Celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi With an Unlikely Chef

Meet chef Kaumudi Marathe, who is trying to change the notion of what Indian food is to Westerners.

4 min read
Kaumudi Marathe at her catering company  – UN-CURRY.

For Kaumudi Marathe, living out of a suitcase was the norm. From Pune to Wales, she hopped cities and countries with her parents only to settle in Los Angeles, finding a home far away from her roots.

But Maharashtra and its rich diversity tugged at her very core, opening avenues for her to explore the regional cuisine and its paraphernalia quite early in her life.

A journalist-turned-chef, Marathe wrote her first book on Indian temple architecture, and moved to exploring the nuances of Marathi cuisine after collating material from her family. That’s how The Essential Marathi Cookbook – a book well-received for its lucid structure and insight into traditional Marathi fare – came about.

The chef at work.
The chef at work.
(Photo Courtesy: Kaumudi Marathe)

Now, two cookbooks later, she’s carved a niche for herself in LA. Marathe runs a catering company and culinary school named ‘UN-CURRY,’ an initiative that aims to dismantle ‘curry’ as an umbrella term and help Indian food enthusiasts look beyond the West’s notion of Indian fare.

When I was in Bombay, the regional food movement hadn’t started then and there were only one or two restaurants that served regional fare. But, if you asked people what is Marathi food, they didn’t know. So, unless you had a Marathi friend whose house you went to, you never really got to taste the rich diversity of the cuisine.
Kaumudi Marathe, chef and entrepreneur, UN-CURRY

But, what triggered her love for food?

“Some of my potent memories are food memories and I connect them with happy experiences,” the chef said.

One of her favourite childhood memories is feasting on her grandmother’s cream and sugar sandwiches on a day when the lights went out, when she was immersed in haunted folklore. The cream, she said, was freshly skimmed from the milk and set aside for churning butter, and the roughly processed sugar crystals paired well with it on a slice of white bread – a clear childhood delight!

When she grew up, Marathe was unsettled with the rapid technological changes that gripped the world, outpacing traditional methods of cooking. A blender replaced a grinding stone and things she grew up watching were fast disappearing from the market. A documentation was, therefore, necessary.

And while she was doing so, her friends encouraged her to start a restaurant in LA. The result was the birth of ‘UN-CURRY.’

21 years later, Marathe is comfortably settled in LA. From Diwali to Ganesh Chaturthi, she rings in the festivities with her culinary delights.

“I have always loved the idea of Ganpati as a deity, not because Marathis love him but because he’s so sculpturally adorable and pleasing. He’s known for prosperous beginnings. He’s a pleasant God. I try and make this more important than Diwali. I make modaks and karanji to celebrate the occasion. On the last day of the festival, we invite friends over and make the kids shape Ganpati out of clay,” she said.

Marathe has a collection of over 100 Ganesh idols and has brought up her daughter on the mythological folklore associated with the much-revered deity.

During the festival, Marathe makes a large spread for her guests, which includes dishes such as varan bhaat, daal, puris, shrikhand, and karanji. On an average day at UN-CURRY, she takes an unconventional route to cooking. Pumpkins in the US are not as sweet as they are in India, so to prepare her Marathi pumpkin raita she uses butternut squash instead and pipes the raita on small crostinis, serving them as an appetiser.

Beetroot raita.
Beetroot raita.
(Photo Courtesy: Kaumudi Marathe)
Santosh (Contentment).
Santosh (Contentment).
(Photo Courtesy: Kaumudi Marathe)

However, teaching at the culinary school is a challenge at times, because her students come to learn how chicken tikka masala or chai is made. Marathe makes them unlearn all of that, taking them through the map of India and helping them understand that the food pigeonholed as Indian cuisine is food from Punjab alone, and that there are so many other states and regional cuisine that they do not know about.

The problem lies with popularisation of specific dishes that cater to the taste buds of Westerners, she said. It’s the same as having the perception that Mexican fare is limited to tacos and burritos.

Marathe wants to change this perception. “Marathis are not entrepreneurs, so they never took their food outside the country, but there’s this amazing food that I grew up with and I want to share that with the others.”

This Ganesh Chaturthi, Marathe is planning to cook a range of dishes to celebrate the occasion. She’s offering a traditional Marathi thali.

The marathi thali comprises santosh, beet raita, lemony green peas, tamarind chutney, ground chicken with cumin, and Basmati rice.
The marathi thali comprises santosh, beet raita, lemony green peas, tamarind chutney, ground chicken with cumin, and Basmati rice.
(Photo Courtesy: Kaumudi Marathe)

As a parting delight, she agreed to share the recipe of karanji with our readers. So, if any of you want to try your hands at making a popular Marathi snack, note the recipe laukar!

Note: Karanjis are flaky pastry crescents filled with rich, sweetened coconut, traditionally made for Ganpati and Diwali in Maharashtra. The filling uses fresh/dried coconut while the pastry is made from wheat, rice flour, or even parched rice. The pastries can be fried, steamed, or baked. This version is fried.

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