Lai Bhaari! What Varan Bhaat Toop Tells Us about Maharashtrian Simplicity

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Lai Bhaari! What Varan Bhaat Toop Tells Us about Maharashtrian Simplicity

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Send a Maharashtrian on a culinary holiday around the world. Let them indulge in Delhi’s butter chicken, Kolkata’s macher jhol, world-class Japanese sushi, a quintessential American cheeseburger, topped off with a Michelin star meal; they will invariably come back home and demand some hot varan bhaat toop (dal, rice, and homemade ghee). They will then pat their tummy, heave a sigh of relief, and say “Atta kuthe jevlya sarkha watala (Now that’s what I call a meal).” 

Varan – for the non-Maharashtrian – is simply plain yellow dal. The recipe is deceptively simple. You take a fistful of pigeon-pea lentils, pressure-cook them, mash them together a bit, add some turmeric and asafoetida powder, and bring to a nice violent boil. Served with fresh, fluffy white rice and a generous dollop of toop, the meal is easy and it tastes like heaven. 

In Maharashtrian households, the humble varan bhaat toop is as versatile and ubiquitous as Radhika Apte’s appearances on Netflix. Sometimes it is a complete meal on its own, sometimes it is the final course of another meal. Sometimes it is plain simple comfort food, at other times it is part of an elaborate naivadya (offering) to Ganpati Bappa. Sometimes it is the quick something thrown together when a travel-weary guest turns up unexpectedly. Sometimes it is the detox fix of the glutton with a tummy bug. It is the weaning food of a baby and the strengthening potion of the elderly.

Varan bhaat toop is therefore not just a meal. It is an institution. It brings to mind mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. It reminds you of summers spent with cousins, hearty meals of said VBT paired with freshly pickled mango. It is the very identity of Maharashtrians. Shobha De famously proclaimed that she is as Maharashtrian as varan bhaat. Indeed, a love for varan bhaat toop is the epitome of Maharashtrian-ness. This combo meal is to us what the paithani is to our weddings and Laxmikant Berde is to our comedy films – quintessential to our existence.    

Come to think of it, we Maharashtrians are a simple people with simple tastes. When we go on a holiday, it is not to the Maldives or Korea, but to our mama’s house or our  kuldaivat (family deity) in the village. When we shop, we don’t head to designer showrooms in Juhu but saree shops in Hindmata. Our weddings are also simple affairs, not held in five-stars but at a budget banquet hall and school playgrounds. The food is not lavish, it’s vegetarian fare that starts with puri and ends with varan bhaat toop served on a banana leaf. Not for us the rich elaborate Makhanwalas of North India or the spicy chicken Chettinads of the South. On a regular day, we are just as happy with a bowl of shikhran (roughly mashed banana + milk + sugar, served with chapati) as we are with ukdiche modak (sweet steamed dumplings). Our songs sing the praises of dahi-bhaat-limbu and shikhran poli, as if they were the finest Beluga caviar. Like us, varan bhaat toop is simple too. Just three ingredients, economical enough to be affordable to the masses, and luscious enough to be relished by a king.  It is completely unpretentious, yet something you want to come home to at the end of the day. 

Varan bhaat toop is not just a meal. It is an institution. It brings to mind mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

In my earliest memories of food, I was the pickiest of picky eaters, but VBT was part of my staple diet. It was something I’d never refuse.

One time, when we visited a distant relative, and knowing that their usual meals would be too spicy for me, my grandmother asked them to make me some varan. That varan was a revelation to me. Until then I had only tasted my aaji’s home-cooked version – a beautiful golden-yellow amalgamation of asafoetida and turmeric. This particular rendition was a pale insipid yellow. It tasted like nothing in particular. It looked like nothing in particular. For the first time, I felt like refusing my beloved VBT, but I gulped it down and felt thankful for the sunshine-in-a-bowl that I was used to having. 

Varan bhaat toop has been my go-to food for as long as I can remember. But now that I am married into a non-Maharashtrian household, it’s difficult to come by. All the hype that I had built around it was not enough to woo by husband who dismissed it as “basic”. That was the end of our honeymoon period, when five days into our marriage, I retorted with a loud, “Yes, it’s basic but the best basic there is.” Thankfully, my two-year-old son has more refined tastes. 

Today, varan bhaat toop has become a luxury for me. The cook in my house fails at making varan every single day. Sometimes it is a thick mush, capable of supporting a standing spoon. Sometimes it is a suspension of thick dal legumes at the bottom, and a mile of water floating above. Remember when I said the recipe was deceptively simple? Varan bhaat toop is like making poached eggs. It is seemingly simple to cook and yet notoriously difficult to get right. In fact, if I had to judge someone’s cooking, I’d ask them to make me some good old VBT. The secret is getting the right amount of turmeric. Or maybe it is the asafoetida. Or is it the fragrant homemade ghee? 

Sometimes I think it’s plain old love. Varan bhaat toop tastes best when made by a cosy, cuddly grandma and served with a dollop of affection, a sprinkling of tangy leg-pulling, and a side of spicy mystery stories.

No wonder my cook never gets it right!

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