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The Minimalist Koli Pantry

The Minimalist Koli Pantry
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koli-pantry The distinctive and traditional Koli kitchen supplies. Photo: Anjali Koli

1. Chavool - rice

2. Chavalacha peet - rice flour

3. Vala mavra - fresh seafood

4. Sukka mavra - dried seafood

5. Narol - coconut

6. Kokum - Garcinia indica

7. Halaad - turmeric

8. Jeera - cumin

9. Kothmir - cilantro

10. Meeth - sea salt and...

11. Koli masala

The Koli pantry essentials are quite minimalist. If you have these, you are set to create fantastic meals every single day.

Chavool: Just like any other coastal community, rice is the absolutely basic ingredient and a must in a Koli kitchen. Also, it is mostly produced in our own paddy fields. Therefore, the rice is unpolished, almost reddish-turned-pink when cooked. It is sweeter than the polished white rice that is ripped off its vitamins, oils, original taste and also trace metals. Rice is always eaten in the steamed form and is called dhaan after cooking. Parsis call it dhaan too. Rice is eaten only at lunch time, though any leftover might be finished up at dinner. Back in the day, it used to be stored in huge terracotta urns, and the size of the urns and their numbers in the storeroom were stories of prosperity.

Chavalacha peet: Rice flour is absolutely necessary in the Koli kitchen as rice roti or chavalachi roti is eaten twice a day at breakfast and dinner. Traditionally, the making of rice flour is an elaborate process. First the rice is washed, drained and then dried to crispness in the sun before it is sent to the flour mill. The Chavalacha peet too were stored in smaller urns until the pital dabbas (brass containers) came into being. The Chavalacha peet was mostly milled once a week to get the freshest flour, which is an absolute necessity to get perfect glutinous dough for roti making.

Vala Mavra: The catch of the day is what decides the flavours that dominate the meal. Koli cooking is minimalistic, and uses only one kind of masala, therefore it solely depends on the seafood to bring out the whole range of flavours that bring excitement to the daily meal.

Sukka Mavra: As the name goes, it means dried fish. There are two kinds of dried fish - salted and unsalted. Kolis prefer unsalted dried fish more, but then the salted fish is more piquant and can be a delicacy. A non-Koli needs to acquire a taste to enjoy dried fish. The smell is something you cannot hide in your kitchen, and are simply all pervasive when cooking.

Narol: What is coastal cooking without this drupe? Sea coasts and swaying palms if are a beauty to the eye, then coconut flesh brings luscious beauty to the curries. Coconut harvest is typically piled up in the store room, and depending on the time lapse, their use is decided. Fresh coconut grated and ground to a fine masala on the flat stone grinder with a big brother of a rolling pin, can lift the ordinary curry to memorable heights. The fresh coconut after harvest demands that Narali pak be made for the kids, and to share with friends who come over for tea or gossip. As the coconut dries, the flesh shrivels and forms a gotta inside, making the coconut rattle on shaking. The coconut is then broken open, and the dried gotta is cut into two halves and dried in the sun to use for mutton masalas, and also during monsoon when no one dares to clamber up a coconut tree.

Kokum: Kokum is grown in every village by the Maali or gardener community, and is bought from them and stacked in porcelain jars or barnis in Koli homes. The season for stocking dried Kokum is April and May. The juiciest Kokum fruit is dried in sun after separating the seeds by the Maali. What the Kolis use is only and only the dried flesh with skin. A couple of these pieces give a wonderful tartness, which is distinct to the Koli curries. Kokum is known to block the absorption of excess fat into the body. It works as an Ayurvedic medicine for indigestion and as anti-allergic for hives.

Meeth: Sea salt characteristically has magnesium and potassium in the natural form. It has been glamourised as Fleur de sel by the French or the topmost layer of sea salt. The Kolis have been using it since ages. We keep the top layer salt for cooking uses and coarse salt for preservation of fish, mangoes, ambada etc. The cooking salt is always kept in a barni near the kitchen fires, while the coarse salt in terracotta pots are mostly kept outside the door leading to the backyard. This is to allow the salt to weep and yet not mess the house. Blame it on its hygroscopic property!

Koli masala: Finally we come to the crowning glory of a Koli pantry - our special blend of spices or the Koli Masala. Tadah! For quite a few generations, this is how our masala is being made. The process begins by selecting 18 types of spices including 3 types of chillies - for heat, body and colour. It is the knowledge of which of these spices need toasting at what temperature, which needs sunning and the ones to be left raw, makes for a blend par excellence. This is the single masala that is used in different seafood curries, yet how it works its magic in our cuisine is something only your taste buds can vouch for.

The rest of the items halad, jeera and kothmir form the tag along spices and herb components to the ubiquitous wet ground masala. The variations in proportions of coconut and type (of coconut) decides whether the masala is for the everyday thin Kanji, or a very coconuty luscious one or whether there is mutton, chicken or eggs on the menu.

So, are you all set to cook and feed in true Koli style?

Anjali Koli

Anjali Koli

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