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Preserving the legacy

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Women play a major role in keeping traditional Konkani cuisine alive, says Ronita Torcato

Know someone who lives to eat but can't stand cooking? We do. Do women really, truly enjoy cooking? Maybe, maybe not. Who would enjoy slaving away in the kitchen? Men, the poor sweet dears, decided that the kitchen is a woman's domain and have dominated the food industry. Since anger and resentment is bad for mind, body and spirit, it makes sense to nourish a positive attitude. Let us then appreciate the starred hotels, stand-alone  high end or pocket-friendly restaurants,homestays, assorted individuals, and women home chefs in particular, who do their bit to promote the joys of eating the less-renowned cuisines like the one to which yours truly can stake claim. KONKANI.

It's interesting that some meagrely informed folks associate Western coastal cuisine with that most blessed spot called Goa-ah! but let it be asserted herein, the Konkan coast boasts a cuisine as rich and diverse as its language,  the only Indian language, we would have you know, which is written in five different scripts—Devnagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam and Persian-Arabic.

Celebrity chef Archana Arte who conducts classes on Marathi language cookery shows (check her out on Youtube) thinks Konkani cuisine is "getting more and more popular".  We heartily endorse. Last year, the Westin was the venue of the first Flavours from Home, a chef’s mela curated by food writer Mini Ribeiro, who focused on Goan, Sindhi and Maharashtrian home chefs. Ribeiro hopes to make it an annual event and take it to other cities too.

The year 2019 has commenced with a fine start  showcasing Konkani aromas, tastes  and textures  at  the on-going 8th Global Konkan International Festival which concludes on January 6 at the Goregaon Exhibition Centre. Organised by the Konkan Bhumi Pratishthan to promote the  Konkan region, which has, give or take, 10,000 years of rich historical heritage, GKIF  was kickstarted by the first ever Village Tourism Festival in five Virar villages—Arnala, Ainshet , Chowl and Ambivali.

In these villages, the cuisine is ‘East Indian’ after the community, which takes its name from the erstwhile British colonial entity and Koli, whose Bombay Duck  marinated with masala and then coated with semolina and shallow fried, rules the roost in Mangalorean eateries.  We specify Mangalorean since the Konkan coast stretches over the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala and the food varies from place to place, along with the Konkani language which changes every couple of hundred kilometres.

Ergo, Konkani food can be categorised as the afore-mentioned Mangalorean, East Indian, Goan, Karwari, Malvani, Saraswat and, let's not forget, the Konkani Muslims, whose food, like the Goan Christian, blends  local with historical influences. Muslim dynasties preceded the Portuguese conquistadors  who ruled Goa for 450 years and many Catholic dishes are either similar to or variants of their Portuguese counterparts in  names or their use of ingredients like chillies, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, guavas, and cashews all of  which the Portuguese brought from Brazil to Goa and Bombaim (now Mumbai). No self-respecting Goan Catholic will avoid the Portuguese-inspired Fish Recheado (vinegar-infused spice paste) coconutty Chicken Xacuti, tangy-sweet Ambotik; Sorpotel, a spicy pork dish eaten with sannas (steamed rice cakes) or vindaloo, a spicy curry traditionally made with pork, whose name is derived from the Portuguese terms vinho e alho or vinha d'alhos.

The Portuguese also introduced the chourizo, a spicy pork sausage best relished with pão (Goan bread) Their culinary influence can be seen in far-away Malaysia whose dhol-dhol (coconut milk-jaggery confection) is exactly like the Goan. In the Konkan, the Arab influence   can be  found in the use of fennel seeds for curries, and  fried baingan (aka eggplant). Arabs fry their baingan in olive oil, Goans like to dunk Vangyache Kap in salt-and-peppered egg batter before shallow-frying. Both interpretations are equally yummy. Home cooks Mumtaz Kazi  Pawaskar and  Sameera Gawandi, Konkani Muslims from Ratnagiri have showcased their unique Arabic-influenced meals in Mumbai, whose diverse localities including the queen of the suburbs Bandra have any number of home chefs who prepare tiffins with authentic dishes to appease one’s craving for home-cooked Konkani food.  

Like Nafisa Kapadia and her son Munaf who quit Google to start the (really successful) culinary venture called The Bohri Kitchen, siblings Veena Raut and Neena Save are home chefs who tasted success working out of home kitchens, and are taking the professional route, but personally doing all the cooking at their Kosbad (Dahanu) homestay (Hillview Farmhouse) where guests can enjoy delicacies like Kombdi Masala and Prawn Fry. Guests can also gorge on chicken dishes labelled Bhujing and Zingat  as well as Vegetable Gaavran redolent of masalas which they make themselves. The Bohri Kitchen was invited to the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre and Hotel to conjure a Ramzan repast; JW Marriott featured Bawi Bride for its Parsi food festival. Who knows where Raut-Save could go from their Hillview organic plantation of chickoo, mango, and coconuts which are Konkan staples?

"We use a lot of coconut milk so there is no need to use lots of oil," says Arte, who holds that Goa and Karwar exert the most influence on Konkani cuisine. All Konkanis, regardless of region, use coconut oil, which is the Western model-actor’s new darling for, don't exhale, skin care. Coconuts are plentiful in the Konkan, which is blessed with bountiful rain, as well as rice (no prizes for guessing the all-time favourite comfort food is xhitth-kodi) kokum, jackfruit, cashew and gourds of all kinds. And as for the fruits of the sea, Konkanis are spoilt for choice with succulent fish  like Bangada (mackerel), sharkfish, kingfish, Tarala (sardines), Paplet (pomfret) also sungta (prawns) and squids which are great for vinegar-infused balchao and a large  variety of shellfish like Kuryo (crabs) Tisrya (clams) zob (mussels) and oysters.

Preserving the legacy
Kokum, amsan (tamarind) and kairi (raw mango, both fresh and sun-dried) are frequently used in their dishes. The masalas are usually made of dry red chillies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, ginger, and garlic.  Xhitth-kodi usually containing fish dominates mealtimes.  Xhitth goes into the mid-morning kanji which is a health booster as much as nachani (Konkani  for ragi) and iron-rich tambdi bhaji (amaranthus) which tastes best with potato (sweet or regular).

No Konkani food experience though is complete without sol kadhi, a spicy drink which doubles as an appetiser and post meal digestive. Its ingredients contain kokum, coconut milk, green chillies, garlic and coriander. Desserts are usually made from rice flour, semolina, coconut, and jaggery. Some of these are are embellished with cardamom and nuts. Eggs go into Goan sweets like bathke and bebinca, the multi-layered baked pudding. Patoleo,  a sweet made by stuffing turmeric leaves with  dal, jaggery, and coconut is made by Goan Christians on Independence Day and by Mangaloreans during Gowri Pooja, Ganesh Chaturthi and Naga Panchami.

Spreading the good word about Konkani cuisine is actress and food writer, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum in her book A Sense for Spice, Recipes and Memories of a Konkan Kitchen, which spotlights recipes including those from her grandmother's hand written recipe books. ‘From Aaji's Kitchen - Bliss on Plate’ is the aptly titled trip down memory lane by Anagha Ramakant Desai  who has compiled "favourite recipes which we like to eat and serve the way our elders did.This is the way my grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, aunts used to cook."

In her book Goan Cooks and Chefs, Dr Teresa Albuquerque cites Samuel T. Sheppard, a chronicler who said Caitan, the Goan chef of the exclusive European Byculla Club during the 1960s, or a compatriot  was responsible for the introduction into this elite club of a delightful drink,  called ‘Goa Gin’– which  probably had a feni base. Another Englishman refers to Bootlair Saheb–Anglice, the butler in Behind the Bungalow, written around 1879: "Our grandfathers used to have Parsee butlers in tall hats to wait upon them, but that race is now extinct. The butler on this side of India is now a Goanese (who)  has a sound practical knowledge of all our viands…”

Let's leave the summing up to Archana Arte who asserts that Konkani cuisine is "easy, uncomplicated, and very tasty". Her favourite dishes are untrammelled joys: bangda thikle (pungently spiced mackerel)  and ambyacha sasav (a pickle  made with coconut and jaggery). Like moi, she'd love the story of Miguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas, better known as Masci of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, who started as a kitchen-boy at 15, worked his way up to tower over—for 62 years—the Taj F & B   where he introduced into its cordon-bleu menu, sungtachi koddi.

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