Roopali Mohanti has curated a huge book of recipes that are both exotic, tasty and can be made from ingredients off your kitchen shelf. (Image: DC)
India is a land of rich culinary tradition. There is a huge variety of foods on offer across the country. We often think that what is exotic is hugely expensive and contains some rich ingredients. But here's an author, who has busted that myth. She has curated a huge book of recipes that are both exotic, tasty and can be made from ingredients off your kitchen shelf. Deccan Chronicle caught up with 'Servings-Simple yet Exotic' author Roopali Mohanti for an exclusive interview. Here are excerpts from the interview.
The book title reads—Simple yet exotic. What makes a simple dish exotic?
If you read through the recipes I have put together, they are all made from ingredients we keep in our kitchens. The cuisines covered in Servings have many recipes from our day-to-day menus. Hailing from Odisha, many of my dishes are from the state’s rich culinary tradition. However, everyone wants something that’s a little ‘different’ and hence the exotic - adding a few new ingredients, amalgamating a traditional dish from one cuisine with a technique or ingredient from another region or cuisine and of course plating the dish better - all of this leads to turning an otherwise simple dish into an exotic creation
Where did the inspiration to curate recipes for this book come from?
Growing up in the services, I always saw my mother extremely involved in the kitchen and home, including collating and writing up recipes she gathered from her various postings. My mother's recipe book, which has been an integral part of my cooking journey, has been the inspiration for Servings. The book with its yellowed pages and little anecdotes on the origin of the recipe always evokes beautiful food memories.
What kind of recipes have you covered in the book?
Servings is meant to be a hand-book to help in meal or menu planning. I’ve attempted to cover all meal periods, breakfast, brunch, starters, mains, desserts and gives my readers complete menu options by easily combining sections of the cookbook. Recipes range from various parts of India to Europe, Middle East and other parts of Asia – a true reflection of what I have seen my friends and family cook in their homes.
The book is nearly 500 pages. How much time did you spend on putting together this book?
Servings has been a 2 year journey. The first lockdown was the beginning of the process with recipe exchanges amongst friends. However, actually deciding on turning it into a cookbook was closer to the second lockdown in early 2021. The lockdowns gave me time to try out different combinations, experiment with flavours and make the recipes ‘fool proof’. It has been a labour of love and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.
Even celebrity chef Ranveer Brar has endorsed your book. How does it feel?
Chef Ranveer Brar endorsing the book was the best thing that happened for Servings. Having worked in the hospitality industry myself I have huge respect for chefs.The sheer grit it takes to work in these kitchens and create magic that one can taste is truly remarkable. Hence when he agreed to endorse the book, it was a superbly proud moment for me.
The book has a good mix of cuisines, how did that happen? Have you tried all the recipes mentioned in the book?
I grew up all over the country since my father was in the Indian Navy and was thus exposed to the rich local foods all over our country. I have also gathered the best recipes from friends and their families – the dishes and food that appealed to me over a casual dinner or a cup of coffee. Then of course, my professional training in hotel management - all the food production classes in college and finally my travels which lead to a constant interaction with various cuisines and food techniques and flavours. Servings is an expression of all these, written out in 500 odd pages of some of the food that I personally love the most. Yes, I have tried all the recipes and fed them repeatedly to friends and family, worked scientifically to accurately quantify ingredients and processes. Then of course the photoshoot I did for the dishes was like the final run!
Can simple home food be made exotic?
Most certainly, in this book there are a few attempts at doing precisely that, an example would be the Dalma bowl. Dalma is the most cooked simple lentil dish in Odisha, just using that to create an innovative rice bowl, topped with a crisp version of a local saag, basic kachumbar, peanuts, a chilly paste, potato sticks and fried pounded shrimp, each of these are basic yet when put together in this manner turn exotic..
For a few, cooking can be a chore, a must do routine job. But for a few others it could be gratifying. Given that cooking is a non-escapable daily activity, how can you make it a joyous experience?
Like anything else we do, the love for cooking does come from within. One of the overwhelming issues with cooking, especially among the younger generations, is the process and prep. My learning has been that the key to enjoying the daily task of cooking is getting organised with your meal plans well in advance This smoothens the workflow in the kitchen and reduces last minute hiccups like missing ingredients or repeating dishes once too often. Hence, in Servings, I have tried to lay down the meal plans in an easy to refer manner. Hopefully someone will rediscover their love for cooking using my tips!
Is there a dish you get right all the time? It could be one of your signature dishes.
For me baking tea cakes is my go to because they are always spot on. My favourite recipe in the book is the Tutti Fruity Pound cake, my childhood lunch box favourite. The best part about baking is that it’s all measured, hence once the proportions are in place, it’s an easy whip up. Among my family and friends though, it’s the Irish Cream Cinnamon Crumble Cake which is more popular – it hits the spot at every dinner I’ve cooked
Can you share any funny anecdotes from your cooking journey?
Luckily, I’ve never made a major gaffe like using sugar instead of salt..however I think trying to make the Odisha Rasagolla was quite the expedition. I had absolutely no clue as to how these are made. Thinking cap on called the family cook back in Bhubaneswar made him find a 'Gudia’ or halwai, Covid had ensured they were all home but convincing them to answer all my questions in their masked seclusion on the phone was hilarious. Then the realisation that allowing a portion of syrup to ferment overnight is what gives it a distinct flavour left me baffled! Just the entire process of chasing down in not the best of times is a story.
Do you watch cookery shows? What's your take on Masterchef episodes?
I watch a lot of cookery shows and enjoy them thoroughly. Masterchef I think is a great platform for cooks to step into the culinary world guided by some of the best in the business.
Do you think Indian television is missing out when it comes to food-based shows?
Yes. I certainly think internationally, there are a plethora of food based shows and some include great travel stories practically becoming guides for people. Indian television so far has had very basic food shows besides the ongoing Masterchef series. I would love to see a Chefs Table series or a Somebody Feed Phil kind of show here.
Travel and food go along. Name some destinations where you enjoyed their cuisine the most even though it was completely foreign to you?
Cambodia was a pleasant surprise, while one was expecting Asian flavours the cuisine is an absolute treat for the senses. Morocco for the African influenced middle eastern food and some great rustic meals. Japan, the ingredients, cooking techniques, flavours, visual appeal and the mind boggling variety of vegetarian options. A section in the Moroccan Mazzah is inspired from my trip.
What's your comfort food?
Noodles, can have them in any form!
The trend of Culinary travel has picked up and there is a separate section of people (bloggers/vloggers), who plan their travel solely to try the cuisine. Are you one of those?
Yes to a large extent. I have a bucket list of restaurants and food markets I would love to visit and try and learn to cook at these places as well.
Who is your favourite chef?
Can I not choose? There are too many inspirations to select just one, but if I did have to choose a cook my mom would win – without her nurturing, I don’t think I’d be the cook or author I am today!