A culinary memoir

Food writer, restaurant consultant and chef, Karen Anand‘s new book Masala Memsahib is a delicious piece of work that captures the observations and travel tales that have shaped her sensibilities and tickled her taste buds

October 29, 2022 09:51 am | Updated November 01, 2022 03:25 pm IST

In Karen Anand’s kitchen no one eats with their heads bowed. Camaraderie, conversation and cooking billow into the stirrings of a wholesome mulligatawny, the spice of balchao or the comfort of curry. Food writer, restaurant consultant and chef Karen Anand‘s new book Masala Memsahib published by Pan Macmillan is a museum of portraits and memoirs, embroidered with recipes and their local culinary histories. The book maps Karen’s journey across Goa, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra and West Bengal. 

Karen who has published several books and has co-authored The Penguin Food Lover’s Guide to India and Nepal, is a recipient of the Trophée de l’Esprit Alimentaire Award for Culture from the French Government and the winner of the French Ambassador’s Travel Writer Award.  

In a recent interview, the author spoke about her new book from a healing centre in Kerala. Excerpts:

Q: You are regarded as one of India’s food gurus. But who has been your guru? 

A: No one really. I seek help from people from all walks of life but I’ve followed Claudia Roden who has done a lot of work on Mediterranean-Egyptian cuisine, Ruth Reichl the editor of Gourmet Magazine in the U.S , actress and cook book author Madhur Jaffrey, American chef Anthony Bourdain and food writer MFK Fisher.

Q: How did the idea of a cookbook memoir come to you?

A: I’ve been wanting to do it for a while. I’ve written 17 books and Indian cuisine was never my focus. I was well known for European, health and wellness but I felt there was a need for Indian and I realised I hadn’t done a culinary-memoir of my own. I put together recipes from my own library or those I came across while travelling.

Q: Why the name Masala Memsahib?  

A: It’s just a fun title. In popular culture ‘masala’ is used synonymously with Indian food while in reality it is a combination of ground spices. Whereas, ‘Memsahib’ is a respectful way of denoting a woman of a certain age in India.  

Q: In the book you’ve mentioned that Indian food is misunderstood and mis-represented. Where does this stem from? 

A: It stems from a particular type of restaurant food be it in Delhi or London. Restaurant food is very different. You’ll get your tandoori and biryani but not the kind of food we eat at home. If you’re talking about Europe, the cooks are either Nepali or Bangladeshi and they are told to cook certain things. So, they are not necessarily representing Indian regional food.  

Q: You’ve said that the right balance between ‘taste, health and tradition gets lost’. Why does that happen and what is the culinary response to that? 

A: It gets lost in urban living when people don’t cook traditional food because it takes too long and then resort to curry, pastes and shortcuts. Nothing is wrong with shortcuts but tradition gets lost. We want things quickly; we want tasty things so we open packets and cook in too much oil.  

Q: Of all the recipes which one is your favourite?

A: Oh, that’s not fair but what I really love are the easy ones. The chapter on Goa has a lot of personal recipes and a lot of my family recipes so that’s something close to my heart.  

Q: How would you measure the authenticity of a recipe? 

A: I have chosen recipes which can be replicated at home. For instance the Kolhapuri mutton requires many spices, five of which are only available in Maharashtra so I have left those out of the masala. Rajasthani laal maans requires Mathania chillies which are hard to find even in Rajasthan. I have tried to give a similar alternative.  

Q: What is your comfort food? 

A: A home-made salad, dal chawal, tandoori chicken and Caesar salad used to be my go-to. I love aloo, I could eat it every day.  

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