With the advent of winter and the beginning of harvest season, the locals in the Raigad district of Maharashtra get together to celebrate the produce in a unique way, by throwing a popti party. Popti is a one-pot harvest special dish made with seasonal vegetables, tubers, beans, some local spices and/or chicken and eggs. The hero of the dish is field beans, known as val beans in western India, which grow here in abundance.
“This is the season when we get fresh val phali and sheng (groundnuts) from the farms, both go into the dish along with other ingredients”, says Jaywant Shinde, who works as a caretaker of Palms Cottage, a small guesthouse in Nagaon, and regularly arranges popti parties for his guests.
To prepare popti, a clay pot is first lined with bhamburdi leaves (bhamburdi shrub grows wild in the region from December-May and is known for its medicinal properties). Vegetables like potato, purple yam, brinjal, val beans and peas, and peanuts are tossed in salt and a mix of spices, and placed inside the pot along with chicken, which is marinated in homemade masala and wrapped in a silver foil, and gaavthi (country) eggs.
The pot is sealed, placed upside down in a hole dug into the ground, covered with hay and dried leaves, and a fire is lit. The heat makes the leaves release oil and water; the chicken, vegetables, and eggs cook in this steam. While the bhamburdi leaves are not eaten directly even after being cooked, they impart a unique flavour—similar to that of carom seeds—to the food. A bit of smokiness comes from the val beans getting charred on the edges. Once cooled, the pot is overturned and the cooked chicken, eggs and vegetables are eaten with an assortment of chutneys; sometimes with a side of fresh coconut.
At its genesis, popti is somewhat similar to the Gujarati undiyo or umbadiyu; all three are winter dishes, use seasonal produce, and are essentially one-pot meals. While undiyo can be cooked in a regular vessel on a gas stove, umbadiyu is closer to popti when it comes to the cooking technique; both are cooked in a clay pot in open fire. However, the two dishes are starkly different in taste. In umbadiyu, the vegetables are tossed with a bunch of spices and mixed with green garlic paste—another seasonal speciality—and different kind of aromatic leaves are used to line the pot with. On the drive from Mumbai to Surat, there are specific stalls selling umbadiyu. Popti, in comparison, still remains a lesser known dish outside of Raigad district.
However, in the past few years popti has gained popularity among the tourists. Similar to the hurda parties celebrating the harvest of tender jowar, the farms in and around Alibag regularly host popti parties. Enthusiasts from in and around Mumbai make a weekend trip just for this experience. Preparing a popti requires specialised skill that only comes with years of practice. At Madhuban Agritainment, a farm stay in Roha near Mumbai where I had my first popti experience, the staff belongs to the local tribal community and can deftly prepare a popti.
There’s not much known about when and how the tradition of making popti began. “I have been eating it since I was a child, my father used to prepare it”, Shinde tells me over the phone. However, oral history suggests that it was a dish born on the farms. “During the harvest season farmers have to spend the night in the fields to protect their crops from wild animals and thieves”, says Dhananjay Joshi who runs Madhuban Agritainment, “all the ingredients required to make popti, including the pot and bhamburdi leaves, are easily available around the farm. And so”, he adds, “the tradition probably started as farmers preparing a quick meal for themselves while the fire (from popti) helped them keep warm and drove the animals away”.