Building a Cuisine: The Pachkalshis (Part I)
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
I never truly appreciated the food I grew up with, simply because I grew up eating it. It was nothing new, nothing different. Same old, everyday food. During the process of brainstorming and building a menu for The Paisley Kitchen, I came to realize that Pachkalshi cuisine has some unique gems of its own, not known to people outside of the community. It was then that I started seeing this food from a new lense. I grew curious about the history, culture, and factors that shaped this unique cuisine. However, documentation was scarce (especially in English), apart from a rather outdated website and a few Facebook groups there wasn’t much to learn from. I’ve decided to use this website as a channel to document my learnings about the Pachkalshi cuisine, for anyone who’d be interested, and for guests at Paisley Experience to learn more about the food we serve; because I truly believe one can enjoy their food a little more when they know its story.
In this (hopefully) series of posts, I want to break down the cuisine, its elements, its peculiarities and examine them objectively, and in as much detail as I can. I got into a process of questioning why we eat what we eat, after Studying Food with Dr. Kurush Dalal; and that rabbit hole got me here. I’ll be writing about the things that make the Pachkalshi cuisine unique, and bits and pieces of our history that possibly influenced the food we eat as a community today.
Before I go any further talking about the Pachkalshi cuisine; there are a few things I’d like to clarify, a disclaimer of sorts:
The information I’m putting out here is based on multiple literary sources, conversations with people belonging to the community, etc. Please excuse any historical inaccuracies (I have no background studying history). I’d be more than happy to discuss any shortcomings and/or make amendments.
Part I: The Two Pachkalshis
Our story begins in what we call Mumbai. Not as populous as today. Mumbai is not one but scattered across seven islands; later known as Bombay, Mazagaon, Parel, Worli, Mahim, Little Colaba or the Old Woman's Island, and Colaba.
Late 13th CE, enter Bhimdev/Bhima/Bimba (the man goes by many names in history); we don’t know for sure where he came from, but one can make some speculations and assumptions based on historical pieces of evidence and I’m going to leave that to the historians. What we know is that he made Mahim his capital and, with him, he brought some people; which included 27 families of Somavanshis, according to Bimbakhyaan.
And the word Pachkalshi (sometimes Panchkalashi) comes from their practice of using five (panch) vases (Kalash) as part of the wedding ritual in the community.
When these families began settling in Mahim, it was but a simple fishing hamlet of the Kolis. Bhimdev went on and changed the status of Mahim from a marshy fishing village to his colony of expert craftsmen and artisans. He then travelled to the north of Konkan, and once again took some followers with him.
The people of the community who went with him were later called Ashtikars, and the ones who stayed back, Sashtikars.
Sashtikar, referring to one from Sashti that comes from Sahasashta or the sixty-six villages that subsequently came to be known as the Salsette region of Mumbai. Ashtikar refers to one from Ashtagare (Revdanda, Chaul, Nagaon, Akshi, Varsoli, Thal, Navgaon, Kihim, and Aawas villages), present-day Alibaug. While the Sashtikars went on to pursue careers in architecture and arts in the urban areas and contributed greatly to building the city we know today, the Ashtikars took up agriculture and complementary occupations in the Raigadh region.
The Sashtikars and Ashtikars, though belonging to one Pachkalshi community, have a few differences in their ways. Most of these differences can be attributed to the fact that the Sashtikars remained put where they first settled, in the Salsette region, whereas the Ashtikars travelled further south of Mumbai, and settled in Ashtagare.
The differences between the two groups of Pachkalshis can be seen prominently (when observed) in their food and some rituals:
1. Rituals and Customs
The two groups, having the same religious background, have some customs differing widely to the other. For example, Sashtikars offer a non-vegetarian Naivedya with plenty of seafood delicacies, whereas the Ashtikars follow vegetarianism on the day of Gauri Puja. Sashtikar weddings are extravagant, similar to most urban weddings, while Ashtikars have simple, symbolic wedding ceremonies and traditions.
2. Influences on food
The Pachkalshi community, not rigid about caste, with very few taboos, adopted ingredients and techniques from their new neighbours and the land they went on to inhabit.
The Sashtikar Pachkalshis, who originally settled in Mahim and later the rest of the Salsette area, owe their fondness towards seafood to the aboriginal Kolis, a popularly known fishing community. The slight sweetness of their food, the practice of stuffing (ex: Bharleli Vangi, Purnache Paplet, etc.) may be attributed to their Gujarati neighbours. They were even the first among the two to use ingredients brought in by the Portuguese.
Ashtikars who settled in present-day Alibaug, have a simpler cuisine, a result of the comparatively rural way of life and influence of the native Agari tribe. Fish in its fresh and dry form is evidence of Agri and Koli influence.
3. Ingredients and Techniques
The Pachkalshis do not use a plethora of ingredients but have a strong command on the ingredients of the land where they settled. While Sashtikars used a slightly larger variety of ingredients due to easy availability in the urban markets, Ashtikars made do with a simple pantry, that can still be found in their kitchens in Alibaug: Kokum, tamarind, garlic, Pachkalshi masala, turmeric and rice. To this day, they don’t use coconut, wheat flour and spices other than the select few as liberally as a Sashtikar Pachkalshi might.
Moreover, Sashtikars use more complex methods of preparing food compared to Ashtikars. Kalwan, for instance, a fish curry, is prepared very differently by Sashtikars and Ashtikars:
Kalwan (derived from the word Kalavne, or to gather/mix) can be prepared with whatever fresh catch one finds. It is made by simply assembling garlic, fish, Pachkalshi masala and water in a vessel which is then put on the flame and covered, and it strictly must not be stirred in the process. This is it for the Ashtikars, a pungent, flavourful curry, to be had with a heap of rice. The Sashtikars go one step further and add a watan, sometimes coconut milk and tamarind, completely changing the consistency of the once humble kalwan to a richer curry.
Despite all the differences and the perpetual claim to superiority, the love for food remains constant in the Pachkalshi community. Paisley Experience’s menu brings you the best from both, Sashtikars and Ashtikars.
3. Govinda Nārāyaṇa Māḍagā̃vakara, Govind Narayan’s Mumbai (1863)
4. S. M Edwardes, The Rise of Bombay: A Retrospect (1901)
Maps courtesy: en.wikipedia.org