Every region has a distinct cuisine to offer. And this becomes very obvious in a country like India which has 28 states which are loosely based on language spoken in the region. The cuisine suffers a labeling syndrome. For instance, the UP is mainly associated with Awadhi cuisine and the lesser known cousins like Kumaoni (though the platter offered by them is certainly not as exquisite as Awadhi) never get a fair share of recognition. In a similar manner, a single tag for Maharashtrian cuisine is unjust (like a single tag of ‘Lavani’ for Maharashtrian culture.. how pathetic!)
So Maharshtra itself has a variety of cuisine to offer (and hello…MODAKS are not everyday item in Maharashtra!). There is Malwani, Khandeshi, Marathwada, Nagpuri, Mawal. Even in the Western Maharshtra, Kolhapur and Satara have distinct stuff to offer in your plate. Geographically, Sangli which is sandwiched between these two districts seems to be more influenced by the garrulous Kolhapuri cuisine due to its proximity and has nothing special to offer. But one motley mix which can set your gastric juice on fire at any time in a day (as well as night) is the ‘Oli Bhel’ available throughout the district.
A word of caution- the Oli Bhel must not be confused with the Geela Bhel, an insipid and slimy version of Sukha Bhel, in which Mumbaikars take pleasure in digging their teeth and feel that it is the best bhel they can have. Its true…Everything sells in Mumbai! J
So coming back to my homeland, Oli Bhel remains the most sought after snack on the streets overpowering the contenders like Vada Pav and Bhajiyas. Essentially enjoyed on a hand pulled cart, stay away from the restaurant version unless you are a hygiene freak (and hence, low on immunity he he he). Some of the bhel carts have almost turned into institutions over the years. The famous ones like the Golden Special or Mahesh in my town are situated in the heart of it as well as the legendary Rajabhau Bhel in Kolhapur
The sight for all carts is same and typical. A small tube light enlightening the menu in bold type inscribed on a small plastic façade. More of a similar menu for everybody. But the institutions are thronged by its patrons. The finely chopped onions, tomatoes and the deep fried green chilies make it a visual fest before you actually dig your teeth into it. As compared to other famous snacks like Potato Vada, Samosa, Kachori or other fried items, this snack lacks the ‘waft factor’. Hence, is totally dependent on visual appetizing and mouth publicity.
So what are the basic ingredients in the oli bhel – There are kurmuras (puffed rice) and that special version is available here in Western Maharashtra and not in Mumbai, the mixed farsaan (including gaanthiya, papadi, khari boondi, sev- not the nylon version- genuine chickpea flour), little amount of red chilli powder, chopped onion, tomatoes, coriander. The important ingredient is the khatta and meetha paani, made up of tamarind and jaggery with slight hint of mint. This is added after the all the ingredients are mixed in a large bowl. The amount of this special broth (khatta and meetha paani) is sufficient enough to provide tasty coating to other ingredients. Some enthusiasts demand additional dose of this broth but this makes the bhel slightly slimy and leading to imbalance of other tastes. This also kills the crunchiness of other ingredients. Though an oli (wet) bhel, crunchiness is also an essential quality of a good bhel.
Oli Bhel has also turned out to be a major employment provider for the youth I this area. However, it is also important to understand the gimmick of providing those sublime tastes through this motley mixture. Blessings of foodies like me, otherwise are always there for the people who actually make money by feeding other people. What could be another good deed, indeed!