Eat.Wander.Repeat: Of sand-baked cakes and yesterday’s curry

Denise D’Silva on new-age culinary tips, tricks and fads being par for the course in our kitchens

(Left) Prawn curry from the previous day being thickened to make the Goan kalchya kod and (right) peanuts being roasted in sand.
(Left) Prawn curry from the previous day being thickened to make the Goan kalchya kod and (right) peanuts being roasted in sand.

Denise D'Silva

I’ve always lived close to the sea. As a child, it meant sultry summer holidays spent making sand castles and looking for shells to decorate them and of course—beach snacks! Before you wonder, yes, Bombay had beaches that were relatively clean then, quiet and sandy. And no, I’m not that ancient.

Back to the snacks. I was most fascinated by the peanut vendors, with their sharp yet melodious advertising of “garma-garam seeng” punctuated by the clanging of the metal spoon on the side of the iron wok. I was mesmerised by the flickering of the coal beneath these giant vessels and the hot sand inside them, which was speckled with pink peanuts and stirred with much flair.

It went against everything we were taught as kids: “hands in the sand, then hands off the food”. Yet no peanut came out sandy, and each was deliciously roasted, salted and addictive. I loved them as much as I was confused by them.

To add to this confusion, the women in my family would pack sand from the same beach and take it home. And soon after, yummy tea-cakes would be upturned on plates to reveal sandy tin bottoms. I soon learnt that sand and food are old friends.

While binge-watching food shows a few weeks ago, I realised that cooking techniques are the new rage globally. Reams have been written and many episodes created about methods, both new and ancient. Each has been elevated to an art-form, with every nuance and detail followed intricately and passionately.

Avant-garde chefs are dedicating entire menus and restaurants to a particular cooking technique. My own flashbacks to the sand-roasted peanuts of my childhood got me thinking—while most of the conversation around technique and its subtleties has its place in the world of cookery as performance, we have been doing this in our kitchens all along without any fuss or tags.

Like those sand-baked cakes I grew up eating. A layer of sand at the base of the vessel, the cake tin with the batter placed inside it, sealed tightly with lid and cloth, and covered with another layer of sand on top. Heated to a high temperature, the cake cooked evenly from above and below. Genius.

Apparently in Iceland and parts of Europe, people pay a pretty penny to eat food that is baked in sand or hot volcanic ash. In our kitchens, especially around coastal areas like Goa and Bombay, it was the only way to recreate an oven, which were then rare and expensive appliances to own.

While the world is busy making a big noise about cooking hacks, many of our quieter everyday cooking techniques border on being art-forms. Take pootharekulu from Andhra Pradesh—with its beautiful paper-thin sheets made with rice batter, deftness and love—cooked over a resourcefully upturned earthen pot.

Dragon stalk yam
entire markets are dedicated to salted,
sun-dried fish in Raigad, Maharashtra
Kartola, which grows wild during the monsoon
and is foraged

Or the method of ‘water-bath cooking.’ Haven’t we aced this for decades? In fact, we’ve taken the process a step further by placing multiple steel containers in a water bath inside pressure cookers—thus greatly speeding up the process, and cooking multiple courses in one shot. We call it lunch. Cuisine schools call it Bain Marie.

Then there’s foraging. Another very popular trend in the culinary world. Cute dogs in Europe forage for truffles; women divers in their eighties bring back abalone from the seas around Japan. All of these are highly prized and rare foods.

Closer home, just two hours from Mumbai, our trusted farmhand Raju’s eyes light up when the monsoon arrives. He and his wife are Adivasis from Palghar, and a few weeks into the monsoon, they set off into the slippery jungles nearby and forage for the incredibly itchy, but beautiful looking Dragon Stalk Yam. Cleaning and cooking this is an elaborate process, not for the impatient or faint-hearted, but to me that’s what makes it such a treat.

On occasion, a handful of tribal women come into the city’s markets and sell this nutritious and hard to get vegetable. I know when they’re in town simply by the profusion of doting old Maharashtrian husbands with colourful cloth bags clustered around them, waiting patiently to take this precious haul back home to their wives.

‘Eating seasonal’, which Noma, Copenhagen has rightly elevated to a life experience, is fastidiously followed in our kitchens. I remember standing in queue during the lockdown for vegetables and supplies and even at the height of that ordeal and scarcity, my neighbour Mrs Dias refused to buy coriander leaves because they weren’t at their seasonal best.

Slow cooking? Twelve-hour ribs? Overnight oats? We have the art of ‘dum’ since the 16th century, first mentioned in the Ain-e-Akbari, and our niharis have been bubbling since the 18th century!

Fruit leather? We have our aam papad and guava cheese.

Mise en place (which is French for ‘everything in its place’ and involves an elaborate setting out of everything you need before you begin cooking)? We don’t have a name for it, nor do we care.

If an Indian home cook set out all the vessels it takes to make just lunch, there would be no space to move! Because we cook every day, the only way to optimise both space and time for the range of dishes that are served in one meal is to know where everything is, and work from there.

And then there’s my favourite: ‘zero waste’ or ‘sustainable cooking’. That’s where we really kill it.

In Goa, there is actually a legitimate dish called ‘kalchya kodi’ or ‘yesterday’s curry’ that is basically a fish curry from the night before which is heated up the next morning until it thickens. Oh the joy of scraping this intensified curry with hot pao!

And, if you’re feeling extravagant, to eat a fried egg with it. Or, take the ubiquitous butter chicken, which is simply leftover tandoori chicken, repurposed in a creamy tomato gravy.

Our mums and our elders may have learnt and cleverly adapted old and new techniques in the kitchen as a survival strategy—to feed big families and make a little go a long way.

But what it resulted in is incredible skill, heirloom recipes and a food language that taught us techniques that the world is just beginning to wake up to. It makes me so glad, even as I grab myself a recycled-newspaper cone filled to the brim with hot sand-roasted peanuts. 

(Denise D’Silva is the author of The Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook, and co-founder and creative head of Hyphen Brands)

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