Nutritious, Check; Filling, Check; Local, Double Check; Classic, Check; Novelty, Check – few things that make the Maharastrian breakfast staple a true masterpiece.
By Madhulika Dash; Image courtesy Chef Altamsh Patel
Few dishes make such amazing subject of storytelling like a classic. Add to the mix a healthy dash of innovation with local flavours, soulful taste and a DIY excitement and that dish becomes much of an obsession. An excellent edible translation of this is the Misal or as many refer to as Misal Pav, the quintessential breakfast/snack/comfort food that not just Maharashtrians but any who sample it love to live on. One such individual is Oakwood Premier’s Executive Chef, Altamsh Patel, who love for this Kolhapuri staple is superseded by the want to make it at least once a week. “It is a bowl that spells home and can teleport you into the childhood bubble when a tiffin of misal meant that yours would be the one that would be polished the fastest.”
It is a thing about Misal that even if you have grown up eating loads of it – at least one or the other of my classmates would get it in a week, recalls Chef Patel, “it would still hold your fascination every time you would taste it, much like your favourite rollercoaster ride. What adds to its charm is that aside the ingredients and the staple accompaniment pav, the misal has as many versions as they are kitchens that make it. And by version, I am not just talking about the different places whose Misal saw their time in limelight like the Puneri, Khandesi, Nasik, Kolhapuri and Nagpuri misal, nor i the differently hued gravy called Kat that comprises of the traditional Kala Rassa (Black Curry), Lal Rassa (Red Curry), and Hirwa Rassa (Green Curry) that lends the dish its unique character, but also the different farsan and garnishes that go into making the dish, which if laid plate-to-plate probably would cover two large buffet banquet and more.”
This amazing array of Misal while on one hand allowed the dish to proliferate every nook and crany of Maharashtra and even go beyond and inspire different formats in places that the Marathas and their ilk travelled but also gave this traditional favourite its versatility – Misal remains one of the few dishes in Maharashtrian Culinary Ledger that has evolved into dish that can be tweaked to suit a new palate without losing its inherent character, taste, and wholesomeness. Of course, over the years, says the Kolhapur-born chef, “trade, industrialisation and commerce has helped the five distinct style to become a checkpoint to know which region that Misal comes from, which today works as a mirror not just into the spices and local ingredients of the place but is also an introduction to the local palate of the region – like the Nashik Misal is made with matki sprouts, has a green kat and is served topped with farsan or sev, onion, lemon and fresh coriander – the layer composition and the DIY ace is common among all. In fact, traditionally too, misal is served with ussal (which can be matki, moth or a mix of two sprouted legumes) on a plate with Kat in a small serving mug, farsan on the side along with a wedge of lemon and chopped onion. The making is left to the discretion of the eater who can make it the way they want. Few commercial places although do the basic groundwork of layering for you and serve with the Kat to be used as and when required.”
Either ways, it is a meal that is built to whim, says the chef, who likes to serve his misal in a DIY style given that he does the spiciest Kolhapur style made with matki/moong/moth and seasoned with the traditional Kolhapuri masala / chutney made with spicy red chillies, dry coconut, garlic, sesame, onion, cinnamon, peppercorn, cumin, fennel and oil with an extra serving of the Kat on one side for those who like it hot and a glass of matta (masala buttermilk) or solkadi to help “put off the fire in the tongue, which the Kolhapur misal is most known for.”
So where did and how did Misal originate? While there is little to no information in the public domain on this staple, Culinary Revivalist and Mentor, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai presumes it to be a dish that was already in the know around the Industrialisation in Colonial India, when people wanted to eat something substantial but quick during the break and the misal-pav, which tells the story of cultures of three different community coming together, came as a filling, tasty option. Misal-Pav, adds Chef Gorai, “was the other side to dal-chawal. In composition, it had dal and ladi pav or pao-roti as people called then, and the dal was garnished with either farsan or poha that could instantly fill you up garnished with chopped onions and a dash of lemon. While onions helped digest the food, lemon broke down the protein component of dal and made is both tastier and easy for the nutrients to assimilate in the body. Thus, making it a dish that in nourishment, satiation and comfort was almost on par with that of a balanced thali.”
There are of course stories on how revolutionaries survived on this humble food during the run from the British. Misal, a dish that was a staple at commoner’s house and as per food lore was first made to utilise the leftover ussal the next day, became a good source of sustenance. While it is hard to say whether the classic had a first iteration and second like is the case with most, in spite of the different kinds of toppings that include the poha in Pune and aloo and others in Mumbai, the one thing sure about Misal, says Chef Gorai, “is his rise as a workmen’s power meal, and as the finest specimen of the glocal movement.”