Q & A with Kaumudi Marathé, Part 2: Jaggery, Leaf Plates + Why There is No Such Thing as Curry
Chef Kaumudi Marathé serves diners at an Un-Curry Table event.
In part 1 of our interview with her, chef Kaumudi Marathé of The Un-Curry Table pop-up talked about the her journey from Maharashtra to Texas to Los Angeles, the crucial elements of Marathi cuisine and the virtues of the hot oil seasoning technique that is the basis of much Indian cooking. Today, she discusses the healing powers of jaggery, why there's no such thing as curry and the state of Indian cuisine in L.A. Turn the page for the interview, and be sure to check back later for Marathé's recipe for tomato coconut soup.
Squid Ink: Tell us about jaggery, since it's such an uncommon ingredient in the West.
Kaumudi Marathé: Jaggery is unrefined sugar usually sold in lump form. I have recently seen it on cooking shows like "Chopped" as a paste. We buy it in molds shaped like small sandpails. It's sugarcane juice that is expressed, cooked down and poured into these molds until it sets. It's like Mexican piloncillo.
Cane jaggery is what we use in Maharashtra. Palm jaggery is common in the south and east, like in Bengal. You have to remember that until very recently, until post-WWII, white granulated sugar was not common and was expensive, so most people used jaggery at home. That was what desserts and tea were made with.
It's much better for you than sugar because it's not refined. It's got minerals. My father tells me that in the old days when you walked into someone's house on a hot summer day, you would first take off your shoes then they'd give you a lump of jaggery and a glass of water. You'd put the jaggery in your mouth and let it dissolve as you drank the water. It replenishes your electrolytes and eases your thirst.
SI: How did you decide to do a pop-up supper club?
KM: Last January, a friend forwarded me a story about pop-ups in London and New York. I had no desire to do a restaurant because my daughter was younger and I didn't want a 24/7 job. But over the years, whenever I have done an Un-Curry catering gig, people have asked me, "Where is your restaurant?" So when she showed me this, I thought it was the perfect way to share my food.
A few friends who were at loose ends said they might be interested in being involved. [Four of us] partnered up for three months, and on November 6th, we had our opening night at Surfa's in Culver City. Within two weeks of putting out the invite, we were sold out. Then we did a holiday dinner and wine pairing event in Glendale. At the end of the year, the partnership expired and I decided to go it on my own.
SI: What happens at an Un-Curry pop-up?
KM: What we had been doing at the pop-ups was Indian food coursed in a very western way and plated in a French style, taking my Indian food and tweaking it for the western palate. I love giving traditional dishes a new twist. I like serving the bread as a cracker instead of the way it might traditionally be eaten.
For the Jan. 29th event, I decided it would be courses but not courses as you're used to seeing them. It would be courses at a Marathi wedding dinner.
SI: What happens at a Marathi wedding dinner?
KM: You have a traditional leaf plate that is ergonomically designed. It is called a patravalli and it is made of these large, almost heart-shaped leaves that are stitched or woven together into a plate or bowl. They're betel or banyan leaves. [At the supper club] there will be banana leafs (on plates, in consideration of my Western diners) and encouragement to eat by hand, [but we will have] metal bowls and traditional serving bowls, and servers will walk around serving courses.
At the top of the plate is the salt, because you only need a little bit. To the left will be a wedge of lemon or lime; it's there for flavoring if you want it. Further to the left will be one or two condiments, a chutney or a pickle. To the left of that will be the salad or what you might know as raita. Then you have the crispy, snacky things. It's traditional in India to eat with your right hand, so you put the stuff you don't need as much on the left side of the plate.
To the right of the salt is your dry vegetable dish. Then will be the sauced or gravy vegetable dish. To the right of that will be a lentil dish. Then right in the middle of the plate is the staple, which is rice or bread. That can easily be replenished, so you start with white rice with the lentils poured over it and a little drizzle of clarified butter. You would eat that with your hand and add a little bit of the various condiments as you need them. Everything is replenished as you need it.
For a special meal, once this rice/lentil dish is over, they would bring a dessert. Dessert is served as part of the meal, not after. It might be served with bread or it might be a sweet, stuffed bread served with rice and lentils. We mix sweet and savory flavors.
After you eat that, would be the spiced rice. We're progressing from light flavors to more intense flavors. The spiced rice would be fairly intense: cinnamon, coconut, cashew nights, eggplants, carrots. It would be more intense than any of the previous dishes.
The last course would be rice or, if you wanted, more bread, and a bit of buttermilk (plain or with salt in it). You pour it over the rice, mix it in and eat it that way. It works as a digestive. Then you finish up everything because you don't leave anything on the plate.
SI: Is it bad form to leave food on your plate?
KM: Yes, because people are frugal and they have to make do with not much. This is across the board in India. Then you would rinse off your hands with some water from your cup and toss away the leaf plate.
SI: What's the most common misconception about Indian food?
KM: That there is a dish called curry and that Indians use something called curry powder. If I went to India and said, "Give me a curry," they would stare at me and say "What?" A curry was actually a very specific dish made with yogurt and curry leaves, which are not even used in modern curry powders.
The British ruled India for 300 years. They probably tasted something they liked from an Indian chef and asked him to make a combination of spices they could take back with them. Curry comes from the word kadhi.
It's a stock taste. If I am cooking lentils, I will use certain spices. If I am cooking meat, I will use other spices. But if you just use "curry powder," everything will taste the same.
SI: A lot of people complain that you can't get good Indian food in LA. What do you think of the Indian restaurant scene here?
KM: Yes, you can't get good Indian food in Los Angeles. I think there may be one or two Indian restaurants in Artesia where you could get a good meal, but if you had anything to compare it to, it would be dismal. And people here also associate Indian food with divey food. I want to show that this doesn't have to be the case. It is such a sophisticated set of cuisines, it should achieve its rightful place in the pantheon of world cuisine.
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