How can someone stay away from the wonderful facets of the culinary world for long if they have been surrounded by foodies and chefs all their lives? Chef Smita Deo thanks her stars for getting married into a food-loving family that not only loves to eat but cook too. While the dynamic Deo-trio whips up marvels in the home kitchen, Chef Smita continues to amaze us with her interactive and delicious recipes on social media. Entering the kitchen at a tender age of thirteen, the chef has managed to bring the flavours of her native cuisine of Karwar on the table, one step closer to us. The widely-acclaimed cookbook author rose to fame with her learnings in “From Karwar To Kolhapur Via Mumbai”

Working on her next big project based on Kolhapuri fare and managing to grab eyeballs with her stint at Get Curried, Chef Smita Deo dons her hat and lets us in on her cooking secrets and a special Karwari dish. 

Here are excerpts from an exclusive tête-à-tête with the Chef herself. 

Q1. What’s your first memory of cooking food?

My first memory of seeing food being cooked was when I was 10 years old at our ancestral home in a small, quaint, village called Aversa in Karnataka. During one of our summer holidays in Aversa, I happened to wake up earlier than usual and was looking out for my mum in the house, till I found her in the kitchen. I stood at the kitchen door mesmerized with the view. The early morning rays of the sun from the kitchen window, was giving a warm glow to the kitchen. The smell of wood fire along with the fragrance of ripe jackfruit was all over the kitchen. Amma (Grandmother) and mum were cooking breakfast. Phansa bhakri (flat-bread made with jackfruit) was being made from the jackfruit of our very own tree. A pile of fresh green banana leaves were being cut into squares to dab the batter on, and some to serve breakfast. The delicious aroma of the food, the fragrance of the wood fire and the warm glow in the kitchen had put me in a trance. This was the most memorable moment in the kitchen for me in my childhood.

And as for me cooking for the first time in the kitchen was when I was around thirteen years of age, my mum’s friends had come over for tea and she had asked me to make coffee for them giving me instructions and I think I had done a decent job with the assistance of our house help Meera. Ever since then, the kitchen has been my laboratory. Soon enough, the first meal I ever cooked was my favorite dalitoi (dal), rice and batataya phodi (pan-fried potatoes) to everyone’s surprise.  

Q2. Since the shift you made from your native village Karwar to Kolhapur, how has your style of cooking undergone changes?

The cuisine of Karwar and Kolhapur are totally distinct in taste. The cuisine I grew up with from Karwar is a simple, fresh and mildly-flavoured one. Our staple food is the fruit of the sea, i.e. fish along with rice which grows in abundance and tall coconut trees that line up most homes. A simple fish curry made with a fresh coconut base and rice is our staple meal. Gourds like ridge gourd, ivy gourd, snake gourd, grow in plenty. The style of cooking these vegetables is rather simple. Either a talasni (a stir-fried technique) or an upkari (sautéed) is made with vegetables. We mostly use coconut oil in our cooking, the use of peanut oil has come in the recent past in our cuisine though I still prefer coconut oil. The use of spices are minimal, the basic spices we use are bedgi chillies, coriander seeds, tepal (a relative of the Sichuan pepper), kokum, turmeric leaves and tamarind. The use of all these fresh ingredients and simple techniques of cooking make the cuisine of Karwar unique and when served on a fresh green banana leaf looks and tastes divine.

Now for the cuisine that I am married into is a robust one, quiet opposite to the one I have grown up eating. Mutton being the staple meat and bhakris made of jowar, bajra and nachni forming a part of the everyday meals. The use of lavangi mirchi and spices, roasted and pound to make the famous Kolhapuri kanda lasoon masala, makes the cuisine deliciously masaledaar. People have a misconception that Kolhapuri food is spicy. It’s rather masaledaar. Most of the gravies are made using roasted dry coconut and onions as the base. Missal and usal made with lentils are popular. Since Kolhapur is also known as the sugar belt, jaggery is used in certain vegetables. Certain curries also have peanut-based gravy. Besides the famous Kolhapuri Tambda and pandra rassas, there are many other unique recipes that are lesser-known but are a part of this cuisine (which I will share soon in my next book).

So coming back to the point, both these cuisines being absolutely different.  My style of cooking hasn’t changed much as the techniques used are different which I have adapted to, accordingly. 

Q3. What are the flavours of Karwar like? Any special dishes you can recall? 

Source: Chef Smita Deo Official/Instagram 

The flavours of Karwar are mild, fresh to taste and simple. Some of the special dishes we make are tisrya vade (clam cutlets), maskasanga phoola vade (cutlets made with drumstick flowers), phovu (poha made with a special masala), patoli, a sweet made with rice paste and sweetened coconut that is steamed in fresh turmeric leaves and tausali (cucumber cake). These are some that I can recall.

Q4. Would love it if you could share a detailed recipe of your favourite Karwar dish! 

Palapansa phodi (pan-fried bread fruit) 

Ingredients

  • 1 tender breadfruit (available seasonally with any south Indian vegetable vendor)
  • 1 cup of rava
  • 1½ tbsp chilli powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • Coconut oil for shallow frying

Method

  1. Mix the rava, chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt in a bowl.
  2. Remove the skin of the bread fruit and cut into half, length wise and the fruit into 1 cm thick slices
  3. Place the sliced breadfruit in a vessel filled with water.
  4. Keep a pan to heat. 
  5. Remove each piece of breadfruit from the water and coat it with the above coarse mixture and shallow fry and kurkurit (crisp) in a pan. Cover and cook. 
  6.  This khuskhusit, kurkurit (soft and crisp) favorite dish of mine serves 3-4 people. 
  7.  This breadfruit is not available throughout the year, only from the month of May to August. You will find them at vendors selling South Indian vegetables.

Important note: You can use potatoes, brinjal or cauliflower instead of breadfruit. Cut the potato, or if using brinjal, then the eggplant into ½ cm thick slices. In case you are using cauliflower, then take big florets, cut length-wise and follow the above method. 

Q5. Have you always been from a food background? If not, how did you develop an inclination towards this industry? 

My mum is an excellent cook and she was a great host as well. The dishes she would rustle up in her kitchen always gave her tons of compliments, specially her fried fish. Her advise to me was that one should learn to cook and put a decent meal on the table at the end of the day. She introduced me to her kitchen at a very young age and kept encouraging and praising me for the dishes I cooked well, which motivated me to keep cooking and experimenting. I had learned to cook an array of dishes, not just recipes of Karwar but I loved to experiment with biryanis. Since my parents are foodies they appreciated all that I cooked and served. 

Fortunately, the family I married into is also full of foodies and cooking for them was fun too. My mother in-law was pleasantly surprised to see my culinary skills as my appearance of a modern “Bandra girl” had deceived her. Most of our family and friends would love what I cooked and would regularly ask me for recipes, that’s when I thought I should write my cook book. 

Q6. Since social media is the new way of connecting, how have you made use of it during the pandemic? 

Social media has been one of the best ways to connect with people during the pandemic. During this phase, it was difficult to procure ingredients easily and with many not having a house help, it was difficult for most to cook elaborate meals as well. I have a large family of 11 and in spite of the house help, it was not easy to cook the regular fare, so I would curate simple nutritious one-pot meals and serve them. I posted these recipes on my social media handles too so that anyone and everyone who needed help would be able to follow these useful recipes. I also managed to do a few online sessions, talking about the benefits of using the traditional Indian cookware for cooking and serving. Certain cooking sessions were fun to do as well. My son, Yug and I would shoot hands-on videos and he would edit and post them for me, which was a good activity to keep a 23-year old busy. 

During the pandemic, many went through anxiety and depression issues. Since I have been dealing with mental issues for many years and creating mental health awareness, many unknown people who are now friends have connected with me and I have simply heard them and tried to make them feel better, shared a few of my experiences too which I hoped helped. So during the pandemic, social media was definitely a boon for me. 

Source: Chef Smita Deo Official/Instagram 

Q7. How did Get Curried happen and how has your experience been creating video recipes with them? 

During the release of my cook book Karwar to Kolhapur Via Mumbai in April 2016, I happened to meet a food blogger Shilpa Chawla who had bought my book and was keen to meet me regarding a blog she was writing. During one of our meetings she said that it would be a great idea for me to showcase my recipes on YouTube and she recommended me to the directors in Rajshri for their food channel Get Curried. After meeting the team and sharing my ideas with them, we decided to a mock shoot and luckily I passed the test, considering the fact that I was very camera conscious! It has been fun working with the team of Get Curried, working with different directors and curating new recipes and improvising my plating has been fun. We usually shoot from my kitchen at home and try to finish all the 4 recipes for the month before lunch and then its pasty time during lunch where we all sit together and have the dishes I have cooked, since getting feedback from them is important too. I look forward to shooting with them more often in the future. 

Q8. We’ve heard that you’ve authored a cookbook too. Was that always a part of the plan? Tell us more about it. 

Writing a cookbook was always a part of my plan for many years but somehow I could never manage to take out the time to write it. I had begun documenting the recipes but I didn’t want to write a regular cookbook with just recipes and pictures. Due to some reason, I was unable to come up with an interesting idea to talk about the cuisine of Karwar or Kolhapur. After dealing with some frustration, I buried the idea under the table. 

In 2010, along with my childhood friend Meenakshi, we opened an organic store called “Our Lil Bit”. We were supporting many NGOs and artisans from across India, by getting their products to the city and showcasing them. After running it successfully for 3 years, it suddenly became difficult to sustain and so we shut shop in 2013. 

Once again, I was sitting at home and in no time, my mental health issues resurfaced. It was at this time where Abhinay, my husband, suggested that I get back to writing my book. After much thought, I came up with an idea that I would write a book about the life in Karwar and Kolhapur and the recipes that I learnt. I wanted people to know all about my childhood days in my native home and so I started to pen down all my wonderful memories and it took me three long years to complete it. Once the manuscript was ready, Abhinay read it and suggested the name “Karwar to Kolhapur Via Mumbai”. I did approach a few publication houses but I was not ready to edit my content and so I decided to go in for self - publication. This is how a new journey in the culinary world began for me. 

Q9. One ingredient that you love working with and why? 

I love working with meats because I am very interested in cooking meats with different techniques and flavours.

Source: Chef Smita Deo Official/Instagram 

Q10. Any food trend or technique that intrigues or inspires you and have you tried it yet? 

Cooking food on fire is something that I am very keen on doing and though, as a child when we would visit our ancestral home, I have eaten food cooked on wood-fire regularly, but cooking on wood fire is something I would love to do. 

Baking is something that I want to understand and learn as well. I generally don’t cook with measures, I cook from my heart and so cooking with measures is something I find very difficult which is something I look forward to overcoming in the future.  

Q11. Do you have any professional education in the field of culinary arts? 

I have completed my education in B.HSc majoring in textiles and my culinary education began since the age of thirteen from home with my Mum, Kaki and Amma (grandma) being my Gurus.

Q12. What keeps you so driven and motivated to cook? 

Cooking and feeding is something that satiates me thoroughly. I come from a family of foodies and fortunately I am married into one too, so cooking for my family and friends and seeing them smile and looking trupt after a meal, motivates me to keep cooking, though my son blames me for spoiling his taste buds. 

Q13. If there was one fare that you could have for the rest of your life, which one would it be- Karwar, Kolhapur or Mumbai?

Since I was eight years of age I gave up eating meat, fish and poultry and turned into a vegetarian. Ever since then till I got married , every single meal, I kid you not, was only rice, dalitoi (a simple dal that’s cooked with ginger and chilles and laced with a coconut oil tadka) and batatya phodi (pan fried potatoes) a simple Karwari fare. Idli and dosa are my most favourite, these are comfort foods for me and even today I relish them thoroughly. 

Q14. What does your home kitchen look like? 

Though my kitchen has a modern look, but the utensils and gadgets I use are traditionally Indian. I cook in clay pots, kansa, and cast iron, the masalas I grind on a pata varvanta (motar and pestle). My idli, dosa batters are ground on a ragda. You will find all these utensils and gadgets proudly placed in my kitchen.

Q15. 5 things that we’ll always find in your pantry! 

Some of the ingredients you will always find in my pantry are kokum, tepal, potatoes (which are my favourite), coconut oil and fish.

Q16. Do your son and husband also enjoy cooking or are you the chef at home too? 

My son, Yug as a child always wanted to be a chef and since the age of eight, he would love to be in the kitchen and cook eggs and bake muffins, till he grew up and chose to become a cinematographer. Currently, he has shifted to his own house and is discovering the joys of cooking. Most mornings, he calls me up for quick and easy recipes and then sends a picture of the dish he cooks. Abhinay is a fantastic baker. He finds baking therapeutic. Besides baking cakes and breads, he makes amazing desserts. Sunday breakfast of eggs and toast and fruits are usually rustled up by him and Yug. As a family, we three enjoy cooking and have a lot of fun in the kitchen.

Q.17. After so many feathers in your cap, what’s the next step? Anything our readers should keep an eye for! 

Source: Chef Smita Deo Official/Instagram 

Currently, I am writing a book on Kolhapur. But due to the pandemic, travel has been a bit difficult and so my research on the city has taken a break. Once the situation gets a bit better, I am hoping to get back to it.