July 28, 2008

Sappak Pitla: Inaugurating a series on thanjavur marathi cuisine


Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi. Madras (when it wasn't Chennai), Bangalore, and Allahabad. And to this, add Athens, Boston, Madison, Buffalo, and Ann Arbor. It's never easy to answer the "where are you from" question. Cliched as it may sound, in many ways it is like peeling the layers of an onion - depending on the place and who is posing the question, one makes quick decisions about how much to reveal. And while it is certainly wonderful to be able to draw on so many experiences and influences, there is no denying the value of rootedness either. For me, it is about belonging to a community of thanjavur maharashtrians (here's a wiki entry).

And like in any other community, food was central to the process of crafting identity. Poriyal with a little twist, is bhaji; vatha kuzhambu is modified a bit to make goddu pitla; poricha koottu becomes a sappak pitla; and there are many new dishes that emerged from the experimentation that went on in thanjavur-marathi kitchens across south India (present-day Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamilnadu. My immediate family - across 3-4 generations - is from Coimbatore, Pudukkottai, and Madras). What's more, given that migration from the Maratha kingdom to different regions of south India dates back to the 1600s, who knows which Tamil dishes are a result of Marathi influence. As one story goes, sambhar was the result of a tanjore ruler (Sambhoji) substituting tamarind for kokum (a tart fruit native to the western coast of India)!

Anyhow, I've been meaning to start a series on Ahaar as a way to document this interesting food culture and, of course, indulge my cravings for what, to me, are the aromas and tastes of home. To kick things off, here is the recipe for sappak pitla (sappak: not spicy). As a kid, I always wondered why a dish that was quite spicy was called "sappak"...I still don't know why, and neither does my aji (grandmother).


1-1/2 cup moong dal
Grated coconut: a fistful
1 tbspoon chana dal
1 tbspoon urad dal
Red chillies: 2
Green chillies: 2
Cumin seeds: 1 tspoon
Black pepper: 3-4 corns
Ginger- small cube
Ridge gourd: 2 medium sized (cucumber or snake gourd work well too)
Oil: 2 tbspoon


Boil moong dal along with diced ridge gourd. You don't have to do this in a pressure cooker given that moong dal cooks quite fast on the stove.

Heat the oil and roast the coconut, jeera, green chillies, red chillies, pepper, chana dal, and urad dal. Grind the dry ingredients separately, and add to a paste of coconut and green chillies (ground with a little water). Add this mixture to the dal and ridge gourd and cook on low flame till it comes to a boil.


Garnish with cilantro, and serve hot with rice.


  1. Hey Aswin, thank you so much for this wonderful post! Isn't it amazing how much variety does our cuisine have, and then even more heart-warming is the fact how different sub-cuisines of India have these similarities. Your post is a true ode to the wonder that India is!

    And i have the same thing going through my mind when someone asks me "where are you from" :). Its a particularly enjoyable "chaos" when it comes to my kitchen, where flavors unfold ranging from each corner of India (courtesy family and friends) and the different cuisines i picked up here in the US. Thank you so much for this really marvellous post!

  2. wow,..wht a sereis,..thnks fr the info,..willbe waiting forur posts...

  3. That was really one enjoyable post..but I can understand how hard it is to answer those questions right..looking forward to the series!

  4. Hey Aswin,
    Thanks for a great recipe and an informative post!
    I've vaguely known about the Thanjavur Maratha connection - one of the most renowned Bharatanatyam gurus in Baroda (where I grew up) had the last name 'Tanjorkar' - I hear that he was a descendant of the artists who brought Bharatanatyam to the Gaekwad court from Tanjavur - and the Gaekwads who ruled the erstwhile Baroda state, were an offshoot of the Marathas of course. I wish I knew a little more about their cuisine...it would be interesting to know what the 'twice migrated' marathas cooked!

  5. I have never heard of Thanjavar Marathis and so glad to learn and read about it here. Looking forward to it here.

    As for the Sappka Pitla, looks delicious.

    Mandira, I hear that Michigan cherries are famous. I bet they tasted great.

  6. close family friend (he's deceased) was a 'tanjorkar'(he was a well-known musician) and their language was intriguing. i understand tamil and can speak marathi, but i just couldn't place what they were saying. thanks for this post.

  7. Anonymous3:34 PM

    Was looking forward to this. Even I was wondering why its labeled "sappak" :)

  8. Never knew about "Tanjore Marathi" amalgamation! India is such an interesting country, isn;t it? And Indian cuisine (if it can be said in singular at all!) is vast!
    For some reason, I've always associated pitla with besan based gravy. The sappak pitla sounds & looks yum!

  9. Anonymous11:27 PM

    Very interesting and informative post. Wonder if pitlays are an offshoot of this pitla. I'm looking forward to more posts in this series.


    P.S.: Isn't Rahul Dravid of Tanjore Marathi descent?

  10. so there is a clan called tanjavur marathis ??

    I gotta friend who is a marathi brahmin - I think he is too a TM -

    Great to know about the new cuisine too..

  11. What an enlightening post! I just got back from the succinct Wiki entry. You have much to teach us!

  12. Thanks everyone for the encouraging response!

    Musical - I agree, the similarities across cuisines are striking. Perhaps someone can start a blog event around this theme!

    notyet100, srivalli, indosungod, vani, bee, and revathi - thanks for your comments! I am hoping to make the most of this summer and post a number of recipes.

    annapoorna - it's terrific to learn about tanjore-gaekwad connection! If you learn more about these "twice migrated" families, please do let me know.

    mamatha - some transliterate the word as "pitlay" and some as "pitlai." So yes, it's the same dish.

    pooh - and I have much to learn as well! I hope to use this series as an opportunity to archive memories as well (my grandmother's take on this, for e.g.).

    Ramya - it'd be great if you could do a guest post at some point. Let me know.

  13. That is very interesting Aswin..Looking forward to a lot more such recipes...

  14. Really interesting read and recipe. Just shows how much variety there is in our food to everyone who refers to it blandly as "curry"!

  15. Hi Aswin, Glad to find a fellow tanjore maharashtrian blogging about our cuisine :-) Aah sappak pitla, brings old memories back....

  16. Chandrika and Mallika - thanks! I hope to post as much as possible this summer.

    Rajee - delighted to hear from someone who recognizes all this! And I look forward to your comments and suggestions on future posts.

  17. Very interesting post and recipe,the sappak pitla looks delicious :)

  18. jayashree1:01 AM

    hello there, Came across your website for the first time and read about the Tanjavur Maharastrians. My father considers himself one and he and all his relatives speak the quasi-marathi language.

    I too asked the question why its called sappak and was told its because there is no "puli" element in the dish.

  19. Haripriya7:10 PM

    Aswin, I am delighted to see a blog on Tanjavur Marathi cuisine and meet a fellow TM!!!! And Hi to you as well, Rajee.... Awaiting more additions to the series. Thank you for starting this, and the pictures look lovely!

  20. Thanks, Usha!

    Jayashree - your dad's response makes sense. The absence of tamarind sets this dish apart. Convey my thanks!

    Haripriya - terrific to hear back from another TM! I'll have a post or two up in the coming week.

  21. Hi,
    great post and Its really very puzzling to me also when I am asked where are you from ..... anyways I am looking forward to this series , will be great to know new recipes and some great facts ..
    hugs and smiles

  22. I once read that sambar got its name because Shivaji served it to Sambaji while he visited. I hail from Thanjavur too and am looking forward to this series.

  23. Thanks, Jaya!

    Suganya - I've heard that story too! And I think that's what makes this interesting - not so much which story is the right one, but how many interesting stories there are!

  24. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Its sappak because it isnt ambat (no chinch), thikkat (no red chilli) or gulchit :)

  25. Tried this recipe yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious. Thanks:)

  26. Hi Ashwin,

    First, it is great to see how many of Tanjavur Maharashtrians are around. Loved the recipe. I came across your post, while I was looking online if I was spelling pitla correctly, while I was postind a recipe of mine :-) Hope you will take a look.

    Thanks again.

  27. Hi Aruna,

    Thanks! And I'm looking fwd to your recipes.

  28. Bhook laaglaaye attha, Sappak pitla karoon khaanaar ahe me :):)

    Nice read !!!

  29. Kartik12:17 AM

    Hi ! I'm feeling so excited to see other Tanjor Marathis here ! growing up, it seemed like the only TM's I knew were my relatives or from the extended family. I was hoping that someone would have written more on Wikipedia about TMs..mala kalat naota ki yevda TM's aahet ! reading about Sappak Pitla reminds me soo much of my ajji, mala radu yet aahe..thanks so much for this post !

  30. Kartik12:22 AM

    oh and my Tanjore Marathi cousin who's from Bangalore insisted on having his marriage in Tanjore at our old private temple..and yes, Tanjore has lots of private temples which date back probably a couple of hundred years (at least ours did- our ancestor Venkat Rao, supposedly built it nearly 250 years ago)..so, I too was able to visit Tanjore, and almost all of our relatives also attended. it felt incredible to be back there, although there seemed to be no Tanjore marathi speaking people..seems like most have moved out of there.

  31. Indira3:49 AM

    Nice to see so many Tanjore maharastrians here. I have visited this blog for the first time. It is quite interesting. Can you post sambar and sar aa cha pudee also.
    Btw,I would like to know if anyone would be aware of contribution done by our ancestors in marathi music. My grandfather late Venkoba Naig was a great singer from Tanjore. Unfortunately i do not have any recorded music of his or of his time from tanjore. My mother sings those songs these days.

  32. I was in Chennai for about 4 yrs and left chennai last year. During those last few drives on the ECR I came across a restaurant that serves thanjavur vegetarian food. Something pulled me to that restaurant and just loved the food there. Also, there was my A/C mechanic who understood every word of what I spoke to my son (Marathi) and he was the one who introduced me to TM's. I coaxed him to speak his Marathi and he told me, I won't understand. Also, he added to my knowledge the history of how Marathi ppl reached Tanjavur. Tanjavur, That name has something in it that strikes a chord in your heart. Do I belong there too??? My Grandfather always said, we hail from southern part of India. The Sappak pitla looks great, and am going to try it. Keep the other such recipes rolling.. Cheers!

  33. Hi,

    Nice to meet a tanjore maharastrian :)

    I was searching for goddu pitla... i thought no one would ever post abt this (lol) and i was surprised to see our own recipe being displayed here!!!! It was interesting read to the post :) Unfortunately this series had started looong back... and am a very new blogger :) Nice blog and wonderful recipes here. Gr8 work.

    Do visit my blog My Scrawls, in ur free time. Would be happy to receive ur comments :)

  34. Hi all of you,
    Sappaka pitle and goddu pitle are really great! We have been making these in our house regularly. How about methiche maatoda or kelich phoolach maatoda? Ashwin, why not upload these too. Also, it is more appropriate if our dialect is called Dakshini Marathi rather than Tanjavur Marathi. For details look up Dakshini Marathi in google search.

  35. hello Ashwin et al
    Thrilled to stumble across the tm connection. One hardly gets to meet other tms outside the family circle.,so its nice to know ther are more of my kind!. Always felt a bit alien ,even among other Indians-"becauseI dont know where I really come from"(I now live in London)By the way the sapag pitlay was a big hit. Hope we keep this going

  36. surprised to google sappak pitla and find a +ve result! keep it going people:)
    Warm regards

  37. Wow, Great blog.. SOmething I've been searching for answers for some time now..
    I have a question & was wondering if you could offer your thoughts.
    Would you refer to Tanjavur cuisine as Maharashtrian with a south Indian influence or South Indian with a maratha influence?
    Some of the classic dishes it seems to me sound so maharashtrian even in name..
    Usal (referred to as Usli in tamil), Pitlai (perhaps a corruption of patal bhaji) or my fave punching bag.. 'Kathrikkai Rasavangi' (Vangi by definition is eggplant in marathi, why repeat, its like saying Chai tea!!)

  38. Good post my dear friend ..i am so proud to be a Thanjavur maratian !!!..and i love sappak pitla ..!!

  39. Prema P11:11 PM

    Happy to read this post, being a TM myself. Just a small comment; "Sappak" refers to the absence of "Ambat" or sour (usually of tamarind) and not to "not spicy" . In fact, it can be made quite spicy if more pepper is added. Normally, we do not add jeera and ginger, but I would sure like to try out this recipe.

    Anyway, my daughter and I simply love this curry. Apart from ridge-gourd which has been mentioned in the recipe, we can also use cubed bottle-gourd (dudhi/lauki), or finely chopped broad beans (paapdi, Tamil: Avarekkai) or finely chopped Spinach (palak).

  40. Anonymous2:31 AM

    Hi Ashwin I being a tanjore maharastrian would like to give you guest posts on some of the cuisines, can i get your contact email.

    1. Hello, please write to us on ahaarmail@gmail.com. Looking forward. Thanks!


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