For a micro community that’s generally known to be extremely close-knit, guarded and perennially suspicious of the odd cultural appropriator, the Pathare Prabhus have no qualms in being forthright about their alien status in their adopted city of Mumbai. Today, the current estimate of Pathare Prabhu members is about 7,000 across the world, mostly still in and around Mumbai.
Although very little is known about the earlier history of the community, Pathare Prabhus seem to have travelled starting from Rajasthan, going towards Gujarat, then to Maharashtra. Finally settling down in the Bombay of the 13th century. Bringing with them an entirely unique cache of dishes and cooking techniques.
In a broader sense, the Pathare Prabhus are known for their contribution to the building of modern Mumbai, their special customs, a Gujarati-Marathi mixed wardrobe and language, and a relaxed general attitude. But more than anything else, they are known for their special cuisine, especially their seafood specialties and their very own Prabhu sambhar powder that’s totally different from the South Indian ones.
They do not shy away from attributing the basis of their cuisine to the various regions of India they traversed to get to their final stronghold in Maharashtra. “Dishes like ghevar from Rajashthan and undhiyu from Gujarat are part of our cuisine, too. Only in cases like the latter and other vegetarian dishes like poha, upma and even karanjis and the colocasia leaves aloo wadi, we add seafood like minced prawns and mutton. As we are an almost 100% non-vegetarian food eating community,” explains chef Bimba Nayak. She is spearheading the month-long Pathare Prabhu food festival at Saptami, the all-day-dining restaurant at the Holiday Inn Mumbai International Airport.
It is here that she sits me down for a lesson in all things Pathare Prabhu. Of the volley of ‘Pathare Prabhu-isms’ that swing my way, perhaps, the singular one to hit the biggest home run is that the cuisine is almost entirely devoid of the use of coconut, an otherwise beloved Maharashtrian food ingredient. Also, the fact that most Pathare Prabhu dishes can be made in a jiffy! “Dishes like batata gode (a dry potato curry), chawli-vangi bhaji (black-eyed peas and brinjal stir-fry) and bhendi atale (a sweetish ladies finger curry) are all very simple to make. Most require just two to three minutes of cooking time.”
Set in ink
Talking to home chef, cookbook author and YouTuber Kalpana Talpade—whose book Kalpana’s Kitchen on Pathare Prabhu food is a popular guide to the nuances of the cuisine—I learn of how the community lays claim to having one of the earliest cookbooks in Indian history. “Laxmibai Dhurandar’s Grihini Mitra, written in Marathi around 1910 has over 1,000 recipes. But most of them come with old-fashioned measurements like tipris and pairis that are difficult to translate,” says Talpade.
Her attempt at retelling small bits of this seminal Pathare Prabhu classic is, however, not aimed at her own community, but at those outside its “rather closed gates”, as she puts it. “Over the years, our insular, slightly snooty outlook has been one of the main reasons why our cuisine is not even known. Leave alone popular like other Maharashtrian ones like Malvani or Gomantak. We’ve never been very forthcoming and open about our Pathare Prabhu heritage and culture and more pertinently, our cuisine,” rues Talpade.
But one small, home-based Pathare Prabhu food outfit that’s breaching the community’s Mumbai-limited inner banks, is Gurugram-based Dine With Vijaykars (DWV) with their regularly hosted Pathare Prabhu pop-ups and food events. “One of the driving forces behind DWV was that this cuisine is not available to people to try unless invited to a true, Pathare Prabhu household,” says Sunetra Sil Vijaykar, who, along with her husband Dr Shreekant Vijaykar and mother-in-law Dr Padmaja Vijaykar have introduced a whole new demographic to very niche Pathare Prabhu dishes. These take the form of preparations like chutney che saranga (chutney coated pomfret), bombil atale (a tamarind-jaggery based Bombay duck curry) and chimbori che khadkhadle where this crab dish gets its onomatopoeic name from the sound the live crustaceans make when left in a pan. Then there’s the very rare-to-find delicacy of ananas sambharye which is a stew made with pineapple, cashews and the otherwise rare, coconut milk. Here, too, the ubiquitous Prabhu sambhar powder is employed copiously.
Interestingly, the cuisine also has an entire gamut of seasonal dishes based on what is available. Making it an extremely adaptable and malleable sub cuisine. “During the monsoon, we make a stew called shevalyache sambharye with prawns and dragon stalk or any other seasonal vegetable with dried prawns. Thus, cutting out dependency on fresh seafood,” says Vijaykar.
This inventiveness also comes to the fore with the community’s love for baking, especially bread. “As we were always in elevated positions in the colonial British administration, we have several baked goods in our repertoire like the savoury cabbage ‘cake’ spiced with cinnamon called bhanavle,” informs chef Nayak. To this end, she also talks of the Pathare Prabhu pav which is a homemade bread bun made with yeast that’s derived from dal, milk and water. This is always the carb companion in summers to a bowl of cool aamras (mango pulp) for a sweet finish.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.