How Thanjavur Maratha cuisine found favour in the south

While the sambar’s authentic roots may still be shrouded in mystery, there are other dishes that definitely came from Maratha kitchens, ones that have been embraced by Tamils today as their own.
Sunkti and Kesarmas
Sunkti and Kesarmas
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A popular legend goes that Maratha King Shahaji II, son of King Venkoji aka Ekoji I, who was ruling Thanjavur during the 17th century was faced with an unlikely predicament. When he was visited by his relative Sambhaji (his step-uncle Chhatrapathi Shivaji’s eldest son), who was then the ruler of Maratha, Shahaji’s kitchens did not have any kokum to make Amti, a mild and sour dish made using lentils. The highlight of this fix was the birth of the legendary sambar. The story goes to say that one of the cooks in Shahaji's kitchens got inventive and used tamarind, which was available aplenty in Thanjavur region, to make the amti thereby becoming a humble predecessor of the present day sambar. Shahaji, the story ends, named the amti with a tangy twist as sambar, in honour of his visitor.   

Sambar in Tamil Nadu is a very touchy topic, just like how biriyani is in Hyderabad. While this “legend” might put Tamil people’s claim over the dish under doubt, the story itself has no documented proof. In KT Achaya’s Indian Food Tradition A Historical Companion, the sambar finds mention in the 1648 biography titled Kanthirava Narasaraja Vijaya written by Kannada scholar Govinda Vaidya. Called Huli in Karnataka, the dish made using cooked toor dal and boiled vegetables was perhaps modified using variations in the masala to become the present-day sambar of Tamil Nadu.

While sambar’s authentic roots may still be shrouded in mystery, there are other dishes that definitely came from Maratha kitchens, ones that have been embraced by Tamils today as their own. TNM spoke to Prince Pratap Sinh RajeBhosle, the sixth descendent of Maharaja Serfoji II (1777 - 1832) and his mother HH Ayshwarya Serfoji RajeBhosle to discuss some of the popular Maratha dishes and how they’ve blended in with the Tamil cuisine today. Pratap Sinh has authored a book titled Contributions Of Thanjavur Maratha Kings in which he has also discussed some of the popular dishes that came out from Maratha kitchens.

“When Venkoji came to Thanjavur, he brought along with him people from the Maratha kingdom. As time passed, people adopted the nature of south India and they mixed it up — both Maratha and Tamil cuisine,” begins HH Ayshwarya Serfoji RajeBhosle. This confluence can very well be seen in dishes like the Rasavaangi, a thick curry made using brinjals (vaangi meaning brinjal), channa dal and dry coconut, and pitla, another thick curry made using channa dal and a mix of vegetables — the one using bitter gourd is a common choice. These dishes with names that are obviously not Tamil perhaps had had their origins in Marathi kitchens. 

Prince Pratap Sinh RajeBhosle along with his mother, HH Ayshwarya Serfoji RajeBhosle

Writer Jaishri P Rao, who compiled a book of Thanjavur Maratha vegetarian recipes under the title Classic Cuisines and Celebrations of Thanjavur Maharashtrians, notes, “In Maharashtra, Jhunka, an accompaniment for rotis, made with curd and Bengal gram flour is commonly referred to as pitla. The Thanjavur Maharashtrian Pitla is probably a version of the Thanjavur Pitlai which is prepared from almost the same ingredients.”

There’s also another interesting story behind the Maratha kitchens. Prince Pratap Sinh RajeBhosle has noted in his blog, and also during our conversation, that King Serfoji II had three kitchens in his palace – one exclusively for non-vegetarian dishes, another for vegetarian dishes only and a third called Angreji kitchen that doled out European delicacies, in keeping with the colonial times.

While the connect in vegetarian dishes, starting from sambhar to the different curries we discussed above have been part of popular discourse, the non-vegetarian dishes in particular have not been given their due.

As someone who has a great passion for cooking, HH Ayshwarya Serfoji RajeBhosle immediately shares about a soft, sponge-like preparation using the mutton called Kesarmas. “First mutton is boiled and is shredded into fine threads. It is soft like a sponge and can be consumed upto a week like snacks,” she shares. Kesar, contrary to popular assumptions, has nothing to do with the sweet. To this shredded mass, spices and poppy seeds are added and fried.

The masala itself is the main line that draws the distinction between the two cuisines. Tamils tended to use more tamarind and coriander seeds, she notes. “South Indian masala is very fiery. The Marathas tend to use more of dry coconut in their recipes as well,” she says.

“Then there’s sunkti which is nothing but mutton balls,” she says. This is the definite precursor to the present-day mutton kola urundai that’s a popular snack across the state. The sunkti, which Ayshwarya Serfoji vouches is very tasty, was also Maharaja Serfoji II’s favourite dish. The preparation can be laborious, Ayshwarya Serfoji warns, explaining, “Roast the mutton, pound it and mix it with masala, dry coconut, chilli powder and garam masala. Add a little lime juice and shape it into lime size balls.”

The balls are then bound with plantain fibres (vaazha naar) dipped in ghee and once again fire roasted until the fibre is nicely charred. The sunkti is traditionally eaten along with suterfeni (dry semia). For vegetarians, the mutton is replaced with elephant yam.

The kola urundai on the other hand is made using minced mutton that is cooked, mixed with masala and shaped into balls. This is then fried. “Today it has changed,” says Ayshwarya Serfoji. “What they do today is a modified, simpler version. No one does it like sunkti anymore but we still make it in our palace kitchens during special events.”

The Puran poli too is a contribution of the Marathas. A sweet, stuffed roti, this dish today comes with a variety of fillings, with even a vegetable version to it. While Marathas traditionally used channa dal and jaggery, Tamil cuisine has also popularised the coconut jaggery mix. Chapathi dough made using wheat flour or maida is rolled out onto which the stuffing is placed in the shape of a ball. The chapathi is then folded into a dumpling and rolled out once again. The stuffed chapati is shallow fried with ghee on a flat pan. Polis are best consumed hot. Of course, the royal kitchen specialises in many other delicacies that stay true to the Maratha Royal history like the Mutton Rot (a patty-like dish), Lady Mamamud (mutton and ribbed gourd gravy), Kendata (vegetable and lentils) and more.

All said and done, the contributions of the Marathas to the Tamil history and culture is phenomenal and one that we should never forget. In one of his talks on the Thanjavur Marathas, Sriram V, a well-known chronicler of history, a heritage expert and editor of The Madras Musings, puts it perfectly: “This was a fairly alien set of rulers. They spoke different language, Marati, […] they had their own cuisine, their own script, their own music. They could have easily chosen to impose that on the local population. They could have chosen to do away with what had been developed until then. It is to the eternal greatness of these Marathas that they chose not to do that.”

Maharaja Serfoji II

Like the Parsis who added a spoonful of sugar to the cup full of milk that the Gujarati ruler had sent them — the cup full of milk sent to them as a message to indicate that the Kingdom had no space for them when they reached Gujarat seeking refuge — the Marathas too did something similar, Sriram notes. “They not only retained the existing culture and fostered it and encouraged it to grow. They brought in their own culture, in a fashion that could not be discerned readily and they permeated the atmosphere with their culture. And therefore you had a unique tradition in the region,” he says.

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