Actor Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s book is more than a compilation of recipes. It captures the history and the culture of the Konkan coast
I take a deep breath. And start again. This time I’m equipped with a map, a notepad and a ball point pen. Who would have thought a cook book would require so much work? After all Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s A Sense For Spice: Recipes and Stories from a Konkan Kitchen promised to be just another glossy cookbook, with its slick photographs, neat recipes and conventional cover picture (Tara smiling into the camera victoriously holding aloft an aesthetically pleasing light green murruku.)
Wait. Hold on for a minute while I try to banish ‘Waltzing Matunga,’ currently on ‘repeat’ in my head. Tara’s done a lot of other film and TV work, but I’ll always remember her as that charming girl from Kaizad Gustad’s 1998 movie Bombay Boys who danced to the deliciously cheesy song (based on Australia’s much loved Waltzing Matilda) with Rahul Bose.
It’s difficult to match that bohemian heroine with the voice of A Sense of Spices. As an author she’s astute, incisive and intelligent. Her book purposefully moves away from the idea of a ‘cook book’ as a mere recipe repertoire and explores it as a medium to convey a story, a culture and a history.
Which brings me back to my map, book and pen. Indian history is already a tangled web, with its many invaders, explorers and conquerors. Tara tells the story of her community, and the Konkan region armed with research that goes right back to the Puranas, which tell of a migration of 250 families in 2000-1500 B.C. They came through the Hindukush Mountains and farmed along the Saraswati river. Her story then moves all the way through forced migrations, the Portuguese invasion and the arrival of Dutch, Arab and Persian traders till it reaches contemporary India.
While Tara’s book might look like just another addition to the massive collection of new regional Indian cookbooks, it’s an interesting case study. She bravely plunges into a fairly niche cuisine, featuring completely unfamiliar recipes with unusual spices instead of playing it safe and ferreting out favourites. She doesn’t try sexing it up with edgy photography, gimmicky writing and short-cuts. And she doesn’t insult the reader by dumbing it down. Instead she supports the recipes with a meticulously researched section explaining why the people from the Konkan coast cook the way they do.
“It was four years of research,” says Tara, adding “And it was so hard to find sources and manuscripts.” She adds, “In the U.S., if you want to publish a food book, you have a choose a genre: food history, food memoirs or a recipe book. But when I first met my publisher I said, ‘I can’t make this a just recipe book. I need to have the academia. It explains the background.’ And she said, ‘You must also have a personal story.’ In that sense this book is unusual. It has all three.”
The recipes benefit from the fact that Tara has been cooking professionally for nine years. They’re not always easy, but they’re unfailingly practical. After getting married in 2001, she moved to Boston. “I travelled back and forth between Mumbai and Boston for a year and a half to complete film and TV commitments. When I finally decided to stop travelling, I found I had nothing to do.” She adds, “I cooked a lot at home, so someone suggested I apply for a job at a local cooking school.” Horrified by how inauthentic Indian food in Boston was, (“They use Bisquick for gulab jamuns”) she decided to teach students about regional Indian cooking. “Konkani, Malayali, Bengali… I’d also do food like Khow Suey and momos.”
Realising that in India too, people know very little about Konkan food, she decided to document the cuisine, starting with the recipes of her mother and grandmothers. “It’s not familiar food. But that’s not an insurmountable difficulty. Indians love food. If it tastes good, they are open to everything. Besides, the staples are all there — dal, vegetables, wheat, rice, fish.” Dosas too. “People don’t associate Konkan cooking with the dosa. We call it pole and have 60-70 kinds, with all types of batter: Jackfruit, water melon rind, arrow root…”
The Konkan coast, runs from Raigad on India’s western coast to Mangalore. It encompasses three states: Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. The cuisine is incredibly diverse, because it includes so many different groups of people. “A lot of the community are migrants,” says Tara, explaining how the Konkan is peopled by Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Parsis and Jews. “To me it is very interesting how geography influences what people eat, and how people in turn influence the geography.”