I’m not sure what’s driving the new Maharashtrian food trend in town, but heck, I’m happy. India has so many sub-pockets of culture and cuisine beyond chicken tikka masala [which we’ve donated to Britain anyway] and saag paneer, that it’s time to have some of those nuances reflected here in the city.
Maharashtrian food sparks a very distinct memory for me. It’s one with my scaling the mountains of Mahabaleshwar on a summer vacation from high school. I was a short-haired teenager at the time, one whose body was thoroughly confused about which curve fit where, and so they were flung adhoc into a series of awkward bodily proportions that kept the boys away, and the books up close.
It was raining in Mahabaleshwar as we wound up the mountains. In India, the monsoons leave the most sensory, indelible of memories forever drizzling through your mind. The earthy aroma of the wet mountain soil wafted up and became one with the fried smells of crisp salty pakodas, fished out from the hot oil and served fresh on the slopes. The pakodas were followed with besan and jowari, a roasted gram (chickpea) flour paste and sorghum-flour roti that are rustic emblems of Maharashtrian cuisine. I don’t remember what we did on the mountains, what car we were in, who even served us the food. But my mind still teases my tongue with a recollection of the flavours as though it were all at lunch just yesterday. Rustic, elemental, and unforgettably good.
Manisha’s Kitchen in Karama doesn’t have the mountains, the monsoons or the wet soil, but they do have a menu that reminded me of my encounter with Mahashtrian food as a teen. There were two versions of the roasted gram flour paste that I’d first tasted in the mountains, one that was more dry and nibbly (Zunka), and the other that was more liquidy, more runny (Pithla) (pictured below).
Both versions had been cooked with toasted spices, most noticeably, mustard seeds, green chillies and enough turmeric to paint my fingernails yellow by the end of the meal. The clumps of spiced, salty zunka, toasty at some places, crumbly at others, earthy and oniony and lentil-flavoured throughout, just grew and grew and grew on me in this really slow and unannounced way until I realized that, damn, I’d eaten like a horse. Only without walking up a mountain this time.
I’ve already eaten the Zunka twice at Manisha’s, and it consistently had the same homemade flair across the two trips.
We had a minor disappointment the first time around with the ‘bhakri’ served alongside—not because it wasn’t good, but because we were expecting the coarse jowari flatbread that featured in our mountain memories, and instead got served a rice-flour bhakri. There was nothing wrong with this pale white flimsy roti, but as I confirmed on my second trip to Manisha’s, nothing beats the coarseness, the rawness, the homely feel of a jowari roti. If you love your jowari, or, if you’re a Maharashtrian food noob and have no clue what I’m on about, just make sure you request for jowari bhakri (left in the picture below) with your zunka else they’ll assume you want the rice-flour one. Or order one of each.
Let me introduce you to these beauteous baby triplets.
Here are the trio of fried sabunda vada (sago patties)—golden brown crust that instantly tickled my tongue with cumin powder, and an inner belly that had a perfectly seasoned filling of squished sago and whole tender sago globules. No need for the coconut chutney on the side, my fingers took to these patties like butterflies to nectar.
The Bharali Waangi (stuffed eggplant) was a revelation. Smooth baby eggplants simmered in a curry that was throbbing with a combined essence of what might have been toasted peanuts, sesame, potentially coconut. What caught me off guard wasn’t just that the curry was bouncing off the walls with nutty flavour, but it had an underlying…sweetness.
There was the unmistakable taste of jaggery in there, and while its presence might seem like the gate-crasher of the party, surprisingly, the sweet note fit right in. If you like sweet curries from Gujarat (sweet kadhi for instance), I can bet you’ll be wiping the sides of the bowl with every last shred of bhakri.
The Baigan Bharta is another eggplant dish on the menu, one that’s commonly found across many Indian households. I couldn’t give two hoots about the unappealing swampy brown appearance, not when I had the chance to get high on smoky eggplant and tomato flavour. This was baigan bhartha just as it’s made at home—thick pulpy eggplant doing its mushy thing with the tomatoes and spices, and not hippo’ing around in a pool of commercial orange oil that can totally kill the dish. The fact that a restaurant can keep things down-to-earth yet high on flavour is a real credit to Manisha’s Kitchen.
From the rice options, I’ve tried the Masale Bhat—rice stir-fried with tender halves of tindora (ivy gourd), eggplant slivers, and ground spices…and crunchy peanuts, making the hodgepodge of a rice dish totally lip-smacking and unstoppably good.
Another traditional and super healthy rice dish is the more soupy Moong Dal Kichdi, with rice, split green gram, a faint aftertaste of jaggery, and a mother’s spoonful of ghee—that luscious buttery ingredient that you can’t see, but only taste, smell and purr over like a happy cat.
There in the background, behind the kichdi, is that yellow soupy stuff that I spooned over both rice dishes, Kadhi. I’m usually not a big fan of this liquefied besan (gram flour) and yogurt dish unless it’s the sweet Gujarati version, but the Mahashtrian take on kadhi was of the perfect consistency—not too thick, not too runny, just right in coating my mound of rice grains with drippy chickpea and yoghurt flavour that had been tempered with cumin, chillies and curry leaves.
And here we have chopped spring onions stir-fried with tiny mushy meteorites of roasted gram flour.
I know it probably sounds like a bucket load of gram flour must have fallen on my tummy by this point, but other than the fact that it made me sleepy and wobbly to the knees where a nap was in order right after, I don’t really see the harm in OD’ing on besan at all.
The Misal Pav was a hit with the spice-loving parents. Chickpea curry in this flaming hot sauce that scalded the face of my tummy, this stuff is for those who love fire in their food. The pav – or bun – wasn’t as floofy or fresh as I’d have hoped, but topped with spicy curry, crunchy sev (fried gram flour noodles), and onions if you’re hoping to repel the shrieking baby having a hysteria fit behind you, I can see the appeal of the dish…from afar.
A tip on savouries. You can get them as spicy as you like at Manisha's Kitchen. I tend to be quite the pansy when it comes to spice, but I could handle the ‘medium’ level with relatively little damage to my insides. But should you get a little too ambitious and ask for a tum-burning quantity of spice to be chucked into your food, then make sure you undo the damage with a little sweet something like…this Piyush drink, which is the cream-coloured baby of a midly sweet lassi, powdered all over with what tasted like a trio of sugar, saffron and cardamom powder…
…or its more creamy, decadent dessert cousin, Shrikhand. Manisha’s Kitchen does a righteous shrikhand, adding that perfect amount of sugar to sweeten the strained yogurt without putting an over-sweetened sickle to its neck. Don’t be shy, pair it with some fresh fried puris and understand why the taste of something deep-fried + the taste of something sweet and creamy = the taste of something you can’t stop eating.
Manisha’s Kitchen is one of those places that will come to mind whenever I feel like a low-key lunch that feels home-made and wholesome. The wait times for the food makes me certain that they’re making everything from scratch—and the result shows up in the flavours that hit the table. Sadly, the space and number of staff don’t do the place justice. The 5 tables squished together in the restaurant were full both times I went—once for Friday dinner, and the other time for Saturday lunch. It was also clear that the place was so painfully understaffed in dealing with both dine-in and takeout orders that we had to repeat ourselves or confirm whether an order would ever make it to the table. I’ll take that as a good sign for a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant—I’m quite sure the amount of business I’ve seen come in through the door will push them into expanding a teeny, weeny bit so that things don’t feel as frantic inside.
(Psst. Just in case you’re thinking that it’s IMPOSSIBLE that I ate through everything above in two sittings, even if I had one or two other folks sitting in with me on each of the two visits, you...you wise 'un you, you're spanking right. I packed up the leftovers, took them home, and am…eating them now, as I blog. Did it all still taste good? Hells yes. In fact, it’s even better at home, where I can savour everything all over again in the peace of my room—or as peaceful as it can get if you have Guy Fieri on TV—and really appreciate how cosy and unpretentious these flavours really are.)
I’ll save you from my convoluted directions by giving you a link to their website, head over for the map, menu and contact details.