Weaving a spicy cult

If you like to challenge your gut with culinary adventures, add Saoji cuisine to the bucket list. Cooked with over 18 individual dry spices and obscene quantity of garlic, you will remember the food for long – at least till the next day every time you visit the wash-room.

Saoji is among the spiciest food preparation of central India, more popular in Nagpur city. It is characterized by black gravy, called rassa in the local language, that forms the base for most of the dishes.

It is prepared by an elaborate method that requires cooking individual spices at an optimum temperature and mixing them together in boiling water. If Scoville Scale is used to measure the spiciness, the cuisine can easily compete with dishes made in the original red Tabasco pepper sauce.

Among the spices used are different varieties of pepper, dry coriander, bay leaves, grey cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Poppy seeds and powdered coconuts are essential ingredients of cooking. Surely, you need loads of tissues and cold water handy when you try the dishes for the first time.

The cuisine is a cult among Nagpur residents, who enjoy the food in around 250 restaurants dotting the city, and exclusively serving Saoji dishes. It is uncommon to find families preparing a Saoji food at home and it is not because of the complex cooking. The recipes are well kept secrets among the families running the restaurants. The mysterious recipes are so popular among the locals that none of the weekly outings are complete without a meal at a Saoji restaurant.

The restaurant owners are actually weaver families from the state of Madhya Pradesh. As machines replaced handlooms, they migrated to bordering state of Maharashtra and started restaurant business. Some families found luck in the restaurant business and started competing with each other. They modified recipes and added their own innovations. On a visit to one of these restaurants, a person can still find redundant handlooms in the backyard.

The food got its name from the way these families greeted customers. The word Saoji can be roughly translated to guest.

Restaurants serving authentic Saoji food still follow the traditional method of cooking spices at different temperatures. As each spice cooks, it is added to a pot of boiling water. Then, the spices are grind together to form a fine paste, which is the black gravy (or rassa), the base. A veteran eater actually starts the meal by gulping down two glasses of this gravy.

Obviously, the food has variation and the mutton will have a different flavour compared to chicken. The taste is further enhanced by adding other spices and vegetables depending on the dish. Even the water in which these spices are boiled together is used for cooking rice that gives it a distinct flavour.

Though restaurants serve vegetarian dishes made of potato, soya, cottage cheese and eggplant, the traditional cooking was meant for chicken and mutton.

Vishnu Manohar, a celebrity chef, who holds Saoji food festival across the country, says that the food does not cause any gastronomical problems despite the spices. “The manner of preparing the dish takes away the ill effect spices can have on the body. Rather, the food has medicinal value that aids digestion and treats severe cold,” says Manohar.

Some famous Saoji restaurants in Nagpur:

  1. Umrer saoji
  2. Kashinath Saoji
  3. Tiger Saoji
  4. Jagdish saoji
  5. Pintu Saoji
  6. Sujal Saoji

The writer can be contacted at tineshb (at) gmail (dot) com

Photo credits: Harshad Pandharipande & Tinesh Bhasin

Author: Tinesh Bhasin

Presently, a freelance writer, he has worked as a business journalist for over seven years

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