Sulekha.com is a very popular Indian Website in the US. It was one of the first websites to start a Indian Recipe section way back in the late 1990's as far as I remember. While their focus has slowly changed, the food section is still quite prominent and I'm quite kicked about the fact that they wanted to interview me :)
The interview can be read on site - here
Many of us cannot even think about an Indian delicacy beyond garam masala, ghee or butter. Beauty of the food lies in humble ingredients. “Noodles Vs. Snake meat” is just a cloudy vision about the unique cuisine from North East. Karishma talks about innovating delicious Indian food via North-East cuisine on “jhovaan.blogspot.in”.
Could you please share with us the moment you cooked your first Thevo Choo ?
In October 2010 we were posted in Delhi. In preparation for the Commonwealth Games to be held in the City, there were a lot of folk performances and food stalls from all over India. I smelt some lovely pork being cooked in the Food Stall from Nagaland, so I stopped and picked up a plate. It was delicious, light and spicy and I was hooked. (http://kimeatsnblogs.blogspot.in/2010/10/nagaland-stall-delhi.html) I knew I enjoyed these flavours and I wanted to try to recreate them at home. I bought Hoihnu Hazel's "The Essential North-East Cookbook" and flipped the pages and the Thevo Chu (http://jhovaan.blogspot.in/2010/10/recipe-thevo-chu-pork-with-bamboo-shoot.html) had ingredients in it that seemed very different from any other pork preparation that I had ever cooked before, so that's when I decided to make it and I was hooked on the taste and flavours. In those days I used to use regular chillies.
In May 2011, we were transferred to Guwahati and that’s where I finally got my hands on Bhoot Jholakia's (Naga Chillies) in every form - fresh / dried / pickled / preserved in oil or alcohol. The flavour from using these chillies is phenomenal.
I also got to barely scratch the surface on the 100's of varieties of greens and herbs that are used in North Eastern Cooking. These aren't available anywhere else in the country and you have to make a trip to the North East to really savour these dishes in their original form. It is also heartening to note that there are now regular restaurants in Bangalore and Delhi that only specialise in North Eastern food and I heavily recommend a visit.
When did you discover that cooking is more than a therapy in your eyes?
As a child I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother and she loved to cook. But more than she loved to cook, she loved to feed people, guests were always welcomed to share our meals and nobody ever turned down an invitation from her to stay on, because she was a brilliant cook. Basically she supervised the preparations (cleaning, chopping etc) and lent a hand when needed, but the final preparation was always done by her. I was her shadow as a 6 year old child and would be allowed to taste the masalas that were being ground and she would let me help in processes where there were no knives or fire involved. The only thing she hated me doing was sneaking bites of freshly grated coconuts. She always warned me that stealing this grated coconut would ensure that it would rain on the day of my "roce" (a Manglorean Christian equivalent of the "haldi" ceremony) and she had a good laugh when it actually did rain completely out of season on my roce day :)
As soon as I graduated from XLRI in 1999, I moved to my own apartment in Bangalore for a job and this is when I got back to cooking with a bang since I had spent 2 years in a hostel with no opportunity to cook. I was 22 and often had a whole bunch of friends inviting themselves over for a meal or asking me to cook at their kitchens because they too missed "home cooked" food. I never minded, because I actually enjoyed cooking and feeding people and I realised that the genes had passed from my nana to my mum and now to me. I used to wait to return from office, so I could get into the kitchen. No matter how stressful a day, an hour in the kitchen always cheered me up.
A stint in the US in 2000, introduced me to new ingredients and more global cuisines. In Atlanta, I used to often cook for most of the Indians in the office who were also staying in the same complex of apartments. The only sad part was that most of them were vegetarian, so I was forced to brush up on some Vegetarian recipes. I learnt basic Tamilian, Marathi and Kannadiga Vegetarian cooking from the recipes that these guys would get from their mothers and wives back in India. My next stint in Chicago was brilliant. Chicago has such a wonderful array of Global ethnic food stores and restaurants, that it pushed me to learn more whenever I got the opportunity.
In 2001, I was back in India and for the next few years I moved around the country Bangalore-Gurgaon-Hyderabad-Bombay, meeting with friends who would invite me home for a meal cooked by their wives or their mothers and this is when I truly started to appreciate the different styles of cuisine that we have in India.
Later stints in Cairo and Dubai as a trailing spouse, gave me more opportunities to interact with other expats and I also had more time on my hands, since I was no longer working full time. A few Egyptian, British and American friends used to come home to learn "Indian Cooking" and I would try to pick their brains on their kind of food.
Except for a few food taboos in certain regions or religions, food is an extremely binding experience. The minute you share a meal with someone, it brings the relationship closer. I treasure every one of the iftaars that I was invited to in these countries and especially the pot lucks where everyone would bring a home cooked dish.
Cooking and food for me is now more than a hobby, a past time or a relaxation therapy. It is a way to connect - with people, with their cultures, their heritage, their country, their village, their history.
How do you explore the taste of regional cuisines? Where do you get your ideas from?
My husband and I are restless nomads. We relocate often and travel frequently. Food is one of the ways in which we explore a region. Where food is concerned I draw the line at insects and snakes (I classify them extremely unscientifically as "creepy-crawlies"), I have not been able to get past a mental barrier here. The other place I drew the line was at cat and dog meat that was served to us at a feast in Nagaland hosted by the Tourism Minister (I've had over 50 beloved cats and dogs as pets in my lifetime and I was convinced that their ghosts would be back to haunt me that very night if I did :) )
But whether it was frogs legs in a French restaurant or fresh unpasteurized cheese in Lebanon, carpaccio, ceviche or sushi, I will try it all and I really love some of them. I've recently developed a bad allergy to shrimp. But other than shrimp, stinky fruit (durian, jackfruit etc) and the afore mentioned creepy-crawlies, I will eat anything. Whether it is standing with one leg on each side of a dirty naala in Agra, eating the most amazing aloo tikkis from a street side vendor, sitting on the floor of a fisherman’s hut in Goa eating fish curry - rice or eating chicken cooked under the sand, while rice cooked on the fire above in the Bahariyya desert of Egypt, I will eat anything that smells decent and is freshly made (especially with street food). More often than not, it ends up tasting great. I trust my nose completely on whether to eat something or not and which stall to eat from.
I love watching my friends, their mothers and their wives cook. The sad part is that in most of India that job is now relegated to maids and cooks and these maharaj's steadfastly shoo you out of the kitchen. I love talking to grandmothers about what they used to eat as children. We eat out often and we now have a surfeit of food chanels on tv or youtube and food bloggers across the world who are all a source of inspiration. I also keep buying cookbooks (my husband has a standing joke that if I were to cook just one new recipe from each cookbook that I own every day, we would have enough variety to last us a couple of lifetimes)
There are some technical dishes like breads and sushi rice where it is good to be physically present when it is being made by someone who knows what they are doing; this gives me an idea as to the required temperature, texture, consistency etc. But a lot of dishes can be replicated from text recipes and then I use these as a starting point to sometimes push things further.
Could you define the moment, when you tried your first ‘eat-out’? How do you dare to try something new as Chetna Special Chicken?
My dad is in the Merchant Navy, so I started traveling across the globe even before I could walk. I have to credit my mum and dad for making 4 of us siblings open to trying anything new when it came to food. While my dad and mum are both from Mangalore, their families food habits are pretty different. My dad’s family loves dishes made from fish heads, goat heads, intestines etc and my mum's mom would normally just put all these things aside for the dogs. While my mum still can't get herself to eat some of these things that were alien to her, she always encouraged us to try them out before we decided whether we would like to eat them or not. This option was not allowed where vegetables were concerned -these we HAD to eat, no matter what.
When we topped the class we were allowed to decide where we would like to go out for dinner. The main option in those days was Indian-Chinese as this was the one kind of food available in a restaurant that was hardly cooked at home, so that’s where we would end up. But all of this was part of life.
My first "Daring" food experience I would say was when I represented my college at a National Debate Competition in Loyola College Chennai in 1996. The hostel that we were put up at, had some North Eastern students there, who took a shine to me when they realised that I too was a "non-vegetarian" and like them trapped in a "vegetarian" hostel. Since the competition was held over a weekend, some of them had gone fishing and they had cooked the food elsewhere and smuggled it steaming hot into the hostel. There were frogs and tiny fish and pigeon and a lot of stuff that I had never seen before, let alone tasted, but I took the plunge and tried it all. And after that there has been no turning back. I will eat anything other than shrimp, stinky fruit (durian, jackfruit etc) and the afore mentioned creepy-crawlies.
‘Temptation’ is something, we are desperate to deny, but the realm doesn’t let us to! We saw your Stove Top Chicken and Mushrooms! Do you just taste your recipes or do you like indulging them?
I LOVE the food that I cook. I rarely follow a recipe to the "T". I don't know if this makes sense, but when I read a recipe I can kind of figure out what it’s going to taste like (like if you can read music, you look at the score and you know what it will sound like), so I adjust as I cook to suit our tastes, so I've rarely made something that has turned out to be inedible. On the off chance that it doesn't taste good, it ends up getting recycled into a completely different dish. For eg if the Goan choriz sausages don't come out well, they are turned into feijoada.
I was always of medium build, but then in the last decade or so, I was badly overweight. In the last 1 year I have lost 15 kilos, not by any drastic exercise or diet but because I have come to understand my body better. We finish dinner before 8pm, I avoid carbs at night. Sweet stuff is restricted to the afternoons. White flour and deep fried foods have long been out of our home cooked menus. So I've turned towards eating smart and semi-healthy and if I overdo it one day then the next day the food is kept really light and fresh (fresh fruit or salad) to balance it out.
Where do you get your ideas for ‘Dinner party menu’?
Everything I see, smell or taste is an inspiration. When I plan a dinner party, I don't fixate on a menu before I set out to shop. I have a rough plan in my head, more to do with the theme of food - Middle Eastern / Manglorean / Mughlai etc. Then the day before a dinner, I look at what is available in the market and looks freshest and how it would fit in with the theme and take it from there. In Ahmedabad, all the protein that I buy is frozen, so I normally can plan that ahead of time, but in other cities, I would go to the market and see what cuts of meat or what varieties of fish are available before closing in on the final menu.
You share appetite through your food blogs. What would be your ‘signature dish’?
Biryani. No doubt about it. It’s not a signature in terms of the biryani that I make, will always taste the same every time I make it. It’s a signature dish, because no matter which way I make it (completely from scratch or with a masala powder), it will always taste amazing. And this is what my family asks for if I ask them what they would like me to cook.
However, if you ask my friends they would say pork. It’s very difficult to get good hearty pork preparations in a restaurant in India. The South East Asian varieties are much easier to find, but the hearty Manglorean, Goan, North Eastern pork dishes are difficult to find outside of Bombay and Goa. So most of my friends would request me to cook pork for them, when they are invited over for a meal.
How far do the family meals count to you?
Our family is basically me, my husband and our cat. Both of us have crazy travel schedules and even when he is in town his timings are all over the place. Earlier I would faithfully ensure that I would wait for him and we would have dinner together even if it was 2 am in the morning. But once I realised that all this was affecting my weight negatively, I now finish eating before 8pm as far as possible. While we might not eat together, I still sit with him when he is having dinner and we discuss our day.
Our house is also constantly filled with guests - friends and family who come over for an evening or to stay for a while. I love having an open kitchen and normally friends enter our house and head straight for the dining table as I am happier having the kitchen to myself, but I can easily chat with them through the open kitchen.
The cat eats through the day, but when we sit at the table to eat, then she too comes to her food bowls to eat a few bites and when she has her 2 main meals of the day, she loves having my husband standing or sitting next to her while she is eating. She often goes and loudly demands that he come near her food bowls and wait there while she eats.
If you eliminate three ingredients in your recipes, please name them.
It’s not so much an ingredient as a technique - I don't deep fry. It’s been 10 years since I have stopped deep frying anything at home, except for the very rare occasion of some pooja that has to have a deep fried component. My MIL herself is very open and broad-minded. Her mother insists that on any "auspicious" occasion rotis/phulkas will not be made, only puris will do. My MIL realises the health concerns and is ok with us making rotis. There are only a couple of poojas where kadi pakoda or puris or gujiyas HAVE to be offered during pooja that these will get made at home.
I rarely use maida (all purpose flour) at home. Its only now that I hope to make more bread at home, that I need to use maida for binding, but I'm hoping to get my hands on some "vital wheat gluten" and work with that.
My husband has gone off potatoes completely in the last one year. It’s a really tough change for him since potatoes are added in almost everything in the food in UP. In Manglorean Catholic Cooking we rarely use potatoes except fried as garnish in some dishes. Otherwise adding potatoes to a dish meant that there wasn't enough meat to go around the table. But now I've cut them out of our grocery list, except for the rare pork indad or some fry that absolutely needs a little potato in it for the alternate texture.
My recipe and food blog : http://jhovaan.blogspot.com/
My Restaurant Review Blog : http://kimeatsnblogs.blogspot.in/
My Twitter Feed : http://twitter.com/karishmapais
Follow me on facebook : http://on.fb.me/Kims-Recipes-n-Reviews