An author, TV personality and sought-after restaurant consultant, Karen Anand is both a gourmet and a gourmand. HELLO! dips into her delectable world of culinary masterpieces — with special excerpts from her new book.
In keeping with her penchant for perfection, culinary genius Karen Anand is dot on time for the launch of her book in Bengaluru. The poolside venue at the luxury hotel is crowded with ardent admirers queued up to get signed copies of Masala Memsahib: Recipes and Stories from My Culinary Adventures in India, Karen welcoming each of them with a smile.
Earlier, she spent time in the property’s kitchen, whipping up a delicious treat of her favourites for all. On the menu were prawn balchao, Bengal’s beguni with tomato chutney, and sweet potato smashes with mango chilli mayonnaise, among several other delectable dishes.
For Masala Memsahib, her old-school memoir of sorts of culinary experiences, the food writer and restaurant consultant travelled to five Indian states to document their diverse eating practices and gastronomic histories. As we chat, we realise there’s so much more to the woman who revolutionised the way Indians conceived food with her innovative forays into cooking. In this interview, the author takes HELLO! on a culinary voyage, recalling everything about her love affair with food and much more.
HELLO!: How long did it take to put together Masala Memsahib?
Karen Anand: “I’ve been collecting recipes since I was 18 and been writing Indian recipes since I came to the country in 1984. It’s essentially been 30 years of collecting recipes and stories, but I actually finished the book in 2020. So in less than a year.
H!: What’s your favourite memory and recipe from this culinary memoir?
KA: “When I interviewed Imtiaz Quereshi, the great chef-maestro of Lucknowi food, for TV. It was the end of the day when I tiredly told him, “I can’t do your kind of cooking as it takes time to source the ingredients.” He replied saying he’d teach me how to make kainchi kebab. While demonstrating it, he took out a little potli of masala he carried around in his pocket — like how people carry around pill boxes! I asked him what it was, and he just changed the subject. I remember thinking that even great chefs have to have their secrets.
H!: Your mum took to cooking Indian fare when you moved to London in the 60s. Share some of your earliest memories associated with food.
KA: “When we lived in Bandra, Mumbai, before we relocated to London, there was this cart that sold kiri kaleji, which I loved. My mother said I always loved these odd parts, not pieces of meat. When I returned to India several years later, I ate this vey kiri kaleji again at Mohammed Ali Road! And when my parents first arrived in Britain, they would take us out to dinner every Saturday evening.
But my culinary journey properly began when I went to Paris at 18. I lived with a French family and got to know about food, produce, ingredients, the passion with which the French eat and cook, and everything to do with food and wine. They plan meals for hours!”
H!: How would you describe those early adventures in the kitchen?
KA: “I didn’t really cook in my mother’s kitchen. I attempted to make some Indian food from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery when I first went to university and in Paris. My repertoire was limited to chaat with green chutney and tamarind chutney, shrikhand, prawn curry, a generic chicken curry and a saag mutton. Those were fun days.”
H!: Would you call Madhur Jaffrey an idol of sorts? Are there any food writers or cookery hosts you follow?
KA: “I think Madhur Jaffrey has done amazing things for Indian food. I look up to her wealth of knowledge. There are other writers I love not for their Indian recipes but for their food writing. Claudia Roden has done marvellous work on Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Jewish food. I love the way Nigella Lawson writes; I think her prose is beautiful. I like Russell Norman’s new book, Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking, which is, again, well written. I’m currently reading Falastin and Jerusalem by Sami Tamimi, who works with Ottolenghi in London.”
H!: You believe Indian food is heavily misrepresented abroad…
KA: “Most Indian food in the UK, for instance, was developed by Bangladeshis from Sylhet, who opened curry houses there in the 70s. In North England, you had ‘balti’ eating houses. So the kind of Indian food we saw in the UK in those days was really a mishmash of things. As Indian chefs started opening restaurants, the perception of our food there began to change. For example: at Colonel Saab, the London restaurant with which I’m involved, and Dishoom before that, I introduced dishes like doodh maach from West Bengal and the Nizami murgh tamarind curry from Andhra with baby aubergines instead of fish. I’ve tried to represent other regions of India, too.”
H!: What did you have in mind when you began to experiment with Indian produce for Western cuisines?
KA: “I believe in sourcing locally. For instance, when I started making jams and marmalades in the early 90s, I used Nagpur oranges available that season. When you are working on recipes where a certain type of, say chilli, is integral to the dish, you should try to source that (from the region it’s endemic to).”
H!: What kind of cuisine do you enjoy?
KA: “I love eating at home, be it simple khichdi or something more complicated. But when I go out, I enjoy the simplicity and aesthetics of Japanese food.”
H!: Your favourite restaurants around the world.
KA: “I love Bathers’ Pavilion in Sydney. It used to be a simple restaurant but is quite swanky now. I love the idea of a restaurant on a beach. So to me, it’s not just the food but the ambience, as well. I love a restaurant with a view! There are many in Australia, southern France and Italy. I visit Venice often, too. I’m quite fortunate to be able to do that as I simply loved Osteria there, and mom-and-pop places with simple food by a canal. That’s a lovely experience, just sitting outside looking over the water. That does it for me.”
H!: Is it true that you carry your Indian masalas in pouches when you travel abroad?
KA: “It comes with the territory! But yes, I do because I had a terrible experience once in Bali, when I stayed with a friend. I wanted to reciprocate (the hospitality) in some way, and he said the best gift would be to cook an Indian meal for him. It was terrible! I spent more time and money going around Bali looking for dal, kokum, prawns… It took me the better part of the day!”
H!: One cuisine you’d love to master.
KA: “I’d love to cook Japanese fare well. You need good produce, which I occasionally buy when I’m in London or the Far East. I’d also love to learn to cook really good regional Chinese dishes because I find some of them interesting.”
H!: What’s next for you?
KA: “I may finally open a restaurant! I’m working on a range of vegan Indian recipes for an international company. It’ll be great if that works out. I love the idea of taking regional Indian food overseas. That’s something else I might look at, so let’s see… The world is my oyster!”
Corn In A Creamy Sauce
• 3 fresh Sweetcorn Cobs, each broken into three
• 1 tsp Salt
• A pinch of Sugar
• 1 cup Coconut Milk
• 4 Green Chillies
• 4 tbsp Fresh Coriander, chopped
• 1-inch piece of Ginger
• 2 tbsp Oil
• 2 tsp Mustard Seeds
• 8 Curry Leaves
• ½ cup Yoghurt, whisked
• ½ cup chopped Coriander to garnish
1. Place the corn in a large saucepan and add enough water to just cover. Add a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of sugar. Boil till the corn is soft for about 5 to 7 minutes and remove. Don’t throw away the water!
2. Grind the green chillies, ginger and coriander together with a few spoons of the coconut milk to make a paste. Add this paste to 2 cups of the water from the corn.
3. Heat the oil in a small pan and add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. Stir this into the liquid, too, and simmer on low heat. Add the remaining coconut milk and whisk in the yoghurt. Season and add the corn cobs. Cover and continue to cook on low heat for at least 5 minutes.
4. Serve hot with plain boiled rice and garnish with chopped coriander.
Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves
Serves 4 to 6
• 3 full Banana Leaves
• 6 slices of Pomfret or any white fish, cut into thick slices of at least ½ an inch
• 2 tbsp Sugarcane Vinegar
For the coconut chutney (grind all together)
• 1 heaped cup grated Coconut
• 6 green Chillies, de-seeded
• 1 cup packed Coriander leaves
• ½ cup Mint leaves
• 12 cloves of Garlic, peeled
• ½-inch piece of Ginger
• 1 tsp Cumin, roasted
• 4 tbsp Lime juice
• 1 tsp Sugar
• 1 tsp Salt
1. Cut the banana leaves into six large pieces, removing the centre stem. Pass the leaves over a gas flame quickly to soften them.
2. Layer the chutney on each slice of fish and place them on the banana leaves. Fold the leaves over to completely cover the fish and form a parcel. You may need to use two pieces of leaf per slice of fish to cover them properly. Tie the parcels with a thread and set aside.
3. Heat the water and vinegar together in the bottom part of a steamer or a large pan. Place the parcels of banana leaves two at a time in the steamer or in a colander over the pan. Steam them for at least 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the fish.
4. Unwrap the parcels at the time of serving only.
Spring Onion & Dry Prawns
• 1 cup dry prawns with shell, or ½ cup without the shell
• 1 big bunch of spring onions (around 15); cleaned, washed, wiped dry and chopped
• 1½ tsp garlic, crushed
• 4 green chillies, chopped fine
• 4 tbsp oil
• Salt to taste
1. If the prawns have shells, toast them in a frying pan till they turn golden and crispy. If they are without the shell, reconstitute in a little warm water for 10 minutes. Drain, but keep the water.
2. Toss the prawns in a hot frying pan with a teaspoon of the oil and fry for 2 minutes. Remove. Heat the remaining oil in the same frying pan or wok (ideally a kadhai). Throw in the garlic and green chillies. Cook till they are golden and add the spring onions. Mix well till the greens just wilt. Do not add any water.
3. Add the prawns to the pan. If the greens stick to the bottom, add a tablespoon or two of the water in which you soaked the prawns. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.
4. It should take no more than 5 to 7 minutes to cook the entire dish.
5. Eat warm with a roti, or serve as an accompaniment to rice and a yellow dal.
Photography: Sameer Belvalkar
This interview has been adapted for the website from an interview that was originally published in HELLO! India’s January 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!