It took a while to manage an interview with Sangeet Natak Akademi award-winner and Lavani performer Shakuntala Nagarkar or Shakuntalabai even though we had two phone numbers that could indirectly reach her. This was after we came across a snippet of information detailing how to place an order for Pune-based Nagarkar's kaala masala, an earthy dark spice blend with a heady aroma. When we finally called her on her personal number, she nonchalantly asked, "But what will you write about this?"
Yogita Kale prepares the spices for the masala; (right) Kaala masala
Kaala masala isn't a new story for Shakuntalabai; it's an everyday kitchen essential. But when writer and director Bhushan Korgaonkar tasted the spicy mix and encouraged her to sell it, she dismissed it. "Everyone knows about this Maharashtrian masala, so I wondered who would buy it? Preparing and selling it requires a lot of effort, and is an expensive affair. But Bhushan told me to at least try it before worrying about it. He said if no one buys it, we can use the masala at home ourselves. He had a point," the 63-year-old tells us. Confident about her masala, and testing the art of business, Nagarkar prepared just a few kilograms of the blend to kick off the venture during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
"My family has been making kaala masala for generations; I used to watch my mother and aunts make it, and that's how I learnt. We eat it at home every day. I offered some to Bhushan to taste; he liked it and shared it with a few others," she recalls.
The masala takes nearly five days to prepare. The process begins with drying all the ingredients, starting with chopped onions. Components like mirchi, jeera, dhaniya, laung, dalchini and a few other spices that may vary, come together to form this strong, spicy masala that gets its dark colour from cumin and cinnamon. After the interview, we rush to the kitchen to stick our nose into a bottle of kaala masala to see if it matches the thought-up aroma and taste that follows Nagarkar's brief description. The aroma confirms what she says - this mixture compliments all recipes including dals, pulaos, and bhajis, but goes best with non-vegetarian dishes. We can imagine a spicy mutton curry, which happens to be Nagarkar's favourite way to use the masala.
Shraddha Nagarkar and Yogita Kale
Her daughter-in-law Yogita Kale helps her prepare the masala, while Kale, and Nagakar's daughter, Shraddha, who is also a Lavani performer, look after its sale. All this familial help ensures the venture doesn't keep the Lavani queen, as she is known, away from practice and performances. She has a tour of workshops and shows in Delhi and Kolkata in June. "Apart from being a Lavani artiste, this is also a chance to do something new. I can't stay young forever. When age sets in, what will I do sitting at home? For now, I still have shows to perform," Shakuntalabai signs off.
Â£4 tablespoons kaala masala Â£2 to 3 garlic pods, finely chopped Â£Half an onion, finely chopped Â£1 tablespoon crushed peanuts Â£Coriander Â£1 to 2 tablespoons groundnut oil Â£Salt to taste
Mix all the ingredients well until you get a paste. The measurements are suggestions and you can alter proportions based on preference. If you want the chutney to last a few days, add fewer onions and garlic as compared to the amount of masala you use.
Cost: Rs 1,500/kg