The Konkan culinary kaleidoscope
Though the Konkani-speaking community is bewildering heterogenous, powerful culinary undercurrents connect across all caste, class and sectarian divides. A look at some cookbooks that document the cuisines of the KonkanUpdated: Jul 11, 2020 21:53 IST
Ethnographic singularities abound in the Konkan. Famously open to the world throughout history, this narrow (never more than 50 kilometers wide) coastline on the Arabian Sea has peacefully absorbed waves of settlers over millennia.
This is where Zoroastrian refugees from Iran - who became the Parsis - initially established themselves, in Sanjan (now Gujarat) in the 7th century. Earlier, possibly as far back as the Seleucid expansion into Palestine 2200 years ago, came the Bene Israelis, the oldest Jewish diaspora of India. There are Africa-derived Siddhi clusters, and the wildly dispersed ‘Kokani’ Muslims part-descended from Arab migrants (over 40,000 now live in Cape Town alone). Another recent incursion seems to have created the Chitpavan brahmins whose presence was first recorded at the cusp of the 18th century.
As traditionally understood, the Konkan spills up from the shoreline into the Western Ghats, and through the lush hills beyond until they yield to the Deccan plains. But political vicissitudes and the exigencies of colonialism imposed partitions, and it is revealing Konkani is the only language in the world in daily use in five scripts: Latin, Perso-Arabic, Devanagiri, Malayalam and Kannada.
But even if bewildering heterogeneity characterizes Konkani communal and ethnic sub-divisions, powerful culinary undercurrents connect across all caste, class and sectarian divides. Everyone relishes seafood, accompanied by locally grown rice and coconuts. Their collective palate also displays the universal preference for tangy sourness, attained variously from kokum (garcinia indica is indigenous), green mangoes, tamarind, tirphal (the local cousin of Sichuan peppercorn), hog plums, bilimbi or vinegar.
Perhaps understandably, given the sheer enormity of this cultural landscape, no serious compendious attempt has documented its confluential cuisines. Instead, there are piecemeal cookbooks rooted in individual community perspectives, often featuring identical ingredients reassembled kaleidoscopically to reflect pressing specificities and proclivities. Each provides only a tantalizing keyhole glimpse of the whole.
Jyotsna Shahane’s The Classic Konkan Cookbook - is an exceptionally well-conceived addition to this bookshelf, with its conceptual spine provided by Narayani Nayak’s 1952 classic Cookery Craft (previously augmented and republished as 500 Easy Recipes in 1962). However, it also illustrates the drawback of writing and rewriting food books from what ethnologists call circumscribed “culture provinces.” Blind spots become institutionalized.
Thus, Shahane tells us Nayak’s book, highly creditably, “is notable because the recipes are not particular to any caste or region; they span the cuisine of the entire Konkani-speaking community” even while making the glaring error that it predates “all other Konkani cookbooks by a good 15 years.” In fact, for just one example, several volumes of the bilingual English/Konkani The Goan Cook’s Guide Vo Goan Cuzneracho Sangat were published by Pedro Damiao Dias in Bombay from 1894 onwards.
Leaving aside that quibble, The Classic Konkan Cookbook does range delightfully through regional specialities, from the intensely flavourful Mangalorean kori gassi chicken curry to six varieties of dosas (Jackfruit seed! Cucumber! Banana!), and features an excellent compilation of cooking terms (eg: “Kootu is a thick curry with dal and vegetables as the main ingredients and with a little coconut masala added”). I especially liked the five language glossary: Prawns/jhinga are sigadi in Kannada, sungat in Konkani, and kolambi in Marathi.
Shahane’s roots are not in the Konkan (Nayak’s were, from Udupi in Karnataka) but her meticulous approach is one of the hallmarks of the region. The late celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz - who died in March from Covid-19 - once told me with great pride, “the West now talks about sustainability, but we always practised it.” As Shahane writes, “nothing was wasted. Every part of vegetable or fruit was used. Stalks, leaves and peels were used to great effect in curries, chutneys and pickles. In a country where many do not have enough to eat, this resonated with me.”
Another praiseworthy dimension to The Classic Konkan Cookbook is its inclusion of suitably representative non-vegetarian recipes, including three for beef, although Nayak deployed the euphemism “meat”, and Shahane has retained it. In fact, Konkanis relish everything from wild boar to fruit bat (yes, it’s not just Wuhan) alongside every possible fish, crustacean and bivalve. Next to possibly only Nagaland, there’s no region in India less vegetarian.
Unfortunately, while all that glorious omnivorousness persists unabated, modern-day brahminical revivalism forces its acknowledgement into the shadows. This is an India-wide problem, but particularly stark in the Konkan coast’s long stretches in Maharashtra, where the most basic food habits are being effectively effaced.
Thus, the one drawback to Saee Koranne-Khandekar’s impressively encyclopedic, and otherwise absolutely brilliant Pangat, A Feast: Food and Lore from Marathi Kitchens is its conspicuously perfunctory inclusion of meat and fish. There are only a bare handful of mutton and chicken recipes, and the seafood section comprises precisely eleven (by contrast, my battered, beloved 20-year-old Traditional Taste of Goa by Kumudini Usgaokar and Shama Sardesai includes well over a hundred, with another dozen for different kinds of vegetables with prawns added to them).
Koranne-Khandekar’s book was launched at the 2019 Goa Arts + Literature Festival, where I am the co-curator along with the eminent Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo. She was an outstanding delegate, with an exhaustive mastery of the foods of Maharashtra as well as their cultural, social and political context. That remarkable wealth of expertise is showcased marvellously in her book, with meticulously researched sections on regions, communities, equipment, techniques, staples, and diverting essays on “recipes and rhymes” and “taste crafts.”
Of course, its Konkan districts are only part of India’s third largest state. Maharashtra is the same size as Italy, with twice the population, and far greater culinary complexity. Koranne-Khandekar writes, “In an effort to show myself and, eventually, anyone willing to listen, that there are unplumbed depths to Marathi food, I set out to read about (and eat!) as much as I could of the fare that Maharashtra has to offer.” Eventually, she moved online, “to rediscover the various sub-cuisines of the state and understand them in the context of topography and produce, historical background and migratory patterns, and literature.”
That 2015 move was in the thick of an unprecedented trend of - mainly women – passionate home chefs, scholars and professionals flocking to the Internet to discuss, debate, and celebrate food. In this exponential expansion of the culinary media universe (Shahane is another pioneer blogger), our knowledge of the spectacular diversity of the subcontinent exploded in all directions. All this is in Pangat, as Koranne-Khandekar ranges very widely from Khandesh to Marathwada and Vidarbha, and back to the coast, about which she accurately writes, “the variety of cuisines available through the length of the Konkan is mind-boggling.”
Coincidentally, exactly when I began to read Koranne-Khandekar’s book, I received the distinguished historian Fatima da Silva Gracias’s quirky and absorbing Cozinha de Goa: A Glossary on Food . The two readings flowed productively into each other, different approaches to similar storehouses of personal experience and research.
While her book contains too many typos to be entirely forgivable, Dr Gracias has compiled an invaluable repository of fascinating facts across contexts, and also admirably states up front “it does not claim to be all comprehensive, it would be difficult to do so given our composite culture.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival