A Pathare Prabhu feast at Bimba Nayak’s

Did you know that the Pathare Prabhus are among the original residents of Mumbai? That there are just about six thousand of them left making them smaller than the Parsi community? That they trace their lineage to Luv Kush, the sons of Ram? That they came to Mumbai from Nepal via the Aravali Range of Rajasthan and Gujarat? That these influences permeate their meat and fish heavy food culture? That unlike other Marathi communities there is very little coconut used in their cuisines? That unlike other Marathis they don’t believe in abstinence during the month of Shravan that has just started and that alcohol and non veg will continue to grace most Pathare Prabhu homes during the month of Shravan too? That Pathare Prabhus once owned large tracts of land in Mumbai?

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These and many other gems of information peppered our evening at Bimba Nayak’s house last Saturday evening. On hearing through blogger Sassy Fork, that I didn’t know about Pathare Prabhu cuisine, Bimba threw open her house to us and offered to cook us a Pathare Prabhu meal.

To know more about the Pathare Prabhus you can read this Wikipedia Link or you can read Sassy Fork’s account of the evening.

For me the evening was all about getting to know the vivacious, energetic and adorable Bimba Nayak and her family and eat the great food that they dished out for us. I love discovering about new cultures through the world of food and the evening was just about that. It was an added plus that the food was so mind blowing.

Some of it was of course testimony to the Pathare Prabhu culinary culture but a lot of credit goes to Bimba herself. At a time when Indian women barely stepped out of the house to work, Bimba changed courses on a whim. She used to work as a seamstress for leading garment stores when one day she saw an ad, applied, got selected and suddenly saw herself in Kuwait working as a chef. She was there for fourteen years, by herself, away from her family. During this time she got to travel the world and learn how to manage a professional kitchen. Knowledge which held her in good stead when she returned to India, where, assisted by her son, she runs cooking classes out of her home in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi. In her classes she teaches topics as diverse as Malvani, Lebanese, Pakistani (which the local newspaper doesn’t allow her to advertise due to political reasons), chocolate making, baking, sugar crafts and so on. Her students come from across India and abroad too. If you see her cooking studio, it is basically her drawing room. Yet the force of her personality and her sheer knowledge of food is what draws students to her.

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All the figurines above are Bimba’s sugar craft on display

Occasionally she sets up stalls at the Pathare Prabhu festival and her whole family pitches in. Husband and brother in law man the cash counter, son and daughter in law act as sous chefs, her little grandson, who wants to be a chef, mans the cake section. A mood which spilled on to the evening we were invited where the extended family, including a 86 year old aunt, came together to prepare a lavish feast for us. You would not be mistaken if you thought you had stumbled into the sets of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

 

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Bimba explained that most of the dishes took five minutes or so to cook. Her training as an international chef had honed her sensibilities to ensure that she didn’t overcook her proteins unlike what most locals do. This combined with the Pathare Prabhu (PP) cooking traditions ensured that we had a memorable multi course meal which was so distinct from anything one has had and the dishes showed an amazing variety within themselves.

First came an array of starters.

We started with aluwadi made with coulcasia leaves and chickpea paste. Unlike the stodgy aluwadi or patrel that I have had this had an interesting crunchy texture to it and a PP twist…there were shrimps in it.

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Next on was bhanavle which is a cabbage and shrimp baked dish. The cabbage is grated and baked but retains its original flavours. The importance given to the flavours of the produce is what made our PP meal more European in spirit than Indian.

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On the same flavour packed mode where baked and then fried Bombil or Bombay Duck cutlets where each bite was filled with the taste of this flagship fish of Mumbai.

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Bombay duck also featured in Mumbre which is another baked dish made with fresh bombil and yellow bananas. The flavours of both the fish and the fruit had been retained.

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Rounding up the starters were Jawala Wadis. These are tiny shrimps, what the Brits call Potted Shrimps and the Parsis Kuto.  Fritters made with chickpea flour and were bursting with fishy flavours balanced by salt and reminded me of the equally sinful machher teller bora or fish blubber fritters that we Bengalis love.

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Then came the mains which Bimba said consisted of dishes which made their regular dinners at home. Lunches were sandwiches nibbled on in between cooking classes.

There was an astounding pomfret stew called pomfret bhujne where you could make out the garlic base of the curry and Bimba tells me that this is a favourite of the PPs I just loved the way the dish respected the produce with each flavour coming out beautifully and yet coexisting synergistically.

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To give a cooling counterpoint was a pineapple and coconut milk curry.

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Then there was an amazing prawn pickle curry called kolambi lochan which had very sharp flavours. The prawns were cooked in their shells and had been cooked just right and were nice and juicy.

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There was a pepper based cauliflower curry for my mom in law, the lone vegetarian dish apart from the pineapple, but was blessed by us meat lovers. After tasting this you would hardly believe that Pathare Prabhus are not really gung ho on vegetarian dishes. At least not the Nayaks.

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The biggest hit that night was the onion based mutton curry called Gode Mutton made with the traditional Pathare Prabhu Gode masala. To me it tasted like a hybrid of the Bengali mangshor jhol and kosha mangsho and struck the right notes. You were supposed to have these with soft, sweet rotis. Like a good Bengali curry it had potatoes in it too.

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I also loved the taleli  gabholi or fried fish roe of Bhing. But then why wouldn’t I?  Bhing is the local name for Hilsa and every Bengali loves his ilish machhed deem bhaja (fried Hilsa roe).

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There was also a light cucumber and coconut and peanut salad called khaman kakdi to round off the table.

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In case you thought this was a lot of food there was more. Desserts were due.

First came the roth which is a semolina based Persian influenced cake which the PPs picked up during their stay in Gujarat.

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Then there was the perfect ending provided by kerolya, which consisted of yellow bananas, steamed mashed, stuffed with coconut and dry fruits and fried as dumplings. I loved it, but the Parsis, Kurush Dalal and my mom in law went ballistic about it.

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Thus ended an evening of warmth and great food and new discoveries. The sort of evening that takes you to a happy place and tucks you in for a good night’s sleep.

A great example of why I like learning about the lives of others through the world of food.

 

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