An Artist in the Kitchen

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition,Jenny Pinto cooks a traditional Mangalorean fish curry, and brinjal in coconut milk, recipes from her family cookbook Love to Cook: Cook to Love.

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Jenny Pinto is an artist and a filmmaker. She is also a mother who moved cities for her daughter; a daughter who authored a cookbook for her mother; an aunt who huddles in the kitchen with her two nieces; and the oldest of five siblings who grew up in Bandra, in a family anchored around food.

Her mother, Meena Pinto, was a caterer, most well known for running the Prithvi Cafe adjoined to the iconic theatre in Juhu. "Cooking, for her, was truly an alibi for love." As we sip on chilled limejuice in Jenny's sunny terrace garden in Bangalore, blooming with monstera and a burst of tropical flowers, she confesses that it took her a long time to return to the kitchen. "It was difficult as a ten-year-old. All our memories of home are about food, but as young kids, we didn't enjoy it – we were always being sent out to buy something, or to decorate a salad instead of running out to play... I was the oldest of the five, so I got the brunt of it,” she laughs. For years, Jenny resisted entering the kitchen in her own home. But in the end, she couldn't escape its call. "You hit forty, and then you realise you've become your mother. Now like her, I find I enjoy cooking for other people."

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Jenny’s kitchen, like the rest of her house, reflects the artist's aesthetic – full of beauty and thought. Antique kitchen implements like puttu steamers and an iddiappam press gleam brightly. A kettle and a mann-chatti are already on the stove; neat baskets and enamel jars organise her spices and spoons, and a magnetic strip holds her knives at the ready.

She is cooking a Mangalorean fish curry and summery brinjal salad today. As she dry-roasts the spices in a small wok, Jenny appears relaxed and comfortable; we exclaim at it because she is wearing a sari – shorter than we are used to seeing, with the pallu tucked in, to stay out of the way. "I started wearing it like this at my studio, it’s so comfortable to work in."

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The studio is where Jenny works her magic with paper and light. After 20 years making films in Bombay, a very collaborative art form, Jenny wanted to do something that was more individually creative. "I thought I’d be potter, but then I discovered paper, and the connection was just instant. I instinctively understood the material, like a fish to water, and doors just opened up,” she says. “Making paper is easy; what you do with it of course, is another matter."

Jenny makes paper from natural fibres like banana, grass, sisal and mulberry, and designs lights that are stunningly sculptural, mimicking nature. "I find inspiration there – in stone, bark, the sea, parched earth, the forest canopy."

As she tosses the onions in a vinaigrette of lime, chilli, ginger, and sugar, the black pomfret rests in a marinade of salt and turmeric. “This fish curry uses no oil; only a bit of water. And I like to make a tadka with Kashmiri chillies – which is sacrilege to the rest of my family, since Mangaloreans typically use the Byadige that is native to Karnataka. But I suppose it’s my background as a filmmaker..." she trails off smiling. As the fish simmers in its gravy, Jenny tosses a scattering of mustard seeds and curry leaves into the hot oil for tempering, and then the chilli heads she has saved. They come alive, gleaming a fiery red, and we see why an artist might be partial to Kashmiri chillies.

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Moving to the salad, she layers delicate slices of brinjal over a bed pickled onions in a flat dish, and pours a bath of freshly pressed coconut milk with kashundi over. "You know, we grew up with this salad, and my family insists it is a very typical recipe, but none of the other Mangalorean families I've spoken to seem to know it.”

As we lay the table for lunch, Jenny pulls out beautiful copper spoons to complement the traditional meal and her ikat runner. We ladle the fish curry over mounds of steaming rice and dig in with our fingers. It is deliciously sour and spicy. The fish breaks apart gently and we mush it into the rice and burrow through.

"Don't forget the salad!" We spoon in, and no, this is not a salad to be forgotten. Tart, cooling, creamy and spicy, this is a salad that tastes of everything we hope the summer will be: refreshing, full of surprises, and utterly delightful.

Here is Jenny Pinto's recipe for Mangalorean Fish Curry
Ingredients
1 kg black pomfret (or any sea fish like white pomfret, surmai or lady fish)
1 green chilli, slit
1 marble-sized ball of tamarind
½ onion, sliced
To be roast and ground
½ coconut, grated
7 Kashmiri chillies, separate the heads and remove half the seeds inside
Turmeric, a pinch
1 green chilli
½ onion, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
5 peppercorns
For tempering (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves
A pinch of mustard seeds
2-3 red chilli heads

Method
Marinate the fish in a bit of salt and turmeric.
Put the tamarind in a little warm water and then squeeze out the pulp. Set aside.
Lightly roast and grind the ingredients as mentioned above.
Add a little water to wash out the spice paste, and use that water to gently cook the onion, and green chilli in a pot.
Add in the spice paste, and a little more water if needed, to reach a thick consistency. Add in the fish and cook till done. Add the tamarind pulp and more salt, if needed.
For tempering, heat the oil in a pan. Add in the mustard seeds and let them crackle. Then add in the curry leaves and Kashmiri chilli heads. Take off the heat and add to the curry.

Recipe: Brinjal in Coconut Milk

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Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Tanvee Nabar of Ladyfinger Co.

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