I discovered the joys of misal pao way too late in life. Maybe I didn't move in the right circles when I first came to Bombay, or I didn't have the right friends but it took me several years to find this little snack food delight that's native to Maharashtra. So what's misal, you ask? It's a curry made with sprouted lentils, which is then topped with fried savoury snacks called farsan and garnished with raw onions and cilantro. Pretty much always served with a dash of lemon juice and a side of soft buns native to Mumbai - the pao. It's a race against time eating your misal once it is assembled because you want to gobble it all down before the crispy farsan melts into the gravy and gets all soggy.
On a recent trip down the Konkan coast, I ordered misal at every stop on the way and discovered a range of flavours. Some misal paos were spicy, the others delightfully sour. I would caution though against ordering misal if you are headed to Kohlapur - I'm told they make it incredibly spicy out there. If you want to adjust the flavours just as you want it though, do what I did on my return and make the misal yourself. It's a really easy one to make too.
1 cup mixed lentil sprouts
2 tbsp peanut oil (can replace with olive oil)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp hing powder (asafoetida)
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp fresh grated coconut
1 tsp tamarind paste
salt to taste
1/2 cup fried savouries (farsan or bombay namkeen)
1 small onion, chopped finely
handful of cilantro leaves
Steam the lentils until cooked (you can also boil them in plenty of water but I find they retain their flavour better when steamed). In a pan, heat the oil and add cumin and mustard seeds. Wait a minute until they start to splutter than add the hing and turmeric powder. Stir to mix and wait another 30 seconds, then add the steamed lentils, salt and the red chilli powder. Stir to combine everything for about 2-3 minutes, then add the coconut. Cook on a medium heat, stirring all the while, for another minute.
Mix the tamarind paste with 1 cup water and add to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes for the flavours to mingle. Taste, then add more salt/chilli/tamarind according to your taste. Pour into two bowls, top with farsan, chopped onion and cilantro and serve immediately with a slice of lime and pao (or toasted bread/burger buns if you can't find pao)