Ajoba, my maternal grandfather, takes a sip of steaming tea. Eyes twinkling with nostalgia, he says, “The journey on the Konkan rail is mesmerizing. Tunnels and tunnels!! And it is greener than you can imagine.”
I listen with rapt attention and make a mental note. Ten years later, I find myself staring at the rhythmically crossing railway lines of the Konkan-Kanya Express, as I travel to do research for my documentary on Konkani cuisine.
The Konkan belt is a long, narrow stretch of land along the coastline of Maharashtra and part of Karnataka. While the Western Ghats form a towering boundary to the east, the Arabian Sea to its west blesses it with innumerable quiet beaches strewn along coastal villages and towns. Economic conditions are poor, but historically it played a pivotal role in the trade between India and the West. Important ports in north Konkan included Sopara, Dabhol, Thane and Kalyan. Ratnagiri, Malvan and Vengurla were crucial ports in the south.
The people of the Konkan region have traditionally been labelled laidback, lazy and unambitious, by implication responsible for their uneven development and poverty. Interestingly, in recent times, Konkani/Malwani culture and cuisine has received abundant attention from tourists and food shows on television. Ghosh (2013) observes that the representation of the region on television has not gone without the exoticization of rural spaces and communities, in keeping with the globalized mode of consuming food cultures.
Memory as History
My childhood was full of stories of Vengurla, my maternal grandfather’s hometown. Ajoba’s stories carried a sense of nostalgia, belonging and quiet. Memories of the place often coincided with those of eating and cooking. The heavy breakfast of rice starch every morning, frolicking on the beach lined with coconut palms, racing past mango trees, munching on wild berries and fruits on his way to school—my entry-point into his fascinating life and one-fourth of my identity were thus linked to food and by extension to Konkani/Malwani cuisine.
I stayed in Vengurla at the house of my granduncle (Appa Ajoba) during the research for my film. Every evening, I would come back and discuss my meetings with various people from different communities. One day, Appa placed an old folder in my hands, and I opened it to find crumbling, yellow pages, typewritten and proofread with red ink. This folder held together his memories of the Konkan as he had seen it from his birth to his retirement, roughly between the 1920s and ‘80s. These were meticulously penned memories of the Morjes’ immediate and extended family and descriptions of various family members, along with details on the economic conditions of the time, common professions and modes of transport. Separate segments were marked out for vivid anecdotes relating to food.
Was this material that could feed into my research on culture and cuisine? Was the data ‘reliable’ enough to allow the effective tracing of history? Apart from my grandfather’s childhood stories, much of my exposure to the Konkan was from textbooks, which referred to strategic forts built by kings and wars fought along the coast.
Recourse to memory as a potential source of data and questions of its reliability have long been matters of contestation among anthropologists, historians and psychologists. Discussions on the subject gained steam after World War II. Thomson (2010:80) explains oral history as a source of “history from below”. Memories may then be expected to re-build a kind of history that is otherwise less available to visualization—a ‘mundane’ history of everyday life in which eating and cooking form an enormous part. In response to the subjectivity of memory and the role of nostalgia in its ‘distortion’, he writes about the response of oral historians in the late 1970s:
The so-called unreliability of memory was also its strength (...) the subjectivity of memory provided clues not only about the meanings of historical experience, but also about the relationships between past and present, between memory and personal identity, and between individual and collective memory.
The subjectivity of memory proves crucial to the analysis of cuisine, which in essence is a combination of individual and collective experience. It puts into question the vexing idea of ‘authenticity’ valued greatly in the current era of commodified travel and cultural experience. The quest for authenticity appears rather futile if cuisine is understood as a dynamic process of interpretation, exchange and evolution. Sukhadwala (2012) discusses the concept of authenticity:
[It is] tied up with the notion of authorship, so a working definition of authentic food could be dishes, which are true to themselves and the person cooking them (...) "authentic" can't mean "timeless", or no dish would ever evolve... The influences of travel, trade and other cultures, the availability of ingredients and changes in technology are all factors in their evolution (...) We seem to instinctively know what authentic means to us, so we're able to filter out horrors like Chinese tofu pizza. But then, one person's "horror" is another person's exciting innovation, and therein lies the rub.
The aim of this article, therefore, is not to define what constitutes ‘authentic’ Konkani cuisine. Rather, it weaves together the lived experience of residents from the region, tries to understand choices and circumstances behind seemingly mundane acts of cooking and eating, and through these trace changing food practices and traditions from the 1930s to the present. In the process, it reveals how cuisine and memory play an important role in holding on to the idea of home and family, as well as in shaping the identity of ‘mixed’ migrant Konkani populations. For the purposes of narrowing the scope, this article essentially looks at two towns of south Konkan—Ratnagiri and Vengurla.
Recollecting home: nostalgia and first-generation migrants
Appa and the generation preceding him saw several transitions in their lifetime. From a period of relative abundance and simplicity, the Konkan gradually descended towards poverty and scarcity. Under British rule, previously important southern ports such as Rajapur, Vengurla and Ratnagiri and adjoining sub-ports were by the end of the 19th century replaced by Bombay and Surat as centres of maritime trade. An area that had once experienced immigration owing to better trade and commercial prospects began to witness an exodus. Bombay required heavy human resources, be it for government positions, trading and business or working in the burgeoning mills. The subsequent construction of railway lines also added to the loss of trade, and hence jobs in smaller ports.
World War II added a heavy burden to the already dwindling resources of the region. In memory of food scarcity and migration in the early 20th century, Appa wrote a particularly striking passage:
In 1939, I went into 7th grade and started my high school education. The Second World War was at its peak. Before long, we began facing its drastic consequences. A serious shortage of all basic commodities ensued. Our needs were minimal. Never had the habit of making tea at home... or known the luxury of milk and milk products. We lived on fish and rice gruel. Evenings, we’d have bhakris made of ragi. We’d hand over our leftover bhakris to mother at night. Next morning, we’d wash our groggy faces and ask her for our share. It was common for bhakris to shrink in size overnight, especially in winter. Invariably, we would fight over the largest piece.
Rationing was still a new concept. Even those who had the money couldn’t afford sufficient food grains. Supplies from the ration store were so inadequate that we couldn’t eat to our fill even once a day. We’d wake up early and line up at the ration shop, accept whatever we were given and return home.
Some women from the vicinity would take fresh or salted, dried fish to nearby villages like Kambler, Aakeri, Tulas and Mangaon of the then Sawantwadi Division. They would collect rice in exchange of fish and salt. All this was conducted in complete subtlety and silence, for it was illegal to bring in grains from other areas. Any such material, if found would be confiscated by the police immediately.
(...) The Konkan was changing. People were left with little option but to migrate to Mumbai for food and work. The Konkan witnessed an exodus and Mumbai assumed its beauteous, lively nature.
For Appa, his wife Kalindi and a generation thus marked by the experience of migration, culinary practices became a matter of holding on to a sense of home and preserving identity in the culturally mixed chawls of Bombay. Recollections of the Konkan had a discernible sense of nostalgia and longing. Kalindi Morje, fondly known as Kaku Ajji, reflects:
I missed the Konkan everyday and every moment. Especially my parents... We had a long row of interconnected houses in Mumbai. They were called ‘aalis’... (My friends and I) would sit in a line and do our work, be it stitching or knitting. All of us were from our own area, from the Konkan. We’d frequent each other’s houses, played cards at night and even slept alongside in the verandah... it was impossible to fit a family in those tiny chawl rooms! After the festival of Sankranti in January, we’d cook a dish called oondhiyoo together. We pitched in to make laddoos (sweets) together, organized traditional ceremonies. And you know those Gujarati women sweepers in the municipality? We’d stitch the petticoats they needed for uniforms and they’d pay us for that.
The motivation for Appa to pen down his memories grew, perhaps, from a need to recollect and preserve a feeling of belonging. In the introductory pages, Appa paints a lucid picture of the Vengurla of his childhood.
There is no information available on our Morje family. Nothing was ever documented. To be honest, no one was literate enough. But no one ever saw the need to do so either. This is a start in that direction. What I write isn’t the only version of events. To put my memories down is the objective of writing this.
We’re originally from Goa. We worship goddess Morjai. To the west of Mapusa lies our picturesque village, a few miles away from the sea. Distressed by foreign rule, several communities scattered across the region. Our ancestors moved to different parts of Vengurla; some [settled] in the surrounding hills but most in the coastal village.
It is easy to imagine how vast the sea may have been in those days. It touched the enormous warehouse constructed by the Dutch for their trade. Goods worth crores were traded from this very port.
The sea today has receded by about a kilometer from the dilapidated, neglected Dutch warehouse. The area is dotted with the houses of fisherfolk who leave early in the morning to fish and return with their booty by evening. In a group discussion conducted with fishermen during research, I recorded a collective lament about the changing fishing cultures. While earlier nets of different sizes were used to catch different kinds of fish, today there was less variety. The youngling of large species were caught in nets meant for smaller species, which led to an overall depletion of the pool of larger fish such as surmai (kingfish), now hardly available in the Vengurla market. The activity of collectively weaving different-sized nets had nearly disappeared and their children hardly knew the difference. Most fishermen also used advanced technologies for fishing and could locate spots with abundant fish. But over time, this had resulted in overfishing and the loss of a marine ecosystem.
The fading of traditions such as the collective weaving of nets can be compared to the changing nature of fishing practices, consumption cultures and government facilities. Appa refers to two prominent features of fishing from his childhood: the existence of government-approved fish drying spaces and creek fishing in monsoons.
My first memory is rather faint. Father worked in an avaar in Shiroda. In earlier days, the leftover fish from a big catch would be dried. The government provided a safe space called an avaar for the same. Back then, there was no public transport. A man named Navhelkar had a barber’s salon near the dargah. He owned a car. Father would hitch a ride with him to Arli and take a shortcut to the avaar.
(...) In the monsoons, everyone from nearby villages would gather to catch fish from the creek. On cold, rainy days, we’d wake up and reach the spot, tobacco and clay pipes in hand. We’d reach at 7.30-8 a.m. Shivering, the fishermen would light up the pipe we gave them and take a few puffs. Once they were high enough to battle the cold, they’d get back to work. Some of them would give us a fish or two in return for this favour. Among these fish was the shetuk, a truly delectable variety. The taste is incredible, especially in the monsoons. It must be eaten at that very moment and season.
A cuisine in transition: the food market and experimentation
In the process of data collection for my M.A. dissertation on food and travel shows, I came in touch with several Konkani women in Vengurla and Sindhudurg, most over the age of 70. Drawing on their experiences as children and young women, they pulled out innumerable recollections of recipes, ingredients and implements which are hardly visible today. An excerpt from a group interview with Kaku Ajji and her friends elucidates this:
Mrs. Mhakle: We’ve seen so much inflation since our childhood. Back then, we bought 10 coconuts for Re. 1. But now it’s 1 for Rs. 20. We bought 16 seers of parboiled rice for a rupee, which now costs Rs. 100
Mrs. Thakkar: Fish was abundant but now it’s all gone. You hardly see sarangey, pomfret or kingfish in the market now. You’ll only see the karli fish now
Kalindi Morje (Kaku Ajji): We used to get tiny sharks in Mumbai... cleaned and cut. You just don’t see them anymore
Mrs. Thakkar: We’ve eaten red sorghum of the poorest quality. We got impure red or colourless kerosene. The pure blue one came much later
Kalindi Morje: The rice in those days used to be very coarse too.
Mrs. Thakkar: They called it the patni variety. Those beautiful reddish-brown grains...made for excellent bhakris.
Me: So tell me about some traditional dishes?
Mrs. Thakkar: ‘Toap bhakri’ is one. You wash and dry-roast parboiled rice and pound it into flour. Blend in the mixer with jaggery and coconut and then steam it
Mrs. Mhakle: Earlier, Diwali faraal (items distributed during Diwali) meant pohe (rice flakes) and sweet potatoes. There was nothing complicated like shev, chiwda, karanji, rava/boondi/shev/shengdana laadoos. And [the pohe] was sweet. Not the salty-spicy one you see now.
Mrs. Thakkar: And those okra leaves! We’d put them on plates and serve the jaggery-rice flake mix to the neighbours.
Kalindi Morje: If you’re talking about old days, you’ve got to have drumsticks. We’d steam it with rice or ragi flour dumplings. It’s difficult to get that equipment now. No one likes it or makes it anymore.
The transition from gul-pohe to shev and chakli suggests a certain brahminisation of festival food items. The use of wheat, which yielded soft breads, sweets and savouries was restricted to upper castes due to higher prices. Millets made for rough textures, which were not in keeping with ‘refined’ tastes. One could propose that the move towards the ‘modern’ first starts with the acceptance within the region of the mainstream (which in this case was caste-based), after which the community is seen to be ready to consume the national and international ‘foreign’. In the ‘50s, even for those who had migrated to flourishing cities like Bombay for work, ingredients that were regarded as foreign included coriander, green chillies and capsicum, standard ingredients in Konkani food today. ‘Foreign’ influences in cooking saw the shift from traditional everyday items based on taandul (rice) and jondhali (sorghum), such as ghavaney, amboli, khaapurley, idli to wheat grains for chapatis. Pohe, whose salty-spicy version is today most commonly known, was unheard of except as gul-pohe, a mixture of flattened rice and jaggery.
While definitely embedded in nostalgia for earlier times, Kaku Ajji and her neighbours showed remarkable interest in experimenting with the new, both then and now. Today, they take active interest in the media-fuelled process of culinary exchange in a globalized world, although the absence of the requisite level of affluence disallows them from being ‘natural’ consumers like their urban, middle class counterparts. For example, the luxury of purchasing a new food item or a kitchen accessory and letting it lie after barely having used it, requires the possession of a certain amount of capital that allows room for wastage. In an environment of relative non-affluence, Kaku Ajji and her friends have negotiated with insufficiency in innovative ways. Mrs. Mhakle explains:
I didn’t try out stuff too much. You see we hardly got those specific ingredients. Even now, if you get the new ingredients mentioned in a show, you buy it once to try the dish out and then it goes to waste. Like if you want to make cake, you need to get something called baking powder. You can’t make it well without that. But then the rest goes to waste because no one uses it, so it’s better to get cake from a shop. My daughter would bake a cake once in a while, and she would heat a griddle, put some sand and then keep the baking dish on it. That way the cake would get cooked without getting burnt. We found our ways around lack.
The interaction of varied cultures through their cuisines, in the case of these women, seems to exclude those who do not possess adequate power to purchase and consume. Instead, their cuisine and culture becomes an exotic commodity for exploration and consumption by affluent outsiders (those from cities or other countries) who enter it either physically or via television, magazines and blogs. Kaku Ajji and her generation’s efforts to experiment, no matter how restricted, must be understood as an evolution of the cuisine rather than occasion to lament the loss of traditional cooking practices, ingredients and implements, for this is what makes cuisine depart from the static and monolithic.
Reimagining home: memories of second- and third-generation migrants
Appa’s collection of memories brought me closer to a sense of home, not just through his descriptions of place and time but also through his accounts of food and eating. As a third-generation migrant of mixed regional and caste background, family versions of mouth-watering Konkani dishes had been my connection to one-fourth of my identity. Be it the semolina and malvani masala crusted fish fry, the coconut and kokum (mangosteen) based chicken curries and flavourful kokum kadhi, each of these had been an entry point into understanding my own history. I grew up seeing Ajoba loving every edible form of the drumstick plant, be it the leaves, the fruit or flowers. My mother had memories of having fallen off a drumstick tree in the ancestral house in Vengurla but none of these formed a familial connection until Appa’s description joined the dots. The Morje family had thrived on the produce of four drumstick trees in the ancestral house in times of great difficulty, and the tree was synonymous with home.
Our drumstick tree was a remarkable one. Considerably large, it yielded sweet, succulent drumsticks. In its initial years its fruit and flowers fetched a good price. Harvesting drumsticks is a risky art. One has to move forward precariously on the supple branches and pluck out the finest, prime drumsticks. This was my duty till I left for Mumbai to look for work. I do see them in Mumbai often but the exorbitant prices kill the joy and taste. If anyone of us goes home in the season, he surely gets some drumsticks back. The tree is still there, holding all our memories together.
The role of cuisine in the rebuilding of identity has worked a little differently for Gazala Paul, a second-generation migrant from the Konkan. For several generations, her maternal family was settled in Ratnagiri, while her paternal side was in Jaigad. A Muslim married to a Christian and born and brought up in Chhattisgarh, Gazala now stays in Ahmedabad. Her parents and brother and his family stay in the vicinity. Most of her relatives though, are still based in Raigad, Penn and Pawas, all situated on the Konkan coast.
Gazala’s family moved to Bombay in the ‘40s just like Appa and his siblings—for a better life. Bombay offered lucrative opportunities for trade and business as well as government jobs. While she was aware of her identity as a Muslim, the Konkani connection was a distant part of her until recently, when she was introduced by a journalist as a ‘Konkani Muslim’ married to a Christian. Her visits to the coast also increased in the recent past, as her parents set up a summerhouse to visit in the ‘mango season’, and she became progressively more conscious of her roots.
From hearsay and some experience of the Konkan, Gazala remembers mutton and chicken being a luxury, eaten once a fortnight. Staples were fish, rice and coconut, but recipes differed slightly from Hindu versions. Vegetables were not very easily available in the coast and dry fish was prepared to be saved for the monsoon; not merely for proverbial ‘rainy days’, but due to the fact that fishing would be made difficult by the sea’s rough temper. In an interesting recollection, Gazala cites her paternal grandmother saying that the brahmins had increased the prices of fish. This referred to the time where more and more brahmins were starting to consume fish (apart from the Saraswat brahmins who had always eaten it), and the regular customers found fish prices soaring.
Food historian Mohsina Mukadam (2015) traces the origin of the Konkani Muslim community to the Mandavkars, a community of mixed race and language formed when Arab traders on the western coast married local women, a practice that pre-dated Islam. Mokadum also discusses food as local, then regional, national and international in character. The foods of Konkanis, whether Muslim, Hindu or Christian, are bound to be more like one another than the food of any of these religious groups seen as a single “imagined community” across regions. Muslim food has largely been touted in terms of biryani and kebab, which often acts to construct a monolithic identity for the Muslim community. A Hindu most often finds mention as a Maharashtrian, but a Muslim is a Muslim who stays in Maharashtra, suggesting different levels of belonging. The recognition of this seemingly obvious but significant point is registered in Gazala’s reflections on her experiences as a Muslim in the country:
A Muslim born in Hyderabad is different from one born in Gujarat—each has his/her own shades. Belonging to a particular region becomes important because that is what makes dialects, language and food habits different within each community. We are different depending on the region we belong to, just like other communities. It is an identity I carry latently, if not directly. So when I came to Ahmedabad, I realized that the words used in the Muslim community were different from mine. Their food was different too. Knowing more about my Konkani identity helped me make sense of my own self. So I started cooking more and more Konkani recipes from my family.
In an effort to carry forward her Konkani Muslim identity once again, Gazala dabbles with family recipes and culinary practices, incorporates elements such as coconut milk and kokam/mangosteen in day-to-day food and even makes recipes once made by her grandmothers and aunts. Some of her favourites are kulith ki kadhi (horsegram and coconut milk curry), saandan (a sweet puffed rice and coconut milk cake), amti (gramflour curry with mangosteen, coconut milk, and sometimes mutton), geeley kaju ka saalan (fresh/wet cashewnut curry), mutton curry in green masala and mitha poha (flattened rice flakes with nariyal ka chun or grated coconut and crunchy sugar granules).
Food, within the context of abundance as well as scarcity, contributes significantly to carving memory. The remaking of ‘home’ for migrants of any generation is a constant process of negotiation, with change, and with the endeavour to preserve tradition. Cuisine is in the same instance time as well as space, both of which are crucial to the construction and preservation of identity as a community and as an individual. If we truly are what we eat, then our plates are positive sites to actively foster a sense of belonging for those of us removed from the geographies of our origin.
 Bhalchandra Morje, now 91 years old, is the oldest surviving member of the Morje family that settled in Vengurla in the 1800s. Lovingly known as Appa Ajoba, he is my maternal grandfather’s elder brother.
 Shev: salted noodle-like gramflour fritters; chiwda: a mixture of fried cereal, nuts and dry fruits spiced with curry leaves, mustard, asafoetida, turmeric, coriander and cumin powder; karanji: a crescent-shaped fritter with an outer covering of flour and semolina filled with grated coconut, jaggery/sugar and dry fruits; laadoos: ball-shaped sweet made from a variety of ingredients. The ones Mrs. Mhakle mentions are made from shev, rava (semolina), boondi (globule-like gramflour fritters) and shengdana (groundnuts).