Where Have The Vasaiwale Kawadis Disappeared?
Growing up in Fort meant going up to Bora Bazaar to shop for vegetables. The Bora Bazaar street would be lined up on both sides with bhaajiwalas from UP, whom my mother would buy the regular veggies like cauliflower, Shimla mirch, tomatoes, onions and potatoes. But when it meant fresh seasonal vegetables, Aai would gravitate to the kawadis, who came from Vasai to sell their farm-fresh produce.
In the monsoons, they would bring fresh garlic chives, the freshest organic cilantro, kantol or teasel gourd, banana blossoms and a variety of local greens. In winter they carried field beans, ghevda - a cultivar of sweet beans, toor beans etc. They would also have those big light green lady's finger, which Aai selected by breaking the tips to check if they were fibrous and mature. The vendors would admonish her for doing it as she left behind the fibrous ones. These light green bhendi delighted me as a kid as they were exclusively meant for stuffing with a delightful onion and coconut masala. The spiky brinjals were another opportunity to stuff the masala.
Vasai's famous sweet yellow-skinned bananas were always picked for naivedya and shikaran - a cardamom-spiced milk and banana dish that Maharashtrian children love. At times, she would order dried bananas too, a signature variety of Vasai. Dried bananas are eaten as a power-packed snack just like other dried fruits.
The kawadis arrived by the 4pm train to VT in time to set up shop at the Bora Bazaar. We would know they had arrived as some of them would pass from the street under our building shouting out "baaju - baaju Vasaiwale aale"! They would walk along in hurried steps almost running and trying to balance the kawads on their shoulders as they shooed people coming in their way. The kawad was a wooden plank with two much-laden baskets at both ends hung in the notches created in the plank to hold the ropes binding the baskets in place. They had typical locations where they’d set up shop - one is Bora Bazaar, and the other near Dadar Kabutarkhana. Later I came to know these Vasaiwala kawadis had some more spots across the suburbs too.
Old Mumbaikars miss them grossly. These vegetable sellers guided buyers about selecting the right colocasia leaves for alu wadi, and how the rotund bottle gourds were prized for making dudhi halwa as they had more delicate and fleshy centre than the elongated bottle gourds that dominate the market now. Most buyers had special relations with these vendors as they satisfied their needs of exotic yet local vegetables. They were thus addressed as Vasaiwale mamas and maushis.
It’s sad that the dreams of the Vasaiwala farmers have lured them to the city to work in air-conditioned offices and dreams of better, easier lives. Food blogger, Apolina Fos belongs to Vasai and she says things have changed. Her paternal family used to own land in this area, and half the family was into agriculture when she was a child. The move to the city started with her father. It was for studies first and then work in Mumbai. Today, only a couple of her cousins are farmers and she laments the fact that there will be none from the next generation to take over.
There is some hope from Safale, Palghar, Dahanu and beyond though, however very few bring their produce themselves to the city. The contractors are binding them to supermarket chains now. Most vegetables are now from Nashik, Pune and beyond and the miles deplete the flavours and taste of the vegetables.
The half-pant wearing, tough yet lean-bodied kawadi have disappeared from the fresh vegetable scene in Mumbai as we have started shopping at supermarkets now.
Reminiscing about the fresh vegetables brought back memories of kelphul bhaaji, which tasted delicious when bought farm fresh from the Vasaiwala kawadi.
A simple dish prepared with fresh banana blossom. Photo: Anjali Koli
Recipe for Kelphul Bhaaji (serves 4-5 people)
1 banana flower
2 large onions chopped lengthwise
4-5 green chilies
8-10 cloves garlic chopped
1/2 tsp Koli masala
1/2 cup grated fresh coconut
1 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
A handful of cilantro chopped
Prepping the banana blossom
Open the bud of inflorescence, which is maroon; remove the calyx layers and separate each of the pale yellow flowers of the banana. Oil your hands lightly to avoid staining with the latex. Open each of the small flower and remove the stamen and the attached ovary. Keep aside just the yellow petals for use.
These flowers are then chopped fine with a greased knife as some latex does release while chopping and you don't want the knife to get sticky.
1. Heat a pan, add oil and season it a bit so the stir fry does not stick to the pan.
2. Add garlic to the hot oil and let it get fragrant. Follow in with green chilli and then onion and finely chopped banana blossom.
3. Sprinkle the Koli masala. Stir and mix to fry evenly until onion is cooked. Add salt to taste.
4. Before removing from the heat, add the grated coconut and mix. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
5. Serve with fresh rice rotis.