I belong to a relatively small ethnic community, the Kokani Muslims, who inhabit the coastal stretches and their surrounding areas in Mumbai, Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra state. The community has emerged as an outcome of intermingling of the local population with the Arab traders who flocked western India shores in aforementioned districts for trade, centuries before the various Islamic dynasties made their way to India via the route in the north of the Indian subcontinent. Hence the community's cuisine is a beautiful melange of native Maharashtrian and the Middle Eastern culinary styles.
As a community we take pride in and love our offbeat approach to food and this is evident from our simple yet sophisticated gastronomic style. The staple ingredients of the gastronomy - seafood, rice and coconut coupled with home grown vegetables, gourds, lentils emphasize the use of local produce daily in myriad interesting ways by the community to create drool-worthy meals. However, eons ago also there were a lot of ingredients like potatoes, wheat, chillies that were not grown by the community but availed occasionally from the weekly or monthly markets that brought produce from lands far and beyond to the community. These rare ingredients, at that time, were then used to churn out select delicacies. It's limited availability restricted wheat to be particularly utilized for making specialty dishes in the community like pasta, cakes, meat-laden gruels etc.
Yes, it's true we Kokani Muslims love pasta and from the various forms of pasta that we can boast of preparing, the most popular one is saravle or miniature, ring-shaped wheat pasta.
Centuries ago wheat was ground into flour using grinding stones at home. The concept of refined flour didn't exist, but the women unknowingly developed the technique of obtaining refined flour by sifting the coarse flour multiple times to get a finer consistency of flour that could be stretched and shaped into desired forms. For saravle the “fine” flour so obtained was made into a dough. The dough was then stretched out with hand into millions of miniature, thick threads that were then woven around a light-weighted wooden stick called 'sirkand' and allowed to dry in the summer sun until hard. The entire dehydration process shrunk the dough causing the dough threads to easily come off the stick as rings. These were then further dried until completely firm, followed by a light roasting before being stocked away for use throughout the year until next summer.
The middle eastern culinary influence in the tradition of saravle is evident in the way the recipes entail use of eggs and meat. Saravle are cooked both ways - in the savoury style with mutton or chicken and in the sweet style almost always laden with eggs. But, it is the sweet version that is relished more in the community. The sweet dish prepared with this pasta is also christened saravle and is enjoyed as a hearty breakfast topped with whole eggs and if the one is not content eating it only once a day then even around snack time it can be indulged in.
The case of disappearing saravle…
While the dishes made with saravle are not very difficult, the pasta itself is not easy to lay hands on. Till date saravle continue to be crafted by hand and not machine. The labour-intensive method of arriving at the pasta results in most households not making the pasta from scratch for their dishes but sourcing it from a particular household back in their hometowns in the districts mentioned earlier in the article. Yes, this pasta is clearly not available in any online grocery store nor retail shops in the city even where the community abounds in large numbers. Hard to believe isn’t it?
So what explanation exactly can be attributed for this situation? Well, the answer lies in analysing the culinary practice of saravle production. In days of yore, women from every household of the community in the villages would come together in summer every year and work together to make saravle along with papad, pickles, grind spices among other tasks. The goodies so made would get distributed to all homes in the village from which the women participated. This kind of community get togethers of women were particularly helpful for making products that needed many hands, preparation of which otherwise would have been an arduous task with numbered women in a singular household.
The commercialization of most preparations mentioned above except for saravle to an extent broke this entire social cycle of women getting together in a community and sharing the load of making different specialty preparations. The advent of urbanization, nuclear family structures, changing lifestyles further pushed the sourcing of most of the condiments, which otherwise were made by women when they came together, from the markets in the interest of time. And what could not be commercialized was left behind because the burden that a group carried could not be borne by a mere one or two women of a family in their respective household kitchens. Hence the number of women/households who made this pasta dwindled and continue to dwindle, limiting it to be sold out of the handful village homes of the community that are still holding on to the tradition of making this handmade pasta, in most cases for subsistence only.
The day subsistence is no longer dependent on these culinary practices, will these food traditions disappear? Can we afford the arrival of such a day when future generations will not even be aware of the saravle? Saravle is just one such case in point among the Kokani Muslim community. There are many more dishes in the community and similar situations are cropping across different communities in our country where our numerous culinary traditions are being pushed into a state of oblivion.
Can we change this sad situation? Yes, we can; a simple way to keep these legacies alive is if we practice them if not regularly but occasionally with family members. Yes, they maybe time consuming, they demand the virtue of patience, but we need to spend at least a few days, even in single digits, in a year nurturing our culinary traditions for the benefit of our generations to come who need to know how and where their food legacy stems from, how it shapes them, their culture and why they should take pride in it.
(PS: This essay has also been published in the bilingual Diwali 2018 Ank of Angat Pangat group. The same can be found on http://www.angatpangat.in/essay/the-saravle-story)
- Regional Indian Food & Travel enthusiast