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Building a Cuisine: The Pachkalshis (Part I)

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Growing up, I never truly savored the food that graced our family table. It was merely routine, the familiar flavors of home. Little did I realize that these everyday dishes held a treasure trove of unique flavors and traditions, a heritage I had taken for granted. The journey of crafting The Paisley Kitchen's menu opened my eyes to the culinary gems of Pachkalshi cuisine, a cuisine shrouded in obscurity beyond our community's borders. This revelation marked a shift in perspective, leading me down a path of discovery into the historical, cultural, and formative influences that have shaped this distinct culinary tradition.


My quest to uncover the rich tapestry of Pachkalshi cuisine was not without challenges. Limited documentation, particularly in English, left me relying on outdated websites and a smattering of Facebook groups for insight. Determined to bridge this gap, I've chosen to use this platform as a conduit for sharing my learnings about Pachkalshi cuisine. This endeavor is not only for those intrigued by our culinary heritage but also for the patrons of Paisley Experience, as I firmly believe that understanding the story behind a dish enhances the enjoyment of every bite.


In this series of posts, my aim is to deconstruct Pachkalshi cuisine—its distinct components, its quirks, and its intricate details. The catalyst for this culinary exploration was my deep dive into the "why" behind our food choices, spurred by my studies under the tutelage of Dr. Kurush Dalal. This academic pursuit led me to delve into the heart of our culinary traditions, and I am excited to share the highlights of my findings with you.


Before delving into the intricacies of Pachkalshi cuisine, it's important to establish some key points, a sort of preliminary disclaimer:

The insights I present are drawn from a multitude of literary sources and conversations with community members. While I've strived for accuracy, please bear in mind that historical precision is not my expertise. I welcome any discourse on potential inaccuracies and am open to making necessary corrections.


 

Part I: The Dual Identity of Pachkalshis


Our narrative unfurls against the backdrop of what we now know as Mumbai, a city far removed from its bustling modern-day incarnation. Mumbai, at its genesis, was a constellation of seven distinct islands: Bombay, Mazagaon, Parel, Worli, Mahim, Little Colaba (Old Woman's Island), and Colaba.

The seven islands of Bombay

In the late 13th century, a figure emerged, known variously as Bhimdev, Bhima, or Bimba—a historical enigma whose origins remain shrouded. Speculations aside, he set his sights on Mahim, transforming it into his capital and bringing along a retinue that included 27 Somavanshi families, as recounted in Bimbakhyaan.

The term "Pachkalshi" (sometimes Panchkalashi) draws from the community's practice of incorporating five (panch) vases (Kalash) in their wedding ceremonies.


As these families settled in Mahim, they found themselves in a humble fishing enclave of the Kolis. Bhimdev's vision would redefine Mahim, elevating it from marshy shores to a bastion of skilled artisans and craftsmen. His wanderlust led him to northern Konkan, accompanied by a contingent of followers.


The followers who accompanied Bhimdev would later be known as Ashtikars, while those who remained in Mahim would be recognized as Sashtikars.

The people of the community who went with him were later called Ashtikars, and the ones who stayed back, Sashtikars.


"Sashtikar" refers to the settlers in Sahasashta, encompassing sixty-six villages now synonymous with Mumbai's Salsette region. On the other hand, "Ashtikar" denotes those who made their homes in Ashtagare (present-day Alibaug), an area that includes Revdanda, Chaul, Nagaon, Akshi, Varsoli, Thal, Navgaon, Kihim, and Aawas villages. The paths they tread would shape their destinies differently, with Sashtikars contributing to urban arts and architecture while Ashtikars embraced agriculture in the Raigadh region.


Though united under the Pachkalshi banner, Sashtikars and Ashtikars exhibit nuanced differences, rooted in their distinct locales. Many of these variations manifest in their culinary practices and rituals:

1.Rituals and Traditions

While both factions share a common religious heritage, their rituals diverge significantly. Sashtikars offer a non-vegetarian Naivedya replete with seafood delicacies. In contrast, Ashtikars observe vegetarianism during Gauri Puja. Extravagant weddings characterize Sashtikar unions, echoing urban trends, while Ashtikar ceremonies exude simplicity and symbolism.


2. Culinary Influences

The Pachkalshi community's adaptable nature allowed them to incorporate ingredients and techniques from their new environs. Sashtikars, entrenched in the Salsette area, developed a penchant for seafood, influenced by the indigenous Kolis. Gujarati neighbors infused an undertone of sweetness and a penchant for stuffing dishes. Portuguese arrivals introduced novel ingredients to the Sashtikar culinary repertoire.

Meanwhile, Ashtikars' rural lifestyle in Alibaug engendered a simpler cuisine, shaped by interactions with the native Agari tribe. The presence of fish, both fresh and dried, bears witness to Agri and Koli influence.

3. Ingredients and Techniques

Pachkalshis display a mastery of locally available ingredients rather than an extensive pantry. While Sashtikars enjoy a wider ingredient variety, Ashtikars adhere to a simpler arsenal: Kokum, tamarind, garlic, Pachkalshi masala, turmeric, and rice. Notably, Sashtikars utilize coconut, wheat flour, and spices more liberally compared to their Ashtikar counterparts.


In culinary preparation, Sashtikars adopt more intricate methods than Ashtikars. Consider Kalwan, a fish curry—the two factions approach it differently. Ashtikars concoct a simple yet pungent curry by layering garlic, fish, Pachkalshi masala, and water, avoiding stirring. Sashtikars elevate Kalwan by introducing elements like watan, coconut milk, and tamarind, transforming it into a richer, nuanced creation.


Thick Sashtikar Style Pomfret Kalwan

Despite the disparities and the inherent sense of superiority, a shared adoration for food unites the Pachkalshi community. At Paisley Experience, our menu pays homage to both Sashtikar and Ashtikar culinary traditions, inviting you to savor the harmonious blend of flavors from these distinct journeys.


By Dhani

Paisley Experience


 


Sources

Books:

1. Bimbakhyan

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

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