Indian cuisine with Maunika Gowardhan
and her recipe for malwani hirwa tisrya masala

Gate of India, Mumbai

India

The food of India ranks high in terms of global popularity, but what is Indian cuisine, generally? With over a thousand spoken languages, 1.3 billion people and 29 states, India has an astounding number of cultures, and it is impossible to speak of the food as a single cuisine. Mumbai-born chef Maunika Gowardhan has a passion for exploring the cuisines that aren’t well known outside of India. One dish that immediately brings back childhood memories is malwani hirwa tisrya masala: clams cooked in a delicious coriander-coconut paste.

What food did you grow up eating?
“I'm from Mumbai, which is right on the coast. The seafood was in abundance when I was growing up, so it was never: will you eat fish, prawns, crabs or clams? It was: you will eat it. I remember going to the fish markets with my mother, where the fisherwomen were sitting just on the floor with their wicker baskets. It’s usually the women selling the seafood, with their beautiful jewellery and lovely clothes, whereas men would source the fish and prawns from the ocean at around two in the morning.

“My mother would haggle for a price and I would watch her wrap everything in a newspaper and bring it back home in a little shopping basket. It felt like I got my on-the-job training then. I still get so excited at the fishmonger shopping for good fish. Other people shop for clothing; I shop for fish. I could literally go and pick up the entire store, and I’m not kidding. When I go to a fishmonger I want his full attention. I want it scaled, I want the head separate, the body separate. I use the fish and prawn heads for curries - it’s what I’ve grown up doing.

“The dream would be when my parents would go to the seafood market on Sunday and bring big buckets of live blue swimmer crabs home. They’d go at six or seven in the morning, scouring the entire market to find the right fishmonger. My dad was on duty to clean all the crabs, and my mother would freeze them in batches and use them for my grandmother’s recipe of crab curry. Eating coconut spiced crab curry with blue swimmer crabs was just a dream.”

I’m craving a crab curry now! What else did you eat, apart from seafood?
“I grew up in a city that was extremely multicultural and diverse. As much as Mumbai is the financial district of India, it’s also the place where people tend to come to make a better life. You’d have Bengalis, Bohra Muslims, Gujarati, people from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, from Punjab, Rajasthan, Lucknow, from everywhere. As much as they come to make a living in a big city with big dreams, people also tend to use that space as their way of making their impact from a culinary perspective.

Stuffed aubergine curry

"On some days my mother would make a curry called bharli vangi with small aubergines stuffed with crushed peanuts and coconut – delicious with chapattis."

Maunika Gowardhan

"I had an amazing Bohra Muslim neighbour who made the best biryani [seasoned rice with meat, fish or vegetables]. She’d make a big pot and would give us a whole bowl of it on Sundays at 11 AM, and that was lunch sorted.

”My grandmother, actually, was one of the partygoers of the ‘60s in Mumbai. She hosted a lot of dinner events when she was in her heyday. To be fly on the wall in the ‘60s would’ve been fun – her dinner parties were known in the city to be some of the best. If you got an invitation from my grandmother then rest assured that if you said no you were missing out. She had a lot of Parsi friends, so a lot of things we ate at home was influenced by Parsi cuisine, such as the offal dishes that we tend to make. Chicken liver, chicken hearts or even lamb’s liver. Those influences come from the Parsi community and how they influenced the food in West India.”

And I imagine it was mostly seasonal and local.
“What people talk about today as being organic, seasonal, local is what we did in the ‘70s and ‘80s without even realising it. We didn’t have a supermarket with Canadian strawberries or Peruvian avocados. It was about what my mother would find in the market. She would haggle for a good price and we would inherently eat seasonal food. It could be a plain lentil curry or dhal with rice and some pickles – that was comfort food for me. But on some days she’d make a curry called bharli vangi with small aubergines stuffed with crushed peanuts and coconut – delicious with chapattis.

“Everything was homemade - the ghee, yoghurt, everything. I think I was very fortunate to experience a whole gamut of things, not just within my home, but also because of the food of all our neighbours and friends who came from amazing communities. Also the street food in cities like Mumbai, and across India, is just finger-licking good.”

Street food in India

In your work, you highlight dishes and recipes from all across India as well, don’t you?
“Yes, I try and celebrate food from various communities of India. It’s about showcasing and championing these regional pockets of India where there’s so much brimming and bursting in terms of spices, cooking techniques and ingredients. In doing that I’m delving more into the history and influences of these regional cuisines – also to find out more about dishes and curries that are lesser-known. I travel the length and breadth of India, and whenever I’m visiting somebody’s home, I actually sit down and talk to - for instance - the grandmother, to see her handwritten notes and to see what recipes she’s got. And she’d tell me about how she cooked them.

“I was in Chennai a few years ago, sitting with my friend’s grandmother. She was telling me how she wrote the recipes in the ’50s when she first became a housewife and got married and didn’t know how to cook. She showed me handwritten notes about all the recipes and all the traditional dishes that she was cooking. It broke my heart a little because I felt like I have met so many people across the journey over the last 18 years, many of whom have recipes that will not get out. They will not go anywhere if we don’t actually celebrate them and put them out there. A lot of communities across India are not given enough credits for the diversity of cuisine that’s there.”

Do you have an example of an underrepresented local dish?
“I did a Goan prawn pie recipe for Olive Magazine for instance. The pie is a traditional recipe with Portuguese influence, actually called apa de camarão, and very few people know about it. It’s rice flour batter; you add a prawn masala to the batter and layer it again with more batter and bake it in the oven. When cooking this I started to think about the origins of these recipes, the Portuguese influence on the dish, and how the Portuguese brought chillies to India. To think that we actually lived in India without chillies, or even the fact that it took at least 250 years for those chillies to make it to the north of the country, is astonishing.”

Indian food without chillies really is hard to imagine.
“I love chillies. I’m a huge fan of the regular Kashmiri dried chillies, whole as well as powdered – powdered lends a lovely, vibrant colour. I love bird’s eyes chillies too. In the west of India, there’s a relish called thecha using fresh, small, green bird’s eye chillies. You crush them with some burnt garlic, lime juice, sea salt and some peanuts. You just put it on the side of your plate, and it just gives that little relish flavour. Slightly spicy, salty, lemony – it’s the balance your meal needs.”

Kashmiri dried chillies

What other ingredients do you love?
“I’m a huge fan of green cardamom. It’s got a really floral aroma, but it also has a delicate warmth to it. I tend to use it whole in most curries, biryanis, or even when I’m just boiling rice. Then sometimes I will bash it coarsely, which works really well in chicken stir-fries. You can take out and grind the seeds, which are great in desserts. I made these little sweet, fried pastries yesterday. They’re stuffed with grated coconut, jaggery [Indian cane sugar], crushed cardamom and poppy seeds. You deep fry them, and they go crispy and golden on the outside, with this lovely, sweet filling on the inside. You can’t go wrong with ground cardamom.

“Finally, I add the green skin to a jar of sugar to give the sugar a floral scent. Or sometimes I just bash it in a pestle and mortar and add it to my chai in the morning. Cardamom is just so versatile.

“Another ingredient I absolutely love is cassia. It comes from the cinnamon family and is very similar. When I came to England I realised you can find a lot of cassia in Asian stores. It has a lovely kind of warm and deep, rich, dark flavour. Unlike cinnamon, cassia is actually the outer bark, so it’s stronger. When you break it, it doesn’t break into shards. It doesn’t powder. If you break cinnamon into little bits, you get little crumbly bits – that doesn’t happen with cassia. I use it for most Indian curries, but I also use it for desserts and chai. It’s one of my favourites.”

When do you use ground versus whole spices?
“I think the confusion that people have is; should I use one or the other? I would say: use both. Whole spices tend to have a longer shelf life. Stock more whole spices like whole green cardamom; cumin seeds; fennel seeds; cinnamon and black cardamom. You can always grind fennel and cumin seeds if you need to. You’ll get a fresher powder than if you were to stock up on store-bought powder. I usually say; don’t stock your powdered spices for more than five or six months. When it comes to your lamb, chicken and vegetables – you buy them fresh, but people tend to forget that spices need to be fresh as well.

“In terms of when in the cooking process you use one or the other; because whole spices are dried, they haven’t released all their flavour yet. You want to fry them first to have them release their essential oils, their aromas. When you then add your onions, garlic, tomatoes – then you can add your powdered spices. Also when you’re using blends like garam masala, you add them at the end because they’re already toasted and ground. They’ve already released their flavour. They enhance the aromatics of any kind of dish you’re adding them to.”

Spices

"When it comes to your lamb, chicken and vegetables – you buy them fresh, but people tend to forget that spices need to be fresh as well."

Maunika Gowardhan

You said earlier that you grew up with offal dishes. Is offal important in many Indian cuisines?
“Liver in India is known as kaleji and is very popular in the north. When I was growing up, my mum would make mutton kalejis, but also chicken livers. Chicken liver was my absolute favourite. She would wash them really well, put them in ginger, garlic and chilli and pan-fry them until they were par-cooked, then take them out and add the rest of the ingredients like onions, ginger, garlic and all the spices. Then she’d put the half fried liver back in the pan with lots of lemon juice, green chillies, and make a really nice, thick gravy. At the end, she would add pickled onions on top and we would normally have it with some chapattis or flatbread.

“It’s also very popular in Mughlai cuisine, essentially because they just wanted to use every part of the animal. In Old Delhi, you have these small, hole-in-the-wall, Mughlai places, where you should ask for kaleji. They will give you a good, nice, oily, spicy plate of it, some fresh hot naan and I think life is made.”

Are there ingredients from India that you miss now that you live in the UK?
“Mangos. You find boxes and boxes of Alphonso mangos here in Asian stores in London, but we’re used to having 15 or 20 different varieties of mangos. To go from that to having only Alphonsos, even while that’s the king of mangos, is a bit of a shame. We used to get these smaller mangos called kairi, which is an unripe, slightly sour mango. When I was younger, we would pick it from the tree, cut it and take the slices of the unripe mango and dip it in chilli and salt. That combination of sourness, spiciness and saltiness was amazing.

“Green mangos are also very much used in cooking. I have a recipe for a prawn and green mango curry. Prawn is so sweet and delicate, and then you’ve got the green, unripe mango, which is so sour. It marries really well. One of the reasons I think green mangos are often used in savoury dishes is because they hold their shape. Even when you cook it and boil it down, it still holds its shape. It takes the place of ingredients such as lime or tamarind, which lend a different kind of tartness to dishes.”

That mango-prawn curry is high on my list of dishes I want to make now. I’m afraid the following question is tricky, but I’ll give it a go – is there anything that unites all the cuisines of India?
“Every 20 or 30 kilometres you travel in India, the food changes. The dialect changes. The produce, the weather, the soil – it all changes. How we eat is based on that. However, as much as we talk about the diversity of it and how each of it is extremely unique, there are plenty of blurred boundaries. You could get a pulau [a spiced rice dish] that is being made in Gujarat, versus something called masale bhat which we make in Maharashtra, and they’re fairly similar. They do khatti dhal [sour lentils] in Hyderabad, we make atmi dhal in Maharastra. Both will have tamarind and jaggery sugar. There is certainly similarity. If you look at the western belt of India, we will use curry leaves. But they do so in Kerala as well.

Boathouses at Alleppey, Kerala

Alleppey, Kerala

“When we talk about similarities, we are also talking about how things have historically been and changed in years or centuries before us. You had the Mughals who would travel from the north to the south. If you look at the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh in general or Hyderabad [one of the state’s capitals] in particular, their dishes are bursting with flavour because they were influenced by the north of India. They use ingredients available in the south like coconut, curry leaves and black mustard seeds, but at the same time use ghee and crushed peanuts, and have really ostentatious biryanis – things more typical for the north. The whole region of Andhra Pradesh provides a good understanding of how similar the cuisines and the people are.

“Then people commonly talk about the Portuguese bringing chillies and all of that, but little is it known that the Portuguese actually travelled to the east of the country, to Bengal. The whole essence of Bengalis baking bread, biscuits and savoury treats comes from the Portuguese.”

Do you have an example of an underrated Indian cuisine?
“It seems almost cliché to go to the west of India and talk about Goa, but even in Goan cuisine, there are so many pockets and aspects of it that are completely unexplored. When talking about south Indian food, people commonly refer to Kerala. But there’s Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chettinad – it’s so diverse and so different. The east is associated with Bengal, but one of its most amazing and stunning dishes is santula from Odisha. It’s a vegetable curry, in which the vegetables are cooked in milk. It’s hearty, soupy and delicious.

“Every pocket I find becomes a champion. Mumbai is dynamic and diverse, but there are so many cities and regions in India that are completely unexplored. I think it’s about pushing the boundaries a little bit and actually trying to find out more about these regions. They all add their own uniqueness. They might be similar, but they all have their own nuances.”

Malwani hirwa tisrya masala

© Hodder & Stoughton

The Dish

When do people eat malwani hirwa tisrya masala?
“In India, we wouldn’t eat fish in the months that didn’t have the letter R. That probably has to do with the cycle of fish, and the produce of the fish. But this dish is popular around Diwali [festival of lights] or it’s perfect even just as a family meal. If my mother would buy prawns and crabs, she would also buy tisrya, which are clams. Mixing the clams along with the coconut paste… I hope people try this dish. The combination of the clams and coconut is just second to none. It defines home for me. It just brings a certain nostalgia that I just find very hard to explain. The whole idea of getting the meat from the clams, while the shell would be covered in that spicy coconut chutney, it was a joy of scooping that out along with the masala and eating it with chapattis. This was eaten on Sundays and most definitely if we had something really important or special to celebrate.”

Is this dish eaten in many other places in India?
“A lot of regional varieties are very popular. This recipe is how my mother used to make it, but if you go to other places across the coastal areas of the region, they make it slightly fierier and red in colour, using chilli and garlic. It has a different tone and depth to it. I’ve eaten it in many seafood places and the colours are sometimes very different. This version is much greener, with the coconut and coriander.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“There isn’t really an alternative, but you can make the paste in large batches and freeze it. As a base sauce or paste it’s pretty versatile with anything. To be fair, you could actually use aubergines, which work beautifully with coconut. Or even cauliflower and potatoes work really well. The base paste is the main thing. If you want to cook this in advance, you need to spend the most time cooking the paste really well. Double batch the paste and freeze the rest for the next time. Then you can choose, if you want to use it with clams, aubergines, cauliflower and potatoes, or courgette… any of that will work. Just adjust the cooking times if you’re using vegetables.”

The Ingredients

Tisrya masala
1.6 kg
clams
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
1
red onion, finely chopped
4
garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5 cm
fresh root ginger, finely chopped
1/4 tsp
ground turmeric
1 tsp
Kashmiri chilli powder or mild paprika
1/2 tsp
garam masala
1 tbsp
tamarind paste
salt, to taste
2 tbsp
fresh coriander, finely chopped, for garnish
Coconut paste
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
2
red onions, thinly sliced
150 g
freshly grated coconut
50 g
desiccated coconut
60 g
fresh coriander leaves and stems
2
green bird's eye chillies (or more if you like it spicy)
Tisrya masala
3.5 lbs
clams
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
1
red onion, finely chopped
4
garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 inch
fresh root ginger, finely chopped
1/4 tsp
ground turmeric
1 tsp
Kashmiri chilli powder or mild paprika
1/2 tsp
garam masala
1 tbsp
tamarind paste
salt, to taste
2 tbsp
fresh coriander, finely chopped, for garnish
Coconut paste
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
2
red onions, thinly sliced
1.5 cups
freshly grated coconut
0.5 cups
desiccated coconut
2 oz
fresh coriander leaves and stems
2
green bird's eye chillies (or more if you like it spicy)

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

In this recipe, tisrya (coastal clams) are cooked in a coconut gravy and a ground paste made from coriander, garlic and pepper. The thick masala coats the clams as they cook in their own stock.

Tip: make sure to buy clams that are undamaged and shut. If any are open, tap lightly and discard those that fail to close. Remember that clams like to burrow in the sand, so they must be washed before use to get rid of any grittiness.

  1. Put the clams in a large saucepan with 400 ml (1.5 cups) of warm water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3-4 minutes or until the shells have opened. Discard any that are unopened after 5 minutes. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve or muslin to get rid of any grit, and reserve 200 ml (a bit less than a cup) of the liquid.
  2. Now make the coconut paste. Place a large frying pan over a low heat and add the oil. When hot, add the onions and fry for 8-10 minutes on a low heat. As they soften and turn light brown, add the fresh and desiccated coconut. Fry for a further 4-5 minutes until they dry out slightly and go a pale brown colour, then add the coriander and bird's eye chillies and fry for 2 minutes. Leave the mixture to cool slightly, then blend with 250 ml (1 cup) water to form a thick paste. Set the paste aside while you make the tisrya masala.
  3. Place a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and add the first amount of oil. When hot, add the chopped onion and fry for 6 minutes until it starts to go brown. Add the chopped garlic and ginger and fry for 20 seconds, stirring well to make sure the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add the coconut paste along with the turmeric, chilli powder and garam masala and fry for 3-4 minutes. Again, stir well, scraping the bottom of the pan if it sticks. Add the tamarind paste, the preserved cooking liquid and salt, stir well and simmer over a low heat for a minute. The gravy should be thick so that it coats the clams and also helps them absorb all the flavour.
  5. Now add the opened and cleaned clams and stir well to make sure the masala coats them all. (This will require some armwork!) Cover and simmer over a low heat for 5-7 minutes until the clams are cooked, stirring from time to make sure they remain well coated in the masala.
  6. Garnish with plenty of coriander and serve with chapattis and salad.

Extracted from Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan (Hodder & Stoughton, London)

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