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The Pan of Haute Food

By Madhulika Dash

Once famous for its salt pans and chicken bhujing, the belt of Virar-Vasai today is any foodie’s paradise looking for some interesting indigenous cuisine! 

If there is one dish that is omnipresent across the length and breath of Mumbai, it is the Bombay Duck. Those thin strips of seafood deliciousness, fried to crunchy crispness along with the famous Gomantak thali complete with Rassa and Sol Kadi have defined the food topography of this cosmopolitan city for ages.

But that is till you visit the less glamorous side of Vasai and Virar, and discover the charms of the Koli-style karandibhaji, Bhandaris’ kalejior (a traditional dish made of offal) and the now- super-famous Bhujing.

In fact, says writer-resident-foodie Barnali Sinha, “In spite the fact that this sleepy belt has caught on with the rest of Mumbai with its offering of vada pav, dabeli, Chinese bhel and other fast food offerings including that of McDonalds and Dominos, the city still thrives of its interesting cuisine, which is a mélange of Kolis, Vadavals, Bhandaris and Aagris community, and has dishes and cooking style that is very unique to this place.”  

Take the Bhujing for instance, adds Sinha, “is our very own version of breaded chicken that uses poha or nylon sev to give it that extra crunch and goes beautiful with a fresh glass of tadi or freshly baked bakri.”  

Such is the fame of this bred-out-of-necessity 1940s dish, that people come to Virar station just to have their bite of this chicken (now available in mutton as well) dish at the iconic Agashi Bhujing Centre, which many say was the place where Babu Hari Gawad, the owner, developed it as an accompaniment to an evening drink of tadi. Run by Chirag Gawad, this 75-year-old eatery though now has competition with many versions of this chicken dish evolving over the years, is still a destination for those who would love to taste this Sharad Pawar favourite not by the piece by plate – and try to decipher what makes it an addiction. 

And incidentally all that one could find to date, says Sinha, “Is the part of their signature garam masala, which is a mix of turmeric, cumin, dry coconut and coriander powder, and the nylon poha that is sourced from navsari.” But has it enabled anyone to replicate the dish right down to its flavour and crispness or even the smokiness that comes from first grilling the meat on skewers with potatoes (much like a seekh kebab) over open charcoal and then deep frying it, is answered by the sheer number of people who come visit the place every day or order it in large chunks. Yet another dish that remains a privy of this belt is the Aagris khadiche mutton (a dry mutton dish) and Aagrivada (made of rice flour). Known for their spice rich cuisine and slow cooking technique, Aagris food though looks similar to the Malvani has a different palate appeal. 

And the reason for this, says Sinha, “Is the way they treat their coconut and spices that are roasted before being pulverized into a powder or paste. Also, they are masters of harvesting the different flavours of kokum and tamarind, which sometime are used together in a dish to bring out a new dimension in the dish.” Take the case of Tirpan, a dish of teta (goat liver) and kalegi (kidney) tossed in coconut, which is a religious food or patkora, which is similar to paturi maach or patra ni machchi, and the robust navsatchye mutton, in which lamb cooked as a whole, much like the fabled raan cooked for Alaexander the Great once. And while, adds Sinha, “New eateries in main Mumbai do serve these specialties, nothing beats the dishes cooked by the community here, who once owned the salt pans of this belt – and in that way owned the riches of the sea and the ground. 

One can either head to Farm House Sea and Sand or Ruchi Restaurant to try some of the fare in its “authentic flavours”. It also has an amazing ghee paneer roast, Gawti Chicken Handi and Mutton Dum and of course the “original” gadbad, the Gujarati sweet drink that can give Emperor Shah Jahan’s falooda some serious gourmet complex. 

Picture Courtesy: Barnali Sinha (Also the inside pics: The Social Brew in Vasai West, The Wok in Nalasopara East, Grilled Chicken with pepper sauce, Oreo and Ferrero Rocher shake.