The Essence Of Esavan
"Kolis eat vegetarian food?" asked a surprised Mumbai friend. It is strange that many believe that we don't eat vegetables at all. Truth be told, we love our veggies, but only with Esavan.
When a Koli man is told that there's some vegetable on the day's menu, he will cringe and jowl without fail, half-pleading and half-authoratively ordering the woman of the house to add some esavan to the vegetarian dish. Esavan means essence in Koli, and it simply implies that the 'essence' of some fish (wet or dry) has to be added into the vegetable dish.
Esavan delivers humble vegetables like brinjal, cluster beans, spring onions, papaya, potatoes and bottle gourd to nirvana. There are some classic combinations that have worked magic on a Koli platter since ages. Just like a Bengali Lau Chingri, we have our Goynaar Dudhi, which is nothing but pink prawns cooked with chunks of bottle gourd in a gravy-like dish. The tasteless dudhi is suddenly lifted to a sublime taste. The dudhi permeating the goynaar heads as much as the latter's sweet meaty juices scents the vegetable. Sucking on the goynaar head without hurting you palate is an art and Kolis are the masters indeed.
Papaya is usually associated with tantra as it is a fruit offered to the beast. Just like a lime is waved around a person to ward off evil, a raw papaya is put to similar uses. But, when combined with dried prawns or sode, it can make anyone do a happy dance. The coconut masala forming the velvety coat on the raw papaya, which is cooked to perfection while the dried prawns plumped in with the juices, gives a nutty bite to the curry.
If one had to play a prank on an Iyer or an Iyengar who is proud of his drumstick sambhar, this would be an ideal curry. The dried Bombil are cut like drumsticks and curried in a fresh coconut and coriander gravy spiced with Koli masala with some potatoes. It is wonderful to crumble a large chunk of potato in the gravy as you push the fibrous meat of the dried Bombil trying to separate the single central bone.
The dried Bombil curry cooking in the kitchen sends invitations to neighbours you have wanted to keep away from; they land at your door to wage a war. The curry typically has an all-pervading smell and is what can be said in all dignity. Be warned you need to keep a can of air purifier handy when you do cook this combination.
Anchovies are not just the favourite of the Europeans, they are loved by the Kolis too. A stir fry with spring onions and red onions with a gravy just coating the fresh small silver fish is a delight. Khare or anchovies stir fry carried in a lunchbox can get you more friends in office said uncle MJ. Just that you will first have to demonstrate how to eat these little flavour bombs by holding each fish between your incisors and tugging at the fish tail allowing your teeth to scrape the flesh away from the bone, placing each cleaned bone on the lid of the dabba while a small pile is formed quickly. You will receive the applause meant for a magician, told my wise uncle.
He is one of the first people who worked on computers in the late 70s-80s in a sprawling office that was air conditioned, a rare thing in those days. So, he had an additional task of using an air sickness bag to dispose those tiny skeletons in the toilet dustbin instead of the one under his desk to avoid the smell from hovering in the air-conditioned office after the anchovies were enjoyed.
Also, baby shrimps have an unmatched classic pairing with brinjal and is a must try. It is a very popular combination in continental cuisine too. The rough texture of the shrimps is complimented by the juiciness of the brinjal, and the pungent yet sweetness of spring onions. Here is the lip-smacking recipe for you to try in your kitchen.
Recipe for Kolim Vanga Ani Ool (serves 4-5)
1/4 kg fresh baby shrimps
10 springs onions
1/4 kg brinjal
2-3 tbsp Koli masala
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 kokum pieces
4 tbsp oil
1. Cut the brinjal in quarters and chop the spring onion greens. Leave the onions whole.
2. In a big bowl, wash the baby shrimps. Change the water 2 to 3 times. Keep them
submerged in water.
3. Meanwhile heat a wok and add the oil. To the hot oil, add the brinjal and cook for 5 minutes covered.
4. Follow in with the spring onion greens as well as whole onions. After this, just scoop up the baby shrimps from the water and add it to the veggies in the wok. Give it a stir again to mix well and cook covered for 5 minutes. Do not add water at all. The fresh shrimps will cook in their own juice and veggies.
5. Now add the turmeric, Koli masala and rinsed kokum pieces to it. Stir well. Cover with lid and cook over low heat. It should not stick to the bottom of the wok. Add salt. Press the kolim between the fingers to check if cooked. It takes about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat once done.
6. Cover and let the steam subside. This dish is a stir fry and goes really well with rice flour roti and fried gharis/ rice flour vadas on a traditional Koli platter. On a regular day, when chapati-bhaaji is boring you to death, the Koli bhaajis with fish taste delicious.
This is the essence of Esavan. Don't ask us again if we like our vegetables, we