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A Sense For Spice

Posted: May 23, 2013

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum shares some delectable recipes and interesting stories from her grandmother’s traditional Konkan kitchen in A Sense For Spice.

Review by Anjana Basu

As time moves on and India modernizes, we are in danger of losing touch with our old ways. In the kitchen, mixer grinders are taking over from pestles and mortars and, unless you’re a real foodie, convenience is the name of the game. In this India, the response to this trend has been to delve into family kitchens and bring out recipes and, if possible, the stories associated with them.

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum has run a cookery show on a PBS channel in the US and spends her life between Mumbai and New York. A Sense For Spice is her introduction to her grandmother’s kitchen and the rich world of Konkan food; a world which snakes down the narrow coastline of Maharashtra to the south.

Konkan cuisine, declares Deshpande, introduced dosas to India, though Tamil Nadu continues to stake its claim on the dish. The cuisine is rich in Portuguese, South Indian and even North Indian influences, wherever the sword edged strip of land touches. There is coconut galore, chillies, fish, different types of gravy bases, both sweet and sour, flatbread recipes borrowed from the Nizams of the south and a world of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine to be explored.

Deshpande first met Konkan food in her grandmother’s kitchen in her huge, old family house and fell in love with Indian food at a very early age, despite an occasionally cosmopolitan diet with the usual colonial chops and puddings thrown in.

The book therefore begins with the story of her grandparents, the Admiral and his wife, and like most traditional Indian marriages, it is a story of efficient food management – the Admiral going to buy the fish, something most Bengalis will be familiar with – and the wife marshalling the pots and pans in the kitchen. Traditional Indian kitchens have the same rules of women eating after the men and vegetarian wives learning to cook the non-vegetarian dishes that please their husbands. She does of course describe her grandfather’s retired life, pottering around in the garden, going for long walks, sitting for his two pegs in the evening. The women in the community get together in her grandmother’s house to make poles (pancakes, related to dosas) because her grandmother has the grinding machine, so preparing the crepes becomes a weekend activity with the women all lending a hand and finally sharing out the batter.

There is a handy glossary at the back of the book which translates unfamiliar phrases – even more useful because many of the recipes come from Deshpande’s grandmother’s handwritten sheets. She has adapted them to the modern kitchen where concepts of andaaz and pinches of this spice and that do not apply.

Though the blurb says Deshpande’s story covers three generations, it is mainly restricted to her grandmother’s generation and its effect on the family’s eating habits and one could have wished for more story telling. The recipes will however delight food aficionados and provide them with a handy reference for Konkan cuisine.

Publishers: Westland

Now dear readers, a book giveaway for you!

Simply answer this: What is your favourite memory from your mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen?

Just leave your answer as a comment below – and the best comment wins a copy of Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s A Sense For Spice!

Please note: Only 1 comment per person. The book can only be sent to a valid address in India. Giveaway closes on 9 AM IST 29th May 2013.

So what are you waiting for? Comment away!


A Sense For Spice Book Winner

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  1. My grandfather expired before my mother got married and hence I have memories of only my grandmother – my dearest aita. The ancestral house was a huge one, occupied by two uncles and their families and of course, my aita. The kitchen used to be a separate block altogether, with very high ceilings and small skylights. After my grandfather’s death, aita took up a separate space within the kitchen premises and nobody was allowed to enter it, except us children. I still remember seeing her sitting on a low flat stool and stirring the kadai, the room engulfed in delicious aroma and the smoke wafting up towards the skylight. Although she had two daughters-in-law she prefered to do most of the cooking by herself. While there was provision for gas cooking (used by my aunts), she continued to use firewood, blowing the fire through a long hollow bamboo to adjust the heat. Her small kitchen space used to be choc-a-bloc with beautiful glistening utensils and a myriad collection of spice bottles, which intrigued us a lot. My favourite memory is of my grandmother calling my surreptitiously to her kitchen within a kitchen and passing me a small plate of fried fish. “Here, have it,” she would whisper. “And don’t tell anyone.” I was always the special grandchild of hers.

  2. No dessert till date is able to beat the melt in the mouth ‘yellow sweet rice’ prepared by my mom!

  3. sudhamathew10 -

    My Ammachi was a fab cook but not obsessed with the details. She had a kitchen garden and several cows and goats. So if an unsuspecting neighbour or relative came by the house, after some time that poor lady would be stirring the curry and watching the rice. While Ammachi would be out at the cowshed. Despite this trick of hers, the food at her table was always good. Till today, coconut in an omelette reminds me of Ammachi. I wish I had been interested in cooking when I was younger and had learnt from her. It’s all gone with her.

  4. All that i crave to eat is the ‘Idlis with peanut garlic chutney’ prepared by my mom. Its been my favorite from the childhood days and i remember myself demanding them to be packed for my tiffin box very often. She would love to prepare it for me since moms always love their kids demanding healthy and nutritious food. The soft and fluffy texture of those idlis is something i don’t find anywhere other than those prepared by my mom and the flavor of the peanut garlic chutney is very rare to find in this modern India. I strongly believe that we need to appreciate and preserve the richness and authenticity of our ‘Indian’ food which is actually know for its flavor and is considered as a royal food in some countries. I love the Indian culinary and would like to contribute to its growth if i get chance anytime.

  5. I am Venkat, and I am slowly getting passionate about cooking. Of late, I have made a few Konkani friends, I want to impress them with my culinary skills ! I would be very happy if I get the copy of the book, so that I can learn Konkan cooking. Thanks ! 🙂

  6. Winter weekend mornings in Pune 50 years ago. Fresh from doing suryanamaskars, and I would be at the dining table along with my younger brother, inhaling some amazing flavours of grains roasting and butters melting into ghee. My mother would be making fresh dashmis (bhakri(jowar roti, with the dough made with milk , not water)). Made by tapping and not rolling, roasted on a tawa and then fire, they would appear one by one, halved, the pockets emanating steam, on the shining steel plates as they gleamed in the morning sun. White butter extracted freshly from a buttermilk manually churned. A green chutney redolent with mint, coriander and lemon. And a vegetable pickle on the side. Those hankering after sweets could have honey or molasses. Simply melt-in-the-mouth stuff. Sometimes we had delicious potato subji alongside. This was not possible on weekdays when we had early school, so weekends were a treat, as the stuff appeared magically on our plates, again and again, and was imbibed in a delicious silence.

    Many years later, I came for my first delivery to my maternal house. Stayed for a month and more post delivery , and enjoyed this every single morning. Mango season was iminent, and my Mom had made some typical finely chopped mango pickle with lots of zinging mustard masala. There are simply no words to describe the hot dashmis of the tawa, the fresh butter, and wiping the pickle masala off, before popping it into your mouth.

    The speciality of a Dashmi, is that if it is leftover, it becomes sweeter to taste the next day. The joys of having it with lemon pickle are difficult to describe.

    Like the Dashmi, these memories become sweeter as they age. With that tinge of sadness, for those now missing from my life….

  7. Favorite memory would be my Thathi’s Vettha kuzumbh….rich dark brown in colour, tangy, spicy and a dash of sweetness thanks to the jaggery, it was rich in tamarind and whole red chillies. Mixed with hot rice and a big spoon full of ghee, along with an aloo roast curry and papadams, the taste still lingers in the mouth 🙂

    Thathi would make it usually for Sunday afternoon lunch when all of us would be there to savor it 🙂

  8. Macher tok (a very tangy, sweet and sour dish with fish, tamarind and several other ingredients) made by my grand mother from any available fish of the day. My grandfather would have it every single day and my grandmother would never forget/deny cooking this in spite of this being not very easy dish to make. This dish is prepared rarely in my kitchen and I miss having it and my beloved grand parents today. I can list several other many other memories from kitchens of 2 grand mothers but today lets macher tok preside over other memories.

  9. There were no gas stoves in my grandmother’s kitchen. Food was cooked on coal embers. My grandmother blowing through the long hollow iron tube to increase the intensity of the fire (or reduce it) remains one of my fondest memories. She had amazing expertise in controlling the same, and as a young girl, I tried my hand at it once. I blew and blew through the hollow rod until I had no breath left and the coal embers refused to respond to me. My grandmother chuckled at the sight.

    As for the food she cooked–everything she made tasted like heaven.

    It is more than 22 years since I lost her. But the sound of her laughter echoing over the firewood in the kitchen still rings in my ears.

    And as for the food she cooked–it was a slice of heaven.

  10. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. They are precious. And thank you for reading my book A Sense for Spice. For more cooking updates, recipes and memories come visit me at http://www.facebook.com/taradeshpandeofficial

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