On a spice trail

Mostly served in dhabas or family run establishments, it is about time Saoji cuisine gets its rightful place on our dinner table.

If you have heard about Saoji cuisine, you may well be from Maharashtra. Often described as a sweat-inducing cuisine, it is quite the answer to the fiery spread that Andhra Pradesh food boasts of. Unfortunately, this cuisine has always been distinct to just Nagpur. The Saoji community of India has its origins in the Malwa region and is a mix of diverse cultures that spread out to different Southern regions from 13th century onwards. They are a little-known, undocumented caste. It doesn’t help that historical corroboration about them is rare. People say that the food is from the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra. Yes, it is, but the tribe that moved to the city to work for mills originally hails from Madhya Pradesh.

Nagpur and Solapur are the most popular cities for Saoji mutton curry. While Nagpur’s version is an outstandingly spicy delicacy, as it essentially branches from the added chillies of Vidarbha, Solapur’s parallel is on the slightly milder side. It was the Halba Koshti tribe — traditionally weavers by profession — who essentially created this style of cooking. Predominantly a meat-eating community, they started making their own spices. Saoji has this distinct taste — which varies from region to region — because of its spices. This masala is mostly a family recipe, which is a fiercely guarded secret. The use of the spices in this cuisine makes use of the basic garam masala khazana with the addition of a few things. There are total of 24 spices used in the preparation.

One huge difference between Saoji and other cuisines from Maharashtra is the cooking method. In Saoji cuisine, the spices are boiled, unlike the other ones where they are dry roasted and then ground. This is done to get rid of the harmful acids of the spices. Thus, although Saoji cuisine is bold on spices, it will keep you away from acidity because of the boiling process. Saoji cuisine is still to get the due respect it deserves. I think it will have a big impact once chefs start getting it on the menu. This will happen only if we educate more people about the beautiful cuisine within our country, and finally give it its due.

Nagpur special dal
1 ½ cup masoor dal, split
3 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 dried red chillies
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp chopped garlic
A pinch of hing
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp garam masala
Salt to taste

Nagpur special dal

Wash split masoor dal two to three times. Drain water from it.
Heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, pinch of hing, dried red chillies and cook till garlic gets a golden colour.
Add chopped onion and cook till onion gets brown.
Add red chilli powder, mix and cook till oil separates from the spices.
Add washed dal, mix, add water, salt, mix, cover and cook till the dal gets cooked.
Add garam masala, mix and garnish with coriander leaves.
Your dish is ready.

Saoji Mutton
1 kg mutton, cut into small pieces
2 medium onions sliced
2 tbsp ginger garlic paste
3 tbsp oil
½ cup sliced dry coconut
2-3 black cardamoms
2-3 green cardamoms
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp shahi jeera
3-5 cloves
8-10 black pepper
3-4 cm cinnamon stick
3-4 bay leaves
7-8 dry red chilies
1 tbsp poppy seeds (khuskhus)
1 tbsp stone flower
Salt as per taste

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in thick-bottomed handi.
Once oil gets heated, add sliced onions and saute these slices till their colour turns golden brown.
Now turn off the gas and drain the excess oil from onions.
Then grind onions to a paste by adding little amount of water.
Boil black pepper, dry red chillies, stone flower, black cardamoms, green cardamoms, shahi jeera, coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, poppy seeds and dry coconut.
After that make a fine paste of all these spices using grinder. Add water as needed.
Once again, heat the oil in a handi. Add pieces of mutton in oil and saute them on high flame till pieces get light brown.
Then add ginger-garlic paste and fried onions and mix well with the mutton pieces.
Once these pieces get fried, add it to the masala paste, which was made earlier.
Add salt as per taste and three to four cups water and mix well.
Boil this gravy and then cover the handi with lid.
Cook this mutton in pressure.
Serve this mutton with bread or roti.
Your dish is ready.

Tomato Chutney
2 tomatoes chopped
1 small onion chopped
1 tsp chopped garlic
3 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp jaggery or sugar
4 to 5 curry leaves
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp garam masala powder
A pinch of asafoetida/hing

Tomato Chutney

Heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, a pinch of hing, curry leaves, garlic. Saute till garlic turns into a light golden colour.
Add chopped onion and fry till onion gets light brown colour.
Add red chilli powder, garam masala and cook for about a minute.
Add chopped tomatoes and jaggery or sugar. Mix it well. Now, cover the pan and let it cook for three to four minutes till the tomatoes become soft.
Add some water and salt. Mix.
Add roasted peanut powder, mix and cook for two minutes.
Garnish with coriander leaves.
Your tomato chutney is ready.

Lasoon Jeera Chawal
1 ½ cup cooked steamed rice
3 tsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp chopped coriander
Salt to taste

Lasoon Jeera Chawal

Heat oil in a pan. Add cumin seeds, garlic and cook till garlic gets nice golden colour.
Add the rice, toss well. At this point also add the chopped coriander and mix well. Garnish with coriander leaves and fried garlic.

Gaurav Gidwani is the culinary director of Corum Hospitality

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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