Shraddha Patil’s modaks and puran polis are popular festive fares in Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada. Feasting on kupa biryani, Oishika Roy learns about how Shraddha’s kitchen came to be, her mother’s delicious kanji, and the ways of communal cooking.
“Mein lekar aau, kya?” Shall I go bring it? A look of deep concern eclipses Shraddha Tai’s face. How could she have missed the fresh tuna for the photographs?
“Koi baat nahi, Tai, hum manage karlenge.” Tai remains unconvinced of our reassurance that we would manage without the fresh fish, deciding that we were no experts on the matter. Freshly caught tuna is the star of the kupa biryani (see the recipe here), one of the dishes in the food trail organised as part of the Worli Koliwada Project and The Heritage Project.
“I think we need the tuna. I’ll just quickly run to the market, and get.”
We are sitting on the chattai spread out on the floor of Shraddha Patil’s one-room-kitchen in Worli Koliwada. The air is warm and heavy, and the smell of the fried fish, uncooked spices, and freshly squeezed lemon juice settle densely around the room. Shraddha Tai is about to cook her crowd-favourite kupa biryani for us. The Locavore’s volunteer photographers, Vineet and Charvi, are preparing to take pictures of the cooking process, adjusting and re-adjusting their serious equipment. But secretly, we all know we have actually assembled just to eat the biryani.
In a move of culinary clarity, Shraddha Tai had pre-cooked the kupa, given that it would take simply too long to adequately marinate it live, for the camera. Surrounded by hungry and eager documenters, it had only just struck her—there was no raw tuna to photograph.
After much negotiating, we were able to convince Shraddha Tai to begin, sans the raw tuna.
Shraddha Tai starts cooking, deftly and with ease. First, oil in the non-stick pan. Then, chopped onions and tomatoes in the oil. Stable in her centre, she moves her hands to the left and the right, grabbing, pouring, stirring. All of her utensils, masalas, dabbas were placed with incredible organisational efficiency, at exactly the right height and distance. The kitchen seemed to be tailored to her.
While the rest of us did a clumsy dance of documentation, perched over stools, Shraddha Tai was all muscle memory and smooth choreography. She cooked and rattled off the recipe simultaneously, occasionally throwing in measurements, after much pestering.
The spices used to prepare the kupa biryani are grown, and processed by Tai’s mother-in-law, Chandrabhaga Patil. Nestled between coconut trees in her home in Medekhar, Alibaug, Chandrabhaga grows cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and cardamom. She dries the spices just outside her home, and takes her harvest to the mill in the town centre to process. “We don’t buy this from the shops, the roz ka masala (everyday spices) my sasuma makes herself,” she tells us proudly.
Like many others who are part of the upcoming food trail, Tai is often tasked with cooking for large groups, such as when her sister asked her to make a meal of chicken gravy and chapati for her school. Preparation for these kinds of events demand special utensils, suitably large for the number they are meant to feed. “The big patelas (pots) are for when I have to cook for 25 to 30 people. It will cover a whole feast easily,” she shares.
Weddings in the neighbourhood regularly feature Tai’s puran poli and modaks. Often, when Tai cooks with such large amounts of ingredients, her husband diligently produces mountains of cut vegetables and garnish, thanks to his trusty chopper machine.
A kitchen without walls
Over the years, the kitchen Shraddha Tai has grown up with has changed a lot. Earlier, when it was only Tai, her siblings, and parents in this home, the cooking was done within the room they lived in, by the front door. There was no separate kitchen as such. This is where Tai’s Aai, her mother, cooked most of the family’s meals, with help from her children. However, as the family grew, they felt that the heart of the house, the source of nourishment and care, must expand as well.
So they built a separate kitchen as an extension to the house in 2006, when Tai’s brother got married, replacing the open space and aangan outside their rented apartment with walls and windows. The cooking area now had hooks for pans and ladles, and shelves for masalas and pots. As Tai recounted memories in the new kitchen, of cooking alongside her nephew as he used a roti-maker to flatten balls of dough into puris and papads, it was abundantly clear that she had thought that the new kitchen was essential.
And yet, Shraddha Tai remembers the older kitchen—much smaller and encroaching onto their sleeping space—with immense fondness. After all, her Aai loved to cook there. “Aai just loved eating fish, especially the really small fish. She would bring home the freshest catch from the market, and cook with the eagerness of an eater,” she said.
In memories from her childhood, there was never a shortage of space, with the kitchen stretching as widely as the number of people that cooked within it, and that it fed. When there were visitors, everybody adjusted by sitting on jute mats both inside and outside the house.
Tai distinctly remembers that whenever her mother brought back rice from their village in Alibaug, neighbours would stop by, a routine part of their lives in the summer. “Aai, please set aside extra peth for us today, we want to make kanji.” Prepared from the water remaining from cooking rice or peth, kanji is a popular summer dish. When made from the rice grown in Alibaug, and served with tomatoes, raw onions, and oil, Tai insists that her mother’s kanji was truly spectacular. It only makes sense then that it had so many fans in the neighbourhood.
Watching her mother cook, always going beyond their own family’s needs, Shraddha Tai learnt early that the preparation of a dish was never confined to a single kitchen, or set of hands. That the walls of the kitchens can stay porous, with rice-water flowing freely between them. In their universe, cooking and eating don’t simply happen to be communal activities; they are collective by design.
Practices of communal cooking, rooted in generosity and care, continue today as well. On birthdays, especially of the children, Shraddha Tai and her sister-in-law draw up the menu together, sometimes cooking in Worli Koliwada, or in Tai’s marital home in Prabhadevi, and sometimes in both. Often, during Holi or the Koliwada’s Golfa Devi Yatra, they cook different dishes in their respective kitchens, and assemble the meal—comprising lapshi, chole chana, and puris—together. Their feast is distributed among neighbours and friends first. On Christmas too, people in the neighbourhood eat together, spilling out of their homes and on to the streets to eat shankar pani and karanji (dough-based fried sweets).
It’s difficult to pin-point what it is about Shraddha Tai’s biryani that tastes so special. Perhaps it is the dusky flavour of smoking coal that the rice is steeped in, or the richness of the hot ghee against sharp lime juice and sweet fried onions. While The Locavore team sheepishly took second and third servings of the kupa biryani, Tai brought out jawla sabzi and bhakri, completely unprompted.
“We will get drowsy, Tai,” we protested feebly. She paid no heed. Pleased, we piled on the spicy shrimp preparation onto our plates, and divided the bhakris (rice flour flat-bread) amongst ourselves. We repeatedly claimed we couldn’t eat anymore, only to eat some more. Tai was used to this kind of drama, of course. It has been a long while of cooking, feeding, and eating communally for her.
Oishika Roy is an assistant editor at The Locavore. In her free time, she likes to update her Goodreads reading challenge and listen to show tunes.
Note: This article would not have been possible without the women from the Worli Koliwada who generously shared their stories, food, and time with us. The Locavore does not intend to speak on behalf of the community, but rather to amplify what has been shared with us by the people of the Worli Koliwada with their permission. The Locavore team has made every effort to maintain a practice of dynamic, informed, and continuous consent while interacting with and gathering data from the community.
The Worli Koliwada Project—initiated by RPG Foundation in collaboration with The Locavore— aims to bring attention to Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada region. The project uses food as a lens to showcase the unique culinary and cultural heritage of the communities in the area, while also providing economic opportunities for the Koliwada’s local residents.
The Heritage Project, an heritage initiative of RPG Foundation, works to bring back to glory, sites of cultural and social importance. It aims to help the masses engage with, relive, and experience our heritage through practical new approaches, keeping in mind the evolving, fast paced world.
The Locavore is partnering with the RPG Foundation to work within the Worli Koliwada geography to provide the tools for self-reliance for the Worli Koliwada community, as a part of their Heritage Revival Project.
RPG Foundation collaborates with Government entities, not-for-profits and other civil society organisations to develop innovative solutions to social challenges in India. They are committed to catalysing sustainable social change through holistic interventions that are impactful, scalable and ultimately help build an equitable society. One such intervention is the Heritage Revival Project.