I was born and brought up a Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin. Not sure who we are? Think of the Chandavarkars, Bhatkals, Haldipurs or even the Padukones. The personalities and people with these surnames and many more all belong to this small community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins – otherwise called Bhanaps.
The community is mainly concentrated in Karnataka and can trace its origins all the way back to Kashmir. Our cuisine, however, is anything but like that from Kashmir. Mainly vegetarian, the food is simple, easy to prepare and delicious.
However, before we delve into the cuisine of this small community, let me tell you a bit about our history.
Sometime in 7,000 B.C. a sect of Kashmiri Brahmins were living along the Saraswati River. In 1,000 B.C. with the river beginning to dry up, they began to migrate down from Kashmir to various parts of the country such that today, one can find Saraswat Brahmins in almost every state of the country.
A section of these immigrants who moved to the Western coast of India, found Goa to be a viable location to settle in – given its fertile soil and easy port access. They set up their temples in the state and became part of the landscape of the place. However, soon they found that Goa – thanks to its port access – was not as safe, with Muslims and the Portuguese establishing their rule there.
Yet again, a smaller section of these Saraswat Brahmins moved downwards to Karnataka and set up base there – mostly in the service industry. Today, that sect of Saraswats who set up their base in Gokarn and worship Lord Bhavanishankar and Maa Shantadurga (in Goa) are called Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins or Bhanaps. We speak a different dialect of Konkani, are mostly vegetarians and have a tendency to marry outside the community – yours truly being a stark example!
Introducing the cuisine
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have known even as much as I have explained here; for the simple reason that I didn’t think it was important to know. Having lived in a foreign country for most of my life, my culture and heritage was something that was not as prominent in my life as it is to people living in India. But, CSB or Amchi food as it is called colloquially, has been one of my favourite cuisines. When I was little, Amchi would be prepared by my mother regularly, sometimes interspersed with other dishes.
The cuisine – as is obvious – has been influenced by the several cultures it adopted across the journey from Kashmir to Karnataka. Most of our dishes are similar to Maharashtrian and Goan food and ingredients – this possibly owes to the fact that till after independence, the northern part of Karnataka – Hubli, Dharwad, Belgaum, etc., – came under Maharashtra, and Goa is a stone’s throw away. Other influences in the cuisine appear to have come from Mangalore – near Shirali where we consequently set up our Math.
For instance, our Kocholi (a cucumber salad with coconut and peanuts) is much like a Khamang Kakdi; the Tomato Saar or Amti, while being Maharashtrian, have vastly different flavours and their methods of preparation are worlds apart. Similarly, the Fish Ghashi, while having coconut as its main ingredient is nowhere near its Mangalorean cousin in flavour or even texture.
A regular day in an Amchi household will have a variety of dishes. Breakfast would have dosa items. The Surnoli is my favourite (more on that in later posts) – poha, rulaam (upma prepared differently) or even idlis. Lunch would typically have a dal item (Dali thoy or Ambat or Kholombo), with an upkari, rice and chapattis, as would dinner. Other popular main meals include the Bendi and Tambli; Saar and Pulses. Sweets include Madgane, Sukrunde and Kheer.
So, what makes the Chitrapur Saraswat or Amchi food different and unique?
1. We love our fresh coconut. It is used as the main ingredient of a gravy like the Kayras; for thickening an Ambat (a dal preparation); or even to merely garnish an upkari (vegetable stir-fry).
The coconut is grated on the traditional coconut scraper, and for a gravy, it is ground with a combination of roasted spices that is specific to each dish. I remember watching my grandmother grinding loads of spices with freshly grated coconut in a huge stone grinder and scraping the sides with bits of coconut shell (like a spatula)!
2. Unlike many other Coastal cuisines, like Malvani or Goan food, which use more of lime and kokam as the souring agent, Amchi food uses tamarind in a lot of its food – the Vaali Bendi is a brilliant example. A simple sour and spicy preparation of chillies, tamarind and garlic – this dish is traditionally made using Vaal or field beans.
3. Our spice quotient comes more from dried chillies than from a chilli powder. More often than not, these chillies are roasted along with other spices in a drop or two of oil and ground together with the coconut. We have a special preference for Byadgi chillies – a long crinkly chilli pepper that resembles a Kashmiri chilli in colour and appearance but is much more spicy!
4. To balance the sourness of tamarind, our favourite sweetener is jaggery. Our sweets, too, use jaggery instead of sugar! The coconut kheer – a simple combination of coconut milk, jaggery and rice is light and definitely not saccharine sweet! One of my favourite combinations is Paan Polo eaten with fresh coconut and jaggery!
In a nutshell, the cuisine is familiar, yet different, and is definitely a world of cuisine you would want to explore. In this series, I am going to take you into the world of Amchi cuisine, talk about the various combination in our meals.
We start with the Batata Saung – a gravy made using boiled potatoes, onions, red chilli powder and tamarind water.