If you squint hard and gaze long enough, there’s a Nashik that stretches beyond the manicured vineyards catering predominantly to the upper crust, wine-and-cheese tourist. This city, once purely an industrial backwater to Mumbai or pilgrim country at best, is where salt-of-the-earth Maharashtrian flavours have marinated in culinary influences from diverse cultures around India. Residents speak proudly of legacy eateries and neon yellow sharbats, and would even kick up a street fight to defend their favourite misal pav joint. So once you’ve emptied out your wine decanters, discover the surprising, homegrown tastes of Nashik, whether it’s authentic Khandeshi flavours or quirky street food and age-old sweet shops.
Just north of Nashik lies the Khandesh region, home to a distinct cuisine built around the use of kaala (black) masala. Though it is not as popular across Maharashtra as Kolhapuri thalis in the south or Saoji fare in Vidarbha, Khandeshi cuisine has found its way to Nashik’s food landscape thanks to Divtya Budhlya.
In 2003, Praveen Pawar envisioned the restaurant out of a tiny apartment garage hoping to introduce folks to the flavours of Khandesh, which he was brought up on. After his instant success, in 2010, he set up Divtya Budhlya Waada, a swanky family joint modelled after the British-era wooden houses or waadas of old Nashik.
At the heart of Divtya Budhlya’s story is the humble mutton bhakri: a thin mutton curry or rassa eaten with a crumbled bajra bhakri. Today the menu has expanded to include chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes, but mutton bhakri remains the restaurant’s pride and joy.
Bharli vangi or Maharashtrian stuffed brinjals are a traditional Khandeshi preparation. Photo By: Fanfo/ Shutterstock
Choice mutton cuts are slow-cooked in kaala masala, a potent mixture of spices that gets the sweat rolling behind the ears. Much of it potency comes from red chillies, cloves and cinnamon, all of which flourish in the absence of onions and cream, usually the base for Mughlai mutton curries. The meat’s juices and, more importantly, its rich rendered fat cuts through the spice, striking a perfect balance. At the same time, hearty bits of bhakri, softened from a generous dunk in the rassa, bat off the kaala masala’s heat beautifully.
Amit Kaklij, who is Mr. Pawar’s nephew and manages the restaurant, tells me that the restaurant’s name comes from a Khandeshi pre-wedding ritual, wherein the entire village is invited for a solo-dish feast of mutton bhakri. At the restaurant, however, one can try out a wider range of traditional Khandeshi preparations: vegetarians swear by tadka pithla and bharli vangi (stuffed brinjals). For a break from kaala masala, try the greenish chicken sukka, prepared in a base of green chillies and coriander. If you are in luck, plumb for fried waadis, a freshwater fish found near Gangapur dam.
Price: Meal for two costs Rs. 800-1000.
A few hundred metres away from the chaos of College Road, a moderate crowd of youngsters seem to permanently skulk outside this Lebanese and Mughlai joint. Al-Arabian Express started out as a takeaway kitchen, serving shawarmas and kebabs, but soon expanded into a dine-in restaurant with an extensive menu. Long-time patrons will tell you that it is the first-generation restaurant’s vibe that sets Al-Arabian Express apart from the traditional Mughlai haunts of Doodh Bazaar. At “Arabian” (a colloquial endearment for the place), the option of dining in is now available, but for many patrons, shawarmas taste better while perched atop a scooter backseat, or a car bonnet.
Menu highlights include mutton shawarma, garlic chicken shawarma and Chicken Lebanese Tikka, a messy medley of mildly spiced malai tikka, slathered in pungent but creamy garlic sauce made from hung curd. Al-Arabian also does right by the keema and offers an Asian twist on a mutton-and-naan combo called Mutton Arabian Special, where the ginger and garlic gravy makes all the difference.
Price: Meal for two costs Rs. 800-1000, shawarmas start from Rs. 180.
Maharastra’s greatest indulgence is the sabudana vada, a crunchy deep-fried snack made with sago, potatoes, chillies and peanuts. Photo by: Indian Food Images/ Shutterstock
In an unassuming lane in old Nashik’s Bhadrakali Market, a 50-year old breakfast snack has attained legendary status. As is often the case with such establishments, Sayantara Sabudana Vada had humble beginnings; Ramanlal Bhavsar started off by selling sabudana vadas and potato kachoris from a hand cart, not too far away from where the modest, but always crowded shop stands today.
Initially frequented by fasting devotees, for whom the deep-fried crunch of the sabudana vada was a permitted indulgence, the joint grew to acquire legions of admirers, who perhaps worshipped at the altar of great food.
Sayantara’s menu has been unchanged: sabudana patties, crushed peanuts, chillies and cumin are dunked into a giant vat of boiling oil till they turn golden brown. The vada is then served with a cool curd and peanut-based chutney that diffuses the too-hot-to-touch fritter. Be warned, restricting yourself to just one plate of this temple-town deep-fried delicacy might prove difficult.
Price: Rs. 25 for a plate of two sabudana vadas.
What Mohammed Ali Road is to Mumbai, Doodh Bazaar is to Nashik. Makeshift kebab stalls, seekh paratha joints and Mughlai restaurants line the narrow street on both sides in this crowded quarter of old Nashik.
Established 20 years ago, Kokni Darbar is one of the most revered eateries here. In the words of restaurant manager, Shoaib, it was Kokni Darbar that brought the Mughlai zaika to Nashik for the first time. Back then, it was a chaotic no-nonsense establishment where you’re likely to end up sharing a table with a complete stranger. The decor has since been upgraded, and a number of Mughlai joints have sprung up across the neighbourhood. Judging by the crowds, however, Kokni Darbar remains the overwhelming favourite every day of the week and twice on Wednesday and Sunday, when mutton salli boti is one of the specials. Before savouring it, get here early in the evening to score a plate of melt-in-your-mouth mutton seekh kebabs before they run out. Best enjoyed with slivers of onion and a tangy mint chutney, the mince kebab is the perfect set up for the salli boti.
Originally a Parsi speciality, Kokni Darbar’s version is a Mughlai preparation, mining much of its flavour from the secret garam masala and tender boneless mutton. The finished product is practically swimming in oil, but draining some of it out will likely attract curious glances and disapproving stares from waiters and other customers. You’re better off mopping it up with a soft butter naan instead.
The restaurant also serves a memorable tandoori chicken masala, shreds of tandoori chicken doused in a tomato-based gravy. Top it off with a cool glass of kesar falooda, frothing at its mouth with rich malai kulfi.
Price: Meal for two costs Rs. 1000-1200.
Nashik residents are spoilt for choice when it comes to the city’s undisputable signature snack and will feverishly defend their personal favourite. An outsider might be hard pressed to pinpoint the difference between two misals in the city, but the city’s seasoned critics can wax eloquent about finer distinctions. Part of the snobbery and pride stems from the belief that misal was invented in Nashik.
Bhagwantrao Mithai in old Nashik, which was founded in 1912 as a humble tea stall, serving Maharashtrian breakfast staples, is believed to have made the first misal. In Marathi, the word means mixture, and that is what Bhagwantrao’s misal was: a hodgepodge of usal (pulses), sabudana khichdi, poha, potato sabji, dahi and sev, altogether sold for twelve anas. According to Bhagwantrao’s grandson Suhas Ashtaputre, this was the first ever misal in Nashik, and by extension, Maharashtra and India. Though there are many claimants like Bhagvantrao across misal hotspots such as Ahmednagar, Kolhapur and Pune.
Today Bhagwantrao has passed on the baton to numerous joints across the city that specialise in misal pav. Nashik’s misal has four main components: a mildly spiced usal made from matki (moth bean); sev; a spicy rassa; and soft, untoasted pav. Curd, papad, lime, onions are optional, as is the tarri, a layer of spicy oil skimmed off the top of the rassa cauldron.
Restaurants old and new have experimented to distinguish themselves. For instance, Shree Ambika in Panchavati has been serving up a plate of fiery misal since 1970, with the kaala masala lending a darker hue and a dash of spice. On the other end of the spectrum, Ovaara in Mahatma Nagar serves a milder, homely version, complete with an optional multigrain pav.
Safely between the two extremes, Shree Krishna Vijay on Gangapur Road is a bonafide Sunday morning institution here, attracting everyone from college students catching up over good food to middle-aged citizen relaxing after their weekend tennis and badminton sessions.
Price: A plate of Misal Pav will range from Rs. 60 to Rs. 120 in most Nashik restaurants.
Links: Ovaara (https://www.facebook.com/Owara-Nikhara-Misal-103574447947008/); Shree Ambika (facebook.com/ambikamisalpav/)
Among the plethora of delicious Indian concoctions, gur sharbat is a classic drink for cooling down in the summers. Photo by: Rimma Bondarenko/ Shutterstock
At the crossroads of Ravivar Karanja, the Shevale family sells hundreds of glasses of saccharine sweet, pineapple-flavoured goodness at Samarth Juice Centre every day. Proprietor Nivrutti Shevale‘s father started off selling fruits at that very street corner from a hand-cart in the 1950s. In 1958, he premiered the sharbat in the summer months to supplement his income from selling fruits. By the time the second generation took over in 1980, the focus had shifted to the drink, which is more of a sundae than a sharbat.
A concentrate of crushed pineapple and sugar forms the base, on which, a healthy helping of pineapple milkshake is poured. If that wasn’t pineapple-y enough for you, the glass is topped off with a scoop of pineapple ice-cream made in-house. The result is an instant trip back to the thrill of bunking class and cycling downtown for a forbidden treat with friends.
Price: Rs. 40 for a glass of Pineapple Sharbat.
A few hundred feet beyond Samarth Juice Centre lie three sweet shops that have come to be associated with consistency, tradition and unwavering quality in Nashik. First up on the narrow road, called Main Road, is Mangesh Mithai. In 1840, a halwaai with polio walked from Mount Abu to Nashik to set up his own business with his two sons. Consequently, he established a sweet shop that became famous as Langda Halwaai, after his distinct limp. The shop was made all the more popular after his son invented the khurchan wadi, a sweet that is rarely found outside of Nashik even today. The iconic dish was only invented to make use of leftover ingredients—sooji, coconut and mawa—as a cost-saving measure.
Zhangri jalebi dipped in chashni invites the traveller with a sweet tooth. Photo By: India Picture/ Shutterstock
Further down Main Road lies Bhagwantrao Mithai, of erstwhile misal fame. Today however, the misal is only made to order in large quantities. Off the shelves, Diwali sweets like anaarsa, a crunchy fritter made from fermented rice flour, chakli and dinka (a type of tree resin) laddoos are the hot favourites. On festivals, stand in line early to get yourself some piping hot basundi, a runnier version of rabdi with dry fruits and nuts.
A slight detour off the Main Road, Budha Halwaai Jalebiwaale rounds off the holy trifecta of Nashik’s sweet shops. Budhaji Laxman Wagh started selling jalebis in 1956, and his claim to fame was rather unusual. “At the time, halwaais only used to make jalebis in the morning. So when Budha Halwaai started making a few batches in the evening, it was a novelty of sorts,” says his grandson Lalit. The jalebis are the soul of the establishment to this day, and are best enjoyed on a winter morning in the original wooden-framed shop in Bhadrakali. The space is crammed with rough-hewn wooden tables and benches on which patrons hunker over their plates. At the far end of the room, two men are hard at work, squeezing out rows of jalebis, which when they arrive can barely contain sugary goodness within.
Price: Rs. 20 for a plate of Jalebis at Budha Halwai Jalebiwaale
Link: Budha Halwai Jalebiwaale (facebook.com/budhahalwai/); Mangesh Mithai (facebook.com/mangeshsweets/)
On a blistering summer afternoon, a plate of pani puri at Nandan Sweets can work like the cool drench of sprinkler on dry grass. The puris are filled with a spicy, cold pudina-flavoured concoction, imli chutney, and just the right amount of boiled moong and boondi, resulting in a delightful mix of flavours and textures.
While the spicy pudina concoction and imli chutney are the stars of pani puri, in Nashik, the snack gets its character from the fiery zhatka powder. Photo by: Indian Food Images/ Shutterstock
On the other side of town, at Shoukin Bhel, say hello to the polar opposite of the no-frills pani puri, the zhatka. Here, the pani puri is merely the excuse on which to serve the zhatka, a fiery red mixture of ground red chillies, potatoes and other spices. This is more of a mouthful than your average pani puri and might even be nudged into your mouth by the vendor. The spice is overwhelming, intentionally so, and will get tears rolling. Zhatka divides opinion in the city but for the adventurous, this is as edgy as Nashik gets.
Price: Rs. 45 for a plate of Jhatka Pani puri at Shoukin Bhel; Rs. 30 for a plate of Pani puri at Nandan Sweet and Chaat Centre
Link: Shoukin Bhel (facebook.com/shoukinbhel/), Nandan Sweet and Chaat Centre (facebook.com/NandanCollegeRoad/)
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