rural Maharashtrian tradition demands offering a piece of jaggery and water to a visitor as a part of hospitality. Termed as a ‘source of complete nutrition’, the combination of jaggery and coconut therefore justifies its presence in most of Maharashtrian cuisine and sacred offerings.
A form of coconut rice, ‘narali bhaat’ is a sweet preparation made in Maharashtra on the occasion of Narali Pournima or Shravani Pournima which falls on the full moon night in the month of Shravan (around August). Narali Pournima is also an auspicious day for the fishing community (kolis) from coastal Maharashtra who get back to the sea after the period of stormy rains. As the sea calms, they celebrate the night in full gay and pomp and resume fishing activities after offering a coconut to the sea, their source of livelihood. Rice being a staple diet on the coastal belt and with coconut found in abundance, this festival is marked by the preparation of ‘narali bhaat’ as a sweet dish in most of western Maharashtra.
Modak (rice dumplings)
A mouth-watering delicacy, it takes years of practice to make a perfectly-shaped sweet offering called ‘modak’. This is a sweet stuffed dumpling either steamed or fried that has its origins in west and south India. The outer covering (paari) is made of rice flour and the stuffing (saaran) with fresh coconut and jaggery. Considered as a favourite of Lord Ganesha, an offering of 21 modaks is made to him on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi (the first day of the ten-day long Ganesh Festival which falls in August or September) before relishing them with some pure desi ghee. The number of distinct folds on the modak will determine the efficiency with which a modak has been made.