This article is part of a special series called "The A-Z of Marathi food". India is the land of diversity. Each of the 28 states in India has a unique cuisine but the Indian food served in restaurants represents only a tiny fraction of our culinary heritage. I come from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Capital: Bombay (Mumbai). Population: 96 million (only 11 countries in the world have a population higher than Maharashtra). Language: Marathi. Traditional Marathi food is earthy and humble, diverse and very tasty. It also remains relatively unknown to non-marathis. Its time to change that. I invite you to join me on an alphabetical culinary tour of my state. We will go through the letters A to Z and make a dish with each letter to show-case Marathi cuisine.
X is for Xtra refreshing PANHA.
After a bit of a break, we arrive at another wild-card letter: the mysterious "X". These wild card letters give me a chance to come back to some beloved foods that I somehow missed out on during our journey. This time, while wondering what food to make for "X", I thought about all the foods I made from A to W. We have tried many rice dishes, vegetables and dals, even a condiment or two. One category that is conspicuous by its absence is beverages. We cannot do a whole series on Marathi food without touching on this important class of "not-quite-food foods"!
Most of India has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest; a constant intake of water and beverages is required to keep your cool in this kind of weather. At the height of summer, the mercury is off the charts, vapor rises off the boiling streets and people are overcome with fatigue and lethargy. A cool drink at this time is just the thing one needs. The most popular beverage is, somewhat counter-intuitively, drunk piping hot: chaha or chai, strong black tea with milk and sugar. Among the cold beverages, the most popular are syrups of various fruits, collectively called sarbat. The easiest one to make is limbu sarbat, by mixing some sugar and salt into lemon juice and diluting it with ice-cold water. Yes, unlike in the US, Indian lemonade always contains a hefty pinch of salt, I think this is to replace the electrolytes that the body loses due to constant sweating. Other popular "sarbats" are made with the kokum fruit and mango pulp. Generally, store-bought bottles of the syrup are stocked in the home, so that a drink can be mixed up at a moment's notice.
Milk-based drinks are also very popular, including simple milk-shakes made by blending fruit pulp with some milk and sugar (mango and chikoo are my personal favorites), and cold coffee made with instant coffee. A wonderful savory drink is called mattha, made by blending yogurt with ginger, salt, coriander powder and cumin seeds. Another favorite milk-based drink is called masala dudh or masala milk, made by adding a mixture of ground nuts and spices into milk, and this can be enjoyed hot or cold.
If you happen to be outside, a delicious drink that is often available for a few rupees is oosacha ras or fresh sugarcane juice. Much of Maharashtra is coastal, which means that coconuts are available a-plenty...street corners and beaches are homes to vendors selling naaral pani or tender coconut water.
For today's letter, I chose my favorite Marathi beverage: panha, a drink made with raw mangoes. As the seasons inch towards the height of summer, around early April, the mango starts making its appearance in the bhaji mandai or vegetable market. If one is lucky, there will be a tree in your backyard so you never have to buy these. Raw mangoes are prized for many seasonal delights, both sweet and savory. Panha is made by cooking chopped raw mangoes with some jaggery (sugar can also be used). The cooked pulp is mashed, seasoned with some salt and cardamom powder and mixed with ice-cold water to make a delicious and refreshing drink. Traditionally, panha is served at many afternoon events during the summer months, the heat during that time makes the thought of hot tea pretty much unbearable! On these occasions, panha is paired with a savory snack called vatali dal, made by grinding together soaked chana dal and grated raw mangoes with some chillies and salt. This dal-panha combo is just a fantastic treat and somehow makes even the harsh summer months worth looking forward to!
(makes 2-3 glasses)
1 raw mango, peeled and chopped (discard seed)
1/4 cup jaggery (unrefined cane sugar)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cardamom powder
1. In a saucepan, combine chopped raw mango, jaggery, salt and 1/2 cup water. It does not matter if the jaggery is a large chunk, it will dissolve on boiling. Boil the mixture and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the mango is soft and falling apart and the jaggery has fully dissolved.
2. Using a blender or food processor, grind the mango mixture to a fine pulp.
3. Strain the pulp to remove any fibers and chunky pieces. Stir in the cardamom powder.
4. Dilute the pulp with chilled water to make the panha. Enjoy!
This quantity of jaggery makes a fairly tart panha (which is how I like it). Do taste the pulp to adjust the sweetness to your taste. It may also vary depending on the tartness of the mango. If you own a pressure cooker, mangoes can be cooked whole in the pressure cooker, then peeled and pulped and mixed with melted jaggery.
We shall meet very soon for the "Y" of Marathi food. Any ideas for this one?