Q & A with Kaumudi Marathé: Regional Spices, Hot Oil Seasoning + Marathi Cuisine
Chef Kaumudi Marathé prepares dinner for an Un-Curry Table event.
Born in Pune, India, Kaumudi Marathé grew up all over the world. (Her parents loved to travel and took jobs in far-flung locales.) After her early years living on and off in Maharashtra, a central Indian state that's home to the city of Mumbai and nearly 100 million people, she lived from ages 9 through 14 in Canada.
Marathé married and, when she was 28, moved with her husband to the United States, where she began exploring her roots and developing her love of cooking. Years later, she launched her own catering company, Un-Curry, specializing in Marathi food, a regional Indian cuisine that's rarely found (outside of private homes) in the U.S.
After a successful launch at Surfas in November, Marathé began hosting The Un-Curry Table, an occasional pop-up supper club. Inspired by the traditional Marathi wedding dinners of her youth, the next event will be held this Saturday, January 29. ($35/person. Spots are still available. Location revealed when diners RSVP.)
Squid Ink: How did you get into cooking?
Kaumudi Marathé: I'm a journalist by profession, but when I got married I started writing down my grandmother's Marathi recipes. "Marathi" means "people from Maharashtra." I was fairly westernized when I went back to India. So for me, that kind of traditional food was something I looked forward to when I went back to visit.
A small publisher in Bombay approached me. I wrote a book for him of family recipes from both sides of my family, "Maharashtrian Cuisine: A Family Treasury." For the longest time, it remained the only book of its kind in English. The thing is with a lot of Indian food abroad, it is north Indian food like samosas and tandoori or south Indian fast food. The whole rest of the country has been ignored until recently. For me as a journalist, this was a great way for me to explore my roots. And the more I did it, the more I found there was a need to do this before it was lost.
SI: When did you come to the United States?
KM: I moved to the U.S. in 1996 and came to Los Angeles in 1998. My husband was going to the university of Texas, and actually they have a great Indian collection. I started cooking my way through all the big cookbooks in the U.S. Over the years I developed an understanding of where Indian food was in the scheme of things, and I developed a jargon to explain Indian food to the west.
Americans look toward French food from the west, as their Mecca. I look at French food from east of there. I think that Indian and Chinese food are extremely sophisticated and complex and, as far as Indian cuisine goes, I think it needs to get its due.
SI: What did that develop into?
KM: In 2005, I pitched a book to Penguin. It was, again, the food of my region, but it was more representative of my whole state: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, different castes, different areas. It was only released in India and came out in late 2009: "The Essential Marathi Cookbook." They sold out the first print run in 6 months. Both books are written in English because my mother tongue is English.
SI: How did your cooking career develop?
KM: When we moved here, it was because my husband went to school and I was on a spouse visa. I couldn't work for money, so I just worked on my projects. Then, in 2007, I got my work papers and could finally start working. By then it had become clear to me I wanted to do something with food.
For two years, I researched the roots of the word "curry" to write an article for Gastronomica. It became clear to me: What I really wanted to do was share Indian food with southern California and dispel the myths about Indian cuisine. The way I explain it is that India is the size of Europe, and each region is like a different country. That's why I called [my catering company] Un-Curry.
SI: What distinguishes Marathi cuisine from other regional Indian cuisines?
KM: It's a very large state with a big coastline. Along the coast, there is a lot of seafood and also mango. It's less fertile inland, so you'll have more millet and sorghum. Some regions have tons of rainfall and some are like a desert, but the whole state is very frugal. For example, if they have pumpkin, they'll dehydrate the rind during the summer months then pound it into a powder and flavor it with spices, so it becomes a condiment. That way, in the very rainy or very hot season when you don't have much produce, you can get some nutrition from vegetables.
They also pickle mango and all sorts of other fruits and vegetables in oil and put those up, sort of like you do with preserves. You put them up for a year or two, so when it's pouring rain, you can pull out a jar and eat that.
SI: How different are spices from region to region in India?
KM: Very different. That is the case all over India. It can vary from city to city, from village to village. In Punjab you can find a lot of garlic, ginger, onion and tomato. It's somewhat more rustic food.
In Kashmir, the spicing is more subtle, and because it's colder, the food tastes more European in some ways. They use saffron, dried ginger, anise, anise seed powder and ingredients like mushrooms, which you don't find anywhere else in India. Also chestnuts, apples, morels, kohlrabi and kale. These ingredients aren't common in other Indian regions.
In other regions they use mustard oil. In my state we use a lot of peanut or sesame oil. In the south, like in Kerala, they use a lot of coconut oil. The oil is important. What I think makes Indian cuisine is the hot-oil-and-spice seasoning technique.
SI: For people who might not know, can you explain the hot-oil-and-spice seasoning technique?
KM: Braising stewing, baking, frying... these are universal techniques. With Indian food, you first heat up some oil and drop in spices to release their aromas and flavors. Over those, you layer ingredients. That is how you build a dish as opposed to European cooking, where you have ingredients and fat and then you might add the seasoning.
I can taste a dish and know it's from east India or sometimes Punjab because it's got mustard oil and also because of the ingredients.
[In Marathi cooking] we use a lot of black or brown mustard seed. It is different than the prepared mustard that is used here [in the United States] because it's whole and pungent, and the flavors really only release when you pop it open or crush it. The seasoning oil allows the seeds to pop, and what you're popping open are mustard or cumin seeds.
The word "phodna" means to break open. "Phodni," which is something you are breaking open, is the word for the hot oil seasoning that you make.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview, as well as Marathé's recipe for tomato coconut soup.
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