Konkan, spice and all things nice!

May 17, 2013, 23:21 IST | Dhara Vora

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum's cookbook, A Sense for Spice explores the culinary treasures of the Konkan region on India's West coast through a unique chronicle that whips up recipes, rare ingredients and family stories

Maharashtra, like other Indian states, has a long list of communities based on caste and clans; despite this difference, Marathi and its dialects happen to be the spoken language for most of them. But there is one group, which shares a culinary bond due to their geographic location — Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka (hence, different languages): the Konkan Coast inhabitants.

A palette of spices typical to the Konkan. Represention Pic

A Sense for Spice by Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, aims to introduce readers to this culinary trail along India’s West coast that starts from Raigad in Maharashtra and ends in Mangalore in Karnataka. The author says that for purposes of the book, she has stuck to this region,; however, the exact geography of the coast is arguable (some research books refer to the coast in Karnataka as Kanara coast).

Since, this strip spans these three states, each locality has added its local flavours and resulted in a long list of recipes. The author narrates instead of merely doling out recipes, in story form of the times spent with her grandparents in Belgaum and Karwar.

A Sense For Spice: Recipes and Stories from a Konkan Kitchen, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, Westland, Rs 495. Available at leading bookstores.

Tara gives a sufficiently deep insight into the history of the Konkan coast; the communities which live in these parts; the ingredients found in the region; and essential cooking terms and methods that one needs to know in order to get into the Konkan kitchen. If doubts remain, browse through the exhaustive, informative glossary so you can figure the difference between pohé and pole.

Author Tara Deshpande Tennebaum at a market in her ancestral hometown Karwar. Pic Courtesy / A sense FOR spice, westland books

Excerpts from an interview:

You have earlier written about cooking with chocolate and international ingredients and recipes; what brought you back to your roots?
My parents come from this region and my culinary background lies in the Konkan. It started with me browsing through recipes by my great grandmother and grandmothers, and slowly, a story started to emerge. The recipes belong to them. The cuisine of any region tells you about the cultural, religious and historical background of the region. The Konkan cuisine is just that. The ingredients and the variations of the same recipe in different parts of Konkan will tell you about the background of the community living there. For example, the fish curry made in Goa will uses vinegar and tomato, while that made in Karwar, just outside Goa, uses turmeric and coconut oil.

What were the discoveries that you made while working on the book?
The biggest would be the Udupi cuisine that one would normally term as South Indian food, is a part of Konkan cuisine. You have different versions of idlis, dosas, sambhar and even several dishes that are known to be a part of Kerala’s cuisine. There are dishes with similar names in different regions with different recipes and there are ones with different names in different regions. Take the common Misal — my paternal grandmother from Pune will make it in a different way, but my maternal grandmother from Karwar will have different ingredients. The religious rituals also play a part in the cuisine, for example, Pune will give you a lot of satvik food; some regions will not use tomatoes for a particular dish prepared during the Ganpati festival (the colour red is not used in food during this festival), while another region will have a different ritualistic ingredient.

Which ingredients from the Konkan emerged as your favourites?
There are several ingredients: dagad phool (lichen flower) gives a menthol-like flavour when roasted and used; nagkesar; Marathi moggu, which looks like clove and is very hard to find in local shops. There are different souring agents such as dalimbi (pomegranate) and ambada, grown in the backyards of homes in the Konkan, and pickled triphal. Most are typical to the region. Several seeds and nuts like til (sesame) and peanuts also form an important part of making masalas. 

(Small, Black Hard-Shelled Clam Fritters/ makes 17-20 fritters)

ABOUT THE DISH: These are so unusual you have to try this dish at least once. It's New Orleans meets India. I serve these wadé as finger food without a sauce, just a squeeze of lime to highlight the flavour of the clams. Around 2½-3 kg of clams will give you about 1 cup of clam meat.
1 cup freshly shelled and washed, raw clams or tisri
1½ tsp rice flour
1½ tbsp very finely chopped red or white onions
½ tsp salt or to taste
¼ cup fine semolina or rava/sooji
vegetable oil for frying

Spice paste
½ cup finely grated fresh; or frozen, defrosted, unsweetened coconut
2 tsp Karwari sambhar powder or methkoot or use a commercial sambhar powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder
? tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp tamarind past
>> Squeeze out all the liquid from the clams. Squeeze them several times. The liquid can be added to a fish curry or a seafood stock. Cover and reserve the drained clams in a sieve.
>> Grind the spice paste ingredients to a coarse consistency without any water or oil in a food processor.
>> Stir the clams into the spice paste with the rice flour and pulse just once to incorporate the clams and spices. Do not grind to a paste. The clams must not be whole but they must not be blitzed either.
>> Remove and transfer to a bowl. Mix in the onions and salt to form a loose dough.
>> Put the semolina on a plate.
>> Make small balls, about ¾" wide of the clam mix between your palms and pat each ball in the semolina. Flatten slightly between your palms, till the dough keeps its shape and holds together.
>> Arrange on a plate.
>> Pour 1" of oil into a non-stick frying pan and put it on medium heat. > When the oil is hot, but not smoking, fry the clam fritters till golden and crisp.
>> Drain on paper towels and serve warm with a crisp

(Lentil and Vegetable Stew/ 6 servings)

ABOUT THE DISH: My favourite lentil preparation, this is more like a stew than a curry. This sambhar is much thicker than its famous south Indian cousin with a variety of vegetables including drumsticks, pumpkin, baby aubergine and okra. It’s a wonderful, nutritious meal. Serve it with plain, boiled white or brown rice. Kolombyo is another Konkani-style sambhar with a thinner consistency and fewer vegetables.
250 gms husked, split pigeon
peas or toor/arhar dal
½ cup Karwari sambhar or
Kumta masala powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
2½ tsp granulated or coarse sugar
2 tbsp tamarind paste
3 potatoes, diced into 1" cubes,
soaked in water
250 gms peeled, diced red pumpkin
8-10 pearl or sambhar onions,
peeled (optional)
5 okra or bhindi, washed, dried
completely, sliced lengthwise
8 baby aubergines,
stalks removed, quartered
¼ cup finely chopped fresh
coriander leaves
200 gms baby grape tomatoes or chopped red tomatoes
1½ tsp salt or to taste
5 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 tsp black mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
a pinch of asafoetida powder
4 green chillies,
1½"- 2" long, finely chopped
12 fresh curry leaves, torn
3 tbsp peeled, julienned
fresh ginger root
½ cup finely chopped white onions
>> Wash the dal and drain. Put the dal in a large heavy-bottomed pan that has a tight-fitting lid with the sambhar or Kumta masala powder, turmeric powder, sugar, tamarind paste and 8 cups of water. Cover and boil for about 50 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally.
>> Alternatively, pressure-cook for 20 minutes with 6 cups of water on low heat after the cooker reaches full pressure.
>> Add the potatoes and pumpkin and boil for about 5 minutes or pressure-cook for 3 minutes with 1-2 additonal cups of water.
Add the remaining vegetables and simmer till they are tender and the tomatoes and dal have disintegrated, or pressure-cook for 10 minutes.
>> Put the ghee or oil for tempering in a skillet on high heat. Add the remaining ingredients, except the onions. Cook for 30-60 seconds, till the spices splutter and are fragrant.
>> Add the onions and sauté for 1 minute.
>> Pour the contents of the skillet into the hot dal and stir well.
>> Pour 1 cup of water into the skillet, mop up the spiced oil and pour it over the lentils. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
>> Mix in the salt. Adjust the spices and sugar.
>> Serve hot with plain, boiled, white or brown rice. 

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