Celebrated food writer, restaurant consultant, and chef, Karen Anand has been cooking and writing about food for the past three to four decades, and you’ll find the wealth of culinary wisdom she’s gathered over time in the many books she’s published and TV shows she’s hosted.
Her latest, Masala Memsahib: Recipes and Stories from My Culinary Adventures in India is part memoir, part cookbook that chronicles the dishes and culinary traditions from five states across India—Goa, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, and West Bengal.
We sat down with the author to discuss her experience with Indian food growing up, meals that left an impact on her, and the role memories play in our relationship with food.
Harper’s Bazaar: Do you think memories shape our experience and relationship with food?
Karen Anand: Yes. Food is not just about recipes or techniques or culinary skills for me; it is about emotions, culture, the people who cook, things you share in the family, and your experiences and memories of a holiday.
HB: You say in your book that your early memories of Indian food weren’t defined in the traditional sense, and today, you have a cookbook on the same—what changed?
KA: We moved to England when I was about six-years-old. My mother didn’t know how to cook. And I didn’t have a grandmother around who would teach my mother, who would then teach me. Back in India we had a cook, so it was quite a difficult task for my mother to replicate those flavours and tastes without help and while looking after two young children. She used a lot of ready-made pastes and powders. Therefore, I say, my memories of Indian food wasn’t defined in the traditional sense. I penned a book on it precisely because I’ve been in India for over thirty years now and have learnt a lot about Indian food—through travelling, TV, and people.
HB: What is the one food memory that stands out for you?
KA: I remember going to a restaurant on Balmoral Beach in Sydney. It started as a simple café on the beach. I wrote about it and called it ‘Ralph Lauren in Sydney’. It was chic and understated; you could have a bucketful of mussels and put your toes in the sand. It was one of the loveliest experiences—eating and sharing fresh food on the beach with a nice wine.
HB: There’s a whole chapter dedicated to memorable meals in the cookbook. What prompted you to add it?
KA: The 'Memorable Meals' chapter is on memories and communities. I’ve written about Parsi cooking, Sindhi food, a little bit about Chettinad cuisine, and more. I didn’t have enough recipes to make it into a whole chapter but these were nice snippets from regions I’ve visited.
Anand further explains the connection of memories and food in this excerpt from the 'Memorable Meals' chapter—“In this section, I cover the many memorable meals I’ve had the good fortune to feast on from places as diverse and different as Ladakh in the far north to Assam in the east, and Coorg and Chettinad in the south. There are also recipes from Parsi and Sindhi communities known for some outstanding dishes that are very much part of Bombay food culture. I have known them at close quarters because of family ties. I have also chosen recipes from meals which have been taken out of their geographical context, like an Indian dinner I cooked in Hong Kong, a fantastic recipe from an Indian restaurant in London, a Mangalorean recipe cooked in Pune and a Tamilian one served in Coorg. Lastly, I have made a conscious effort to include some Indian family favourites, familiar recipes you look for on a Sunday when you have time to cook or when you want to entertain…authentic Kashmiri rogan josh, Chettinad chicken and prawn patia. These are sure shot, straight from the source, with no fancy business or fusions. They work very well every time and I urge you to try them once at least.”
Below, find two impressive but easy-to-pull-off recipes from the cookbook.
Bamboo Shoot Stir Fry (Baimbale Bharthad)
Although Coorg is known for the famous pork dish, pandi curry which is a specialty, there are a host of vegetable dishes which use local vegetables like bamboo shoot, wild mushrooms, and a kind of red-leafed spinach, that are all delicious and different. This is a vegetarian recipe from chef Ranjan’s kitchen at Coorg Wilderness Resort that showcases extraordinary use of local ingredients, mixed together in a roasted spice blend. He uses local bamboo shoot, but you could also use tinned bamboo shoot.
500 grams tender bamboo shoot, fresh or canned
For the spice blend
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon peppercorns
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seed
½ teaspoon kachampuli vinegar
2 tablespoon sunflower oil
5 dry red chillies
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
4-5 curry leaves
1 onion, chopped
1. If the bamboo shoots are fresh, wash and soak in water for two days. Drain, slice or chop finely and boil in water with a little salt and a pinch of turmeric powder till the shoots turn tender. If canned, just drain and slice.
2. Put all the dry spices in a small pan and roast them, stirring constantly, until they change colour and darken slightly. Do not allow the spices to turn dark brown. Grind the roasted spices to a fine powder.
3. Add the spice powder to the bamboo shoot with one cup of hot water. Bring to a boil and simmer for five to seven minutes. Add the vinegar.
4. Heat the oil in a pan and add the chilli, mustard seeds, garlic, chopped onion and curry leaves. When the mustard splutters, pour it over the tender bamboo shoot dish and stir through.
5. Serve hot with rice.
Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves (Patra Ni Machchi)
Brilliant, cliquish, funny, and, most of all, lovers of good food—Parsis are Zoroastrians who fled Persia in the eighth century and landed in Gujarat. Parsi cooking is a delicious mix of western influences—Gujarat and Persian. This is the famous fish cooked in banana leaves. It’s easy to do at home and, if you don’t have banana leaves, fear not, it’s very much doable using foil.
For the fish
3 full banana leaves
6 slices pomfret or any white fish, cut into thick slices
2 tablespoons sugarcane vinegar
For the coconut chutney
1 heaped cup of coconut, grated
6 green chillies, deseeded
1 cup coriander leaves
½ cup mint leaves
12 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2-inch piece of ginger
1 teaspoon cumin, roasted
4 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Combine all ingredients for the coconut chutney in a mixer/grinder/blender and grind to a smooth paste.
2. Cut the banana leaves into six large pieces, removing the centre stem. Pass the banana leaves quickly over a gas flame to soften them.
3. Layer the coconut chutney on each slice of fish and place on a piece of banana leaf. Fold the leaves over to completely cover the fish in order to cover the fish properly. Tie the parcels with thread and set aside.
4. Heat water and vinegar together in the bottom part of a steamer or a large pan. Place the banana leaf parcels two at a time, in the steamer or in a colander over the pan. Steam for approximately 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your fish. Unwrap the parcels at the time of serving only.
All images: Courtesy Karen Anand