Misal capital of the world? Yes, but there is more to the food of Nasik!

Postcard from the misal capital of the world.

Green hot chilli thecha

My first trips to Nasik were in 2006 and 2007. This is when I was a market researcher at IMRB and Mahindra Auto was a client of ours. We used to go to the Mahindra plant at Nasik to present research findings to the engineering team. I did not blog back then and was not as enterprising or motivated about trying the local food during my travels. We used to stay at guest houses and eat there. Once we had stopped at Sula which had just started offering wine tasting experiences. One of my colleagues suggested it and we enjoyed this as it was still new to India. The property was lovely too.

Sula 2007

Wine tasting at Sula

Sula 2007. Pics courtesy Kashinath Samant

The other memory from my Nasik trips was about how I found what a ‘thecha’ is while there, almost the hard way! This was during a lunch at the Mahindra canteen. The menu was chapati, rice, yellow tud dal and what looked like green moong dal to me. I later learnt that the latter is called usal in Mahrashtra. To a Bengali, it looked like a meal with two dals and I wondered where the ‘mandatory’ vegetable dish to go with it was, forget non-veg. Then I spotted a big serving bowl filled with greens and scooped up some on my plate. I was about to begin my meal when a rather concerned looking senior engineer from Mahindra decided to act as a knight in shining armour. He turned towards me and hesitantly said, “er, I am not sure if you know what that is, but we call it thecha. The paste of green chillies. I would not recommend taking so much. It might burn a hole in your stomach as it is very hot. Take just a little bit, the way you would  with a pickle.”

With my team from IMRB at Nasik, 2006

We took the train back then. Pics courtesy Kashinath Samath

It is thanks to him that I am still around to tell you the story. The prospect of having had a bowl full of a ‘green chilli pesto’ sounds rather daunting!

Nasik part 2. In search of food stories this time and to tell some too.

With the organisers and the fabulous line-up of speakers at TedX Serene Meadows 2020 which was held at the Taj Gateway Nasik. Speaker list.

I was back at Nasik last weekend. Thirteen years after my trips there as a market researcher.

My life has changed a lot since then.

I do not work in market research anymore. Or in an agency. I am now a food writer and work for myself. I now make it a point to explore the local food scene wherever I go. It was the TedX Serene Meadows meet that took me to Nasik. They had most kindly invited to speak and give my first ever TedX (independently organised Ted) talk. In a stellar line-up, which comprised of folks who were super achievers and who had actively changed the lives of many, I spoke of vada pav, dal puri, pulao and egg rolls and about how food stories can connect us all. Allowing us to turn ‘poison into medicine,’ one meal at a time. I did feel a bit dwarfed by the company I was with I must admit, but was thrilled that I got a forum to speak about what I strongly believe in.

My first TedX talk

 The TedX schedule was a rather hectic one with trials and preps and networking dinners. A lot of planning went into it on the part of the organisers. I was in a hurry to return to Mumbai because of Baby Loaf (our cat) and did not extend the stay at Nasik. The road journey both ways was arduous. We left after 5 pm both times and the road took us 6 hours each way thanks to traffic and multiple pick-ups and detours in Mumbai. There are folks who claim that the trip can be made in 3 hours if one leaves early in the morning.

Baby Loaf was napping but came up to greet me the moment I returned.
He sat looking snug while I patted him for long.

The folks at TedX were kind enough to accommodate my desire to experience some of the local eateries and Vivekraj Thakur, who was one of the curators of the event, took me out in the evening after the speaker rehearsals were done and before the networking soiree began. Vivek as he is called, is a Nasik boy and loves food. He runs a FM agency from Nasik and turned out to be the right person to go out with on an express Nasik food hunt

Misal stop tour

Nasik is known as the misal capital of the world among its residents and my first food stop here had to be at a misal joint of course. Opinions on which is the best misal place at Nasik can lead to endless debates and locals would be the best judges on that. I had the time to go to just one this time. There was a problem though. 

Misal in Nasik is a brunch dish explained Vivek, and most misal places shut by the evening which is when we were setting out. It was my lucky day it seemed as Vivek (who had organised the first misal festival at Nasik and possibly anywhere as I learnt later) knew the owner of Hotel Tushar Misal at College Road and requested them to keep the place open for us.

Hotel Tushar Misal, estd 1966

Vivek himself has grown up at College Road which he calls the ‘Peddar Road (a posh locality in Mumbai) of Nasik’. It was not always so. It stands where farm lands once used to be, said Vishal. 

Tushar Misal was founded in 1966 by the late Shivaji Khanderao Patil. A former farmer, who then run an outlet where murmura (muri/ puffed rice) was made for a while, before he opened Hotel Tushar at the same premises as where it stands today. He started with just misal and vada rassa (batata vada served in the the gravy given with the misal). The menu has expanded a lot in the last 55 years but the misal remains the most popular dish here and I am told that the place is packed in the morning. His sons, Umesh Shivaji Patil and Santosh Shivaji Patil ran the place after him. His 30-year-old grandson and a childhood friend of Vivek, Abhishek Patil runs it now. Abhishek narrated this story to me, while his cousin Sudhanshu showed me what the proper misal eating etiquette at Nasik is. 

They serve the rassa (gravy) separately here. In Pune, it is called sample and in Mumbai, kat. You need to pour it on the misal, said Sudhanshu. Boiled matki (sprouts) with a bit of potatoes form the foundation of the misal here. Thick shev (crunchy deep fried  and spiced gram-flour noodles), not farsan unlike in Mumbai, is tucked in below the misal before it is served.

“Doesn’t it get soggy?” I asked Sudhanshu. “No, the shev needs to soak in the rassa,” said Sushanshu with a confident and yet warm and indulgent smile. They serve shev (sev) separately too for you to add if you want some crunch. There was slight creaminess to the texture of the rassa. That comes from the besan (gramflour) added to it and powdered jowar and bajra millets, explained Abhishek.  

Left to right: rassa, shev, onion and lime
Matki misal, tari, pav. Tushar Misal

That is as
protein packed dish as it gets and the matki made its presence felt in the overall taste construct of the dish.

The misal at Tushar was not too spicy and if you want to up the chilli quotient, there is the tari that they give on the side that you can add. The elderly waiter who served us explained that tari is the oil that comes to the surface when the rassa is cooked. This is taken out and infused with chili powder to get this local chilli oil. I loved it in small measures. You complete the plating with finely chopped raw red onions to add zest and bite and squeeze lime juice for tart. Do not forget that Nasik is onion country (not just wine country) and that onions are grown here in abundance.

Curd and papad is a must with misal at Nasik, Vivek told me. Roti and not pav is what was served with misal back in the day when Hotel Tushar first began operations. Abhishek told me that pav was introduced at Tushar about 30 years back. That is when it became popular in Mumbai too and I guess the trend came from there.

Are you ready to dunk in your pav?

Was this the best misal in Nasik? A sample size of one doesn’t really allow one to conclude on that does it? 

Was the Tushar misal one of the best misals that I have ever had? Yes, yes, yes. Especially with some hot and steaming rassa poured in.

We want ice cream!!!

It is not that the misal was too hot (spicy) for me. The ones in Kolhapur are hotter they say. It did numb my mouth at the end I must admit. Vivekraj had the perfect salve to follow for me in the form of the pineapple ice cream at the Samarth Ice Cream outlet at College Road. The original outlet lies at Ravivar Karanja and the business had started in 1958.

I suggested that we share a glass but Vivekraj said, "nothing doing". He was not game to share his favourite childhood treat and predicted that I would not want to do so either once I tasted it. He was right! 

There was no stopping me from digging into this glass of joy after I had my first bite of the pineapple ice cream, which was bejewelled with stewed pineapple bits, and which floated on a pillowy bed of chilled pineapple flavoured milk. 

Can I confess that I finished mine faster than Vivekraj did his?

To market, to market ...

Our next stop was about Vivekraj's childhood memories too. We headed to old Nasik which tends to get rather crowded Vivekraj warned me.  You are advised to use public transport when you go there or to take a driver with you. We were headed to Sayantara where the sabudana vada is a must if you come to Nasik, or so says Vivekraj and everyone from Nasik on Instagram! He did not eat here as regularly as he did at Tushar as a kid as visits to Sayantara depended on when the grown-ups would get him here. Each trip remains a treasured memory though, Vivekraj tells me.

Old Nasik

... To buy piping hot sabudana vadas

We walked past the Bhadrakali flower market and a very crowded vada pav shop and then down a by-lane to reach Sayantara. Sabudana vada and potato kachori (what the Gujaratis call pattice and frankly not that exciting here) are fried continuously and served piping hot on order. The vada is placed on a multi-textured and very nuanced chutney made at one of the adjacent galas (small shop), with crushed peanuts and local millets, on a paper plate and handed out at the counter. The chutney is slightly sweet and tastes very wholesome.

Fresh sabudana vada anyone?

The sabudana (sago bean) vada at Sayantara is flatter, chubbier and disc-like in shape compared to the spherical ones one gets in Mumbai. 

This adds an added layer of crunch to this popular Maharashtran snack. The batter has crushed peanuts interspersed through it, which make their presence felt through both texture and flavour. There is an ochre yellow coloured house spice sprinkled on to the vada which gives it a layer of chilli heat and this is balanced brilliantly by the soothing chutney. 

Sabudana vada at Sayantara

The excellent sabudana vada at Prakash, Dadar, to show you the contrast with Mumbai which is more spherical.

There are a couple of long benches at Sayantara where you can sit and eat. Most people around me seem to belong to families who had come to shop and had stopped to snack. 

Sayantara has been a Nasik favourite since 1967 and is run by the Bhavsar family.

The Nasik thing to do, Vivek (and many on Insatgram) told me, is to go to Budha and have jalebis after Sayantara but we were short of time that evening.

Not just misal. The mutton at Nasik is stellar too.

Bapu serves his customers

“What about non-veg?” I asked Vivekraj.

He told me that a number of restaurants set up by folks from Khandesh (north western Maharashtra) had sprung up of late in Nasik and that these eateries have become popular for their mutton dishes. He (and many other) told me about Divtya Budlya and some told me about Vinayak too in this genre. What caught my attention though was a place called Renuka Khanawal (named after a local deity), that Vivekraj told me about. It is located close to Bon Vivant restaurant at Canada Corner, College Road.  A khanawal is a  small, family run eatery and its clientele consists largely of men

Maithili from the TedX Serene Meadows organising team, who is a fan of Renuka too, told me that Renuka has a veranda by the terrace where women diners go to. “The food is cooked by elderly women. The menu is limited, but the experience is novel,” said Vivekraj. I was sold. That is where I went to at night. Taking an Uber by myself from the Kensington Club where we were staying.

I broke into a smile the moment I walked in. Clicked a picture and sent it to K and said, ‘my sort of place.’ Plastic tables and chairs were set in the short and narrow passage leading from the gate to the house. At the end of the passage I could see two elderly ladies sit and cut salad and make rotis. There was a jovial middle-aged gentleman going from table to table taking orders. His customers knew him it seemed and called him ‘bapu.’ I later learnt that his name is Anil Geti and that the eatery is 4 years old.

“Everything is made at home here,” he said in Hindi when he came to take my order and when I asked him if the food is Khandeshi. I was alone and decided to go for the special mutton thali. The food took a bit of time to come. This is not a ‘take it out of a casserole, microwave and send to the table’ sort of place.

“Masta smile maro,” said the bapu with a smile of his own, when I requested him to take a picture of me with the thali. ‘Smile widely’. The goodness of the thali ensured that I did so!

Sp mutton thali at Renuka Khanawal as the clock turns. Chapati, thecha, koshimbir, zinga chuntney, mutton curry, mutton fry, rassa (mutton bone curry), kheema, bajra roti, kanda nimbu, Indrayani rice

There were three mutton (goat meat) dishes. Mutton fry, kheema and mutton curry. Each spicy (hot). Not mind-blowingly so though and do keep in mind that I do not have a very high tolerance level for chillies. The fabulous food was clearly a result of slow cooking, tender love and care. The meat was so juicy and submissive. The spicing so intense. I had the crisp bajra bhakri (a local millet bread) with the mutton fry. Succulent pieces of mutton with the odd delectable bit of fat, enrobed with a thick masala. I combined the bajra roti with the zinga chutney (dried salted shrimp) too as directed by bapu and that combination was so brilliant. The flavours exploded in my mouth, as the cliché goes.

The kheema was made with roughly minced mutton which was cooked to a creamy texture (possibly thanks to the fat in it). The soft ghee soaked chapatti that I had it with seemed to offer the perfect pairing.  The mutton curry was a thin gravy (no coconut here unlike in Malvani food) which had a sharp kick to it with an underlying flavour of garlic. I paired this with the local Indrayani rice which was cooked to a slightly soft and sticky texture. The mutton once again was a delight to eat. There was a rassa too, meat bone curry. I had the sweet raita-like koshimbir (curd, sugar, onion and cucumber dip) as ‘dessert’ at the end to soothe the fire in my belly sparked off by all the masalas in the food.

The amount of food in the thali was quite a bit but I had told myself that I would give it my best shot. I finished both rotis, most of the rice and 70 per cent of the meat dishes. ‘Bas,’ that’s all, chided bapu in a good-natured manner when he came to clear my plate.

I left satiated, masta smile plastered on my face. Oh, and the thali had the blessed Nasik thecha too and this time I was more judicious with it!

Paratha for the road

My Nasik eating story spilled on to the next day. This time beyond the city limits. Our driver on the way back to Mumbai, Mr Sampand, took us to Hari Om Dhaba for tandoor made parathas when one of my co-passengers said that she wanted a bite before we set off. The place looked empty at 5.30 pm and did not evoke much confidence. “Everyone from Nasik stops here on their way to Mumbai,” said Sampand to assure us.

The suggestion was a good one. The parathas were freshly made. We chose aata (wholewheat) over maida. I chose alu parathas which were nice but the paneer ones that Reema Sathe ordered for us were phenomenal in terms of both the texture and flavour of the filling. The service was polite. They packed the food nicely for us to eat in the car as we drove off.

I spoke to the owner, the genial looking Harish Luthra, who was sitting at the cash counter before we left. He told me that he has been running this place for 20 years and that it was set up 30 years back by his uncle, the late Anil Luthra. They are Punjabis from Nasik, the city where his (Harish’s) grandfather had come in from Lahore after the partition.

With Reema Sathe and Shishir Joshi

Before closing on Nasik, I must say that the Nasik chiwda and the Ram Bandhu pickle which were part of the Nasik pathani cloth wrapped goodie bag featuring Nasik specialties curated by Divya Agarwal and the TedX team were brilliant and that K enjoyed the cookies made by Shikha Handa from Nasik that came with it. There were York wine bottles as well and we will open it the next time we have folks over.

Yes, it was too short a trip. Yes, there is a lot more to explore in Nasik when it comes to food, but I hope you enjoyed this little sampler as much I did while experiencing it. It is important that we share such stories because we have such wonderful food in our country.

Time for the scent of Swarajya in our food?

Sanjay Sir (in orange) and his teachers who kindly gave me a pheta (turban) and tied it on me. I quite took to it and kept it on for a while

This thought struck me when I spoke to ‘Sanjay sir’ or Sanjay Bhansode, who runs the Maharashtra Mardani Sports Association of Maharashtra, during the TedX meet. Mardani khel, as I learnt, is a local Maharashtrian martial arts form which traces its roots to the guerrilla warfare practised during the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji. We got to see a mesmerising performance by his troop consisting of very talented girls and boys from Kolhapur and Pune during the TedX event.

“This is an Indian martial arts form and yet no one knows about it. We just know about the Chinese, Japanese and Korean ones,” said Sanjay sir with a wry smile.

I saw a parallel to his sentiment in the world of food where we seem to thirst for the sort of global (read western) appreciation and recognition that the Japanese, Vietnamese and Eithiopian cuisines, for example, have got.  We are even willing to change and present our food in a way that we think can help this happen

"But why?" is what I ask. These efforts are creditable no doubt, but the fact is that what the Japanese et al are respected and revered for is their existing culinary heritage and tradition, not ‘modified/’ ‘reimagined,’ versions created for the world at large.

Perhaps it is time for us too to be prouder of our rassas and our khanavals for example, and stop being so defensive about our food. Or apologetic about it.

That is the lesson that I took back from Nasik. The need to inculcate the spirit of Swarajya (self reliance/ confidence), to which the origins of mardani khel are traced, while telling the story of Indian food.

Sanjay sir and his team and the TedX Serene Meadows curators: Vivekraj, Maithili and Shruti (in the floral dress and my facilitator for the talk). Missed Nidhi Agarwal, the key person, in the pic.


Ashlesha said…
Very nicely written. I visited Nasik too, for the first time a few months ago. It has a calm vibe, and the food very delicious. I wanted to ask you though, just out of curiosity, I have seen so many stories on your blog about how a certain place has been running for XYZ years, and a short history behind that place, how do you strike up a conversation with everyone so easily, for example, the paratha place (dhaba) how he told you his grand father came from Lahore. Not everyone shares so much, but your stories seem to have that common thread :)