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The taste of Konkan

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Home chef-turned-author Anagha Desai speaks about her quest to revive long-lost Konkani cuisine

Anagha Desai is serving up a storm while trying to preserve a legacy. Her book, From Aaji’s Kitchen (₹ 990; 230 pages), is a collection of ‘long-lost’ recipes from the Konkanaimed at anyone who loves spicy, finger-licking coastal cuisine. What’s more, the recipes are easy to prepare, making them appealing to everyone, including young people who love cooking as much as they do eating this tangy fare.

Ambadyacha raita, alambichi bhaji, dadpepohe, tikhatdhondus, ripe mangorayate, shiravlya…” she reels off, to get your taste buds singing. “Konkani food specialises in spices and flavours. Every Konkani recipe has a different flavour depending on the spices used—red chillies, coriander seeds, garam masala, coconut—and its preparation. In certain foods, spices are used in the beginning while tempering; in others, they are added at the end to balance flavours. Similarly, the taste depends on the right time to stir; some recipes are stirred throughout and others are stirred only in the end.”

Born in Sawantwadi, a village in coastal Maharashtra, Desai grew up in Mumbai but visited her maternal grandmother in her hometown every summer. On these sojourns, she slowly learnt the ropes of cooking. “From an early age, I observed her cooking,” recalls the 70 year-old debutant author. “She cooked on an open fire and never allowed anyone near it. But as I was interested in cooking, she would allow me to assist in simple tasks as she prepped and cooked. Her elaborate method of preparation made the dishes turn out delicious.To date, no one in the family can make mutton curry the way she used to. And her chapattis were soft and silky.”

In 1974, Desai married late Indian cricketer Ramakant Desai and learnt more tricks of Konkani cuisine from her mother-in-law. “I can say that I learnt how to cook from my grandmother but the real finesse in my culinary skills came from my mom-in-law,” she reveals. “She would sit beside the stove early morning and cook and the rest of us—my sisters-in-law and I—assisted her in cutting and chopping. Stirring the dishes was her domain and she never allowed anyone to touch the ladle as she thought we would not do it properly!”

Desai rues that most people think Konkani food is about sol kadhior fish curry; she was determined to change that perception. The seeds of her cookbook were sown with the need for a blueprint of Konkani recipes for the younger generation. “Once, my nieces and nephews had gathered at our place and the late-night conversation turned to Konkani food and how they missed the traditional foods prepared by their grandmother,” she shares. “That’s when the idea of collecting and standardising the recipes occurred to me.”

In a quest to revive Konkani cuisine, she collated 100 recipes on the verge of extinction and self-published her book in October 2018. It’s been two months now and the book has received great feedback from food lovers and connoisseurs across Mumbai, including family and friends.

In conversation with Rachna Virdi, Anagha Desai looks back at her memories from childhood and special Konkani foods and flavours. Excerpts from the interview:

Please tell us about your culinary initiation.

I was always interested in cooking. I was very attached to my mother and grandmother, who ultimately became my inspiration to learn to cook. Accompanying my grandmother in the kitchen is my earliest memory of food. I was about three or four years old when I was first acquainted with food and how it is prepared. I used to observe how they made the dishes, cut the vegetables or fish, and tempered the dals. Watching them methodically prepare, taste, correct and cook the food was my initiation.

How did your interest in cooking turn into a passion?

I grew up to become a chemist with Agmark Laboratory and my work involved analysis of oils, spices, etc, that helped me understand their composition. I was able to utilise my professional knowledge in the kitchen. I got married to Ramakant Desai, who introduced me to other Indian tastes and cuisines. That exposure spurred my desire to cook.

You have mentioned that you learnt to prepare authentic Konkani food from your mother-in-law….

Yes, she was particular about every single aspect of cooking, right from the way a simple onion is cut to how long to temper whole spices and the right way to prepare the masala. Other than my family, my mother-in-law and co-sister [brother-in-law’s wife] have been a huge influence on my cooking. I lived with my co-sister for 17 years; I have a lot of memories of cooking Konkani specialties along with her. She was instrumental in making me write down the precise measurements of ingredients along with instructions, which I have saved over the years. I have therefore added her name to certain recipes. Interestingly, she learnt most of the cooking from my mother-in-law’s mother-in-law! Indeed, the recipes in the cookbook are all unique; they have been handed down three generations and have retained their original flavour. For instance, the Konkani sol kadhi recipe is prepared with the fresh fruit of kokam, and hence tastes a hundred times better.

What are the main takeaways from Konkani style cooking? Have the recipes been modified over the years?

Konkani food is simple, easy to prepare and extremely flavourful. Some may say it is extremely spicy and fiery but the use of coconut in its various forms makes it soothing to the palate. The recipes haven’t been modified heavily. But as the family migrated from the original village of Vengurle to Sawantwadi, a few changes did take place as some recipes were not made regularly owing to lack of ingredients or were slowly forgotten.

Launching the book must be a nostalgic journey for you.

Yes, it’s like a wonderful trip down memory lane—discussing recipes, rare ingredients and finger-licking flavours from childhood. It took me nearly three years to compile the recipes from my mother, aunt, sisters-in-law and my own cooking diaries. Conducting the photo shoot was also a huge task as I had to keep almost eight to 10 recipes ready in a day; we had decided to prepare the food at home so it appears simple and authentic. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of creating the book.

From Aaji’s Kitchen is a collector’s book that can be cherished by all!

It is perfect for today’s generation that goes to restaurants to eat Konkani food as they think it is hard to prepare or do not know the ingredients and preparation. The recipes can be followed by anyone as the instructions are simple and easy to understand. Also, it is in English, so it can reach a wider audience and people other than Konkanis can also prepare and enjoy the delicious food. If one follows the steps exactly as the book stipulates, the recipe will turn out as tempting as the photos!

What is your favourite recipe from the list?

My favourite recipe is methichepole, a pancake-like dish which is sweet and bitter owing to the use of fenugreek seeds. Everyone in my family loves the mutton curry recipe that is inspired by my grandmother’s cooking.

In modern times, where global cuisine dominates palates, how will this book interest the audience? What other foods do you dabble in?

I believe great recipes are simple and easy to make. Also, if a certain cuisine is presented properly, it will be liked by all. Konkani food is vast; there’s so much more to offer food lovers. I’m sure my efforts to showcase authentic Konkani cuisine will be successful. Besides Konkani food, I cook Chinese and Thai food. My pan-roast chicken recipe and yellow Thai curry are a huge hit. I can safely say I prepare the best sambar too.

How has age impacted your work over the years?

Age has impacted my cooking in a positive way owing to the experience of so many years added to my skills. It was only after retirement that I was able to concentrate on the nuances of cooking. I still enjoy cooking daily.

Anagha Desai’s favourite recipe


(Fenugreek pancake with sweet coconut milk)


For the pancake

  • Rice: 2 cups
  • Chana dal (split gram): ½ cup
  • Uraddal (split black gram): ¼ cup
  • Pohe (flattened rice): 1 cup
  • Fenugreek seeds: 2 tbsp
  • Cumin seeds: ½ tsp
  • Fresh coconut: ¼ cup; grated
  • Turmeric powder: ½ tsp
  • Salt to taste
  • Water as required
  • Oil as required

For the sweetened coconut milk

  • Fresh coconut: 3 cups; grated
  • Jaggery: 1 cup
  • Cardamom powder: ½ tsp
  • Nutmeg powder: ¼ tsp
  • A pinch of salt
  • Water as required


For the pancake

Soak the rice, chana dal, uraddal and fenugreek seeds separately in sufficient water overnight. In the morning, soak the pohe in sufficient water 30 minutes before grinding all the ingredients. Drain the water and grind the rice, chana dal, urad dal, pohe and fenugreek seeds separately, adding a little water to facilitate grinding. Grind the grated coconut and cumin seeds together. Take a large vessel and add the ground pastes, salt and turmeric powder. Mix well and cover with a lid and allow it to rest for 5-6 hours or till the batter swells to double. Heat a flat cast-iron griddle; set it to medium-low and grease it with oil. Now pour a ladle full of ground batter on it, spread and cover it with a lid. Allow one side to cook for a few minutes, then flip and cook the other side too. Make more pancakes and set aside.

For the sweetened coconut milk

Mix grated coconut and water to extract coconut milk. Dissolve the jaggery completely in coconut milk and strain. Add salt, cardamom powder and nutmeg powder. Stir and mix well.

For serving

Place a pancake in a deep dish. Pour sweetened coconut milk over it to immerse it completely. Serve.

Note: You can also use readily available coconut milk but dilute it to the desired consistency.

December 2018