Saee Koranne-Khandekar’s latest book, Pangat, a Feast: Food and Lore from Marathi Kitchens, is a product of the author’s curiosity about her culinary heritage. By and large, people are unaware of the vastness of Maharashtrian cuisine. This fact bothered Khandekar. But what irked her more was her own limited knowledge of her home state’s cuisine, despite having grown up in a Marathi household. This set out the path for Pangat.
The author said, “In order to understand the cuisine better, I began referring to old recipe books, most of them in Marathi and very community-specific. I looked through books on the history of Indian cuisine, and found to my utter dismay, that there was barely a fleeting mention of Maharashtra. Around me, people in general and food experts and gourmands in equal measure, were only exposed to a handful of dishes popularised (and wrongly represented) by commercial restaurants. It occurred to me then, that there was a need to speak about the variety of the foods eaten in Maharashtra, in a language that was universal. Unless we spoke about the sub-cuisines of the state in one compendium and in a language that made it accessible to Marathi speaking people as well as those unfamiliar with the language, we would only end up watching the cuisine die a slow death.”
Khandekar has been a food writer and culinary consultant for more than a decade. Pangat is her second book after the well-acclaimed Crumbs!: Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen, which released in 2016. About her inclination towards culinary arts, the author said, “I was always interested in food, which of course means that I enjoyed eating but thanks to the way my maternal grandmother shaped my culinary upbringing, I also grew to enjoy the stories that were associated with the food I was eating. Over time, I began reading food books, including recipe books, like one would read fiction.”
In her own cookbook, Khandekar has tried not to overwhelm the reader with meticulous lists of ingredients and step-by-step cooking procedures. Even though there are over 200 recipes in Pangat, the book is an easy read with the author’s personal touch. She narrates her experiences and several anecdotes related to Marathi cuisine. She also explores the geographical and socio-cultural influences that have shaped this cuisine. Khandekar has focused on traditional styles of cooking, giving information about the ingredients and utensils crucial for preparing an authentic Marathi meal. In the author’s words, “Pangat is my discovery of the cuisine of Maharashtra through personal gustatory experiences and a fair amount of research.”
It was important for Khandekar to guide readers on the nuances of Maharashtrian cuisine. She feels that the younger generation has lost touch with their culinary roots. This was one of the reasons she included chapters on cooking methods and utensils in the book. According to the author, an average urban Indian kitchen has a handful of basic utensils—at least one pressure cooker, a pan and a wok. And everything from rice and meat to vegetables and sprouts is now pressure-cooked in order to save time and in the name of some theory of healthy cooking which she thinks is debatable. But this cooking approach is in stark contrast with what happens in traditional kitchens. The author pointed out that not more than 50 years ago, there were twice as many utensils in an average kitchen, and each utensil was designed for a specific purpose.
The same goes for ingredients. A lot of uses of ingredients seem to have slipped out of collective memory. For instance, Khandekar talked about souring agents, such as tamarind, dried mango, Kokum, etc., which are now used rarely, having been replaced by the tomato—a relatively late entrant to Indian cuisine—as a base for all curries.
This change in our approach to cooking has to do with changing lifestyles and also with a general lack of enthusiasm. Khandekar believes that some Marathi dishes are even facing extinction. She refers to these as “traditional edible art forms”. She told us about two such art forms: one is a kind of hand-rolled pasta called Gavhle; and the other is Maaltya, which is made from a stiff wheat dough and halva. Both these dishes are rarely made even in Marathi kitchens.
Khandekar also wants to highlight some aspects of the traditional Marathi kitchen. Among these is one utensil she feels people who are not familiar with the cuisine should know about. It’s called langdi, a short-walled cooking pot, ideal when one wants to cook something that should not be stirred with a spoon. The vessel allows one to gently swirl the mix without disturbing the delicate contents. A technique which was once common but is rarely used now is cooking under condensation. Khandekar pointed out this method wherein one covers a pot with a shallow plate filled with water. As the contents of the pot cook, steam condenses on the bottom of the plate and adds moisture to the pot. This helps trap the flavour. There’s also one pantry staple she aims to popularise—Kokum, the Garcinia Indica, which can be used as a souring agent or as a drink, and it has many other uses besides.
In her book Pangat, Khandekar has depicted how geography has dictated food traditions in Maharashtra, just like in any other region. Elaborating on the same, she said, “With specific reference to Maharashtra, the topography of the state is so varied, given its expanse, that the produce available along the coast is vastly different from that of the plateau regions and those closer to central India. This is what makes the cuisine of the Konkan diametrically opposite to that of say, Nagpur.”
Sub-cuisines from various communities have also proved to be a unifying force in the region according to Khandekar. She explained, “The Konkan coast is synonymous with coconuts and seafood. However, every community living in the region exploits the same available ingredients in very different ways. Some communities, such as the Saraswats from the southernmost tip of the coast strip, grind fresh coconut to make masala pastes for their fish curries, while the Pathare Prabhus from the northernmost tip use hardly any coconut in their fish curries, if at all. This shows the diversity of the cuisine. On the other hand, nearly every community in the state makes Karanjis—crescent shaped shortcrust pastries filled with (usually) coconut. There are differences in terms of fresh or dry coconut, shortcrust or laminated flaky pastry, deep frying or baking, but the Karanji remains a leitmotif through the state, and to me this is a great example of how food can be the same yet different.”
The author has also written about food imagery and pop wisdom in regard to food. She said, “I’ve always found food imagery in everything. All our nursery rhymes, fairy tales, moral stories, wedding songs, harvest songs, no matter what region or country we come from, all abound in food wisdom or at least mirror the socio-cultural context in which they were composed. To me, these are important markers of history and at a personal level, carriers of food traditions.”
Pangat certainly goes beyond recipes and gives us a readable tour of Maharashtra’s food history. It is a brilliant addition to India’s culinary literature.