Dumpokta with Saee Koranne-Khandekar

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we join Saee Koranne-Khandekar at her home in Mumbai, where she cooks a meal from the Gore Family Cookbook. 

Out on the balcony of a sea-facing south-Bombay apartment, three-year-old Saee could smell the salt on the saline-heavy air. Inside, her grandmother was formulating the acute training of her little granddaughter’s palate. As she roasted semolina in the kitchen, she’d call out to Saee — ‘Am I making sheera or upma?’ Sheera, a sweet halwa made of semolina, or sooji, is roasted a shade darker than for upma, a savoury dish made from the same base ingredient. A perceptive nose can pick up the difference in roasting aromas, to correctly identify which dish is being prepared.

A generation later, Saee’s three-year-old son appears to have spontaneously absorbed this skill. “I don’t know if its genetic — or magic — or if he’s just that perceptive, but when I’m roasting sooji, he always knows whether I’m making sheera or upma,” Saee trails off, shaking her head.

Dumpokta with Saee Koranne-Khandekar

Saee Koranne-Khandekar comes from a long line of gifted cooks and accomplished women. She isn’t doing too shabby herself either — as the author of two books, presently working on the third, she is also an expert in Koknastha cuisine, as we discover over an exquisite lunch one rainy afternoon. We meet Saee at her home in Mumbai, where she greets us with a radiant smile, clear-faced except for a small black bindi to match her kurta. She brings out chilled glasses of kokum juice and mint. “Kokum always takes me back to my aunt and uncle’s Mangalore-tiled love nest in Belgaum. They had a farm growing mango, jackfruit and kokum, and we’d sit in their living room sipping on kokum syrup, watching the sun catch the dust as it streamed in through skylights in the roof.” The squash is cold and tart. We carry our glasses and follow her into the kitchen where she is trimming herbs at the window garden. Curry leaves, lemongrass, chilli, tulsi, and mint, in a rough and tumble, scent the kitchen. Saee is cooking a Dumpokta recipe from the Gore Family Cookbook, a recipe book that documents family recipes dating back to her maternal great-grandmother’s family — Koknastha Brahmins from north Karnataka.

Saee Koranne-Khandekar cooks Dumpokta recipe for #1000Kitchens

The Gore women were fascinating and gritty in singularly unique ways. Saee’s great grandmother, Anandi Gore, was a matriarch who raised 4 children, worked as the Corporator of her area, and also found time to meticulously document her family’s history. Her hand-knit sweaters and blankets were wardrobe staples in the family, as were the poems she wrote for her grandchildren — Marathi couplets called ovi. Her daughter, Usha, Saee’s grandmother, continued the tradition of methodic documentation, keeping a journal as a young bride of 22, to preserve her mother and aunt’s recipes. The dumpokta Saee is cooking today is an heirloom family recipe from that very book.

Dumpokta recipe by Saee Koranne-Khandekar, small onions, brinjal
Saee Koranne-Khandekar cooks Dumpokta

“The dumpokta technique and recipe was most likely gleaned from the royal kitchens at the court in Belgaum,” Saee explains. Its Persian origins are evident in ingredients like mace, nutmeg and saffron. But the recipe features a distinctive north Karnataka influence — the use of dry coconut in the gravy. “The original recipe probably featured meat, but the Koknastha Brahmin family adapted it to eggplants, plentiful in the region — small ones, long ones, the plain purple variety, the white-streaked variety.” In the season for new potatoes and tiny onion, it came together as a dish with whole onions, potatoes and eggplant. “With 3 cups of ghee and mace going in, this one really lulls you into a nap,” she laughs.

The dish comes together slowly, and promising aromas fill the kitchen. Saee stirs the pot with a serene patience. “Everyone goes for the potatoes, but my brother and I would fight over the onions. The slow cooking renders them soft and tender, to be squished into rice.”

Saee’s style in the kitchen is one of easy comfort; someone clearly in her natural element. Her grandmother would cook rice in a brass steamer over a coal chulha, out on the balcony of her south Bombay apartment — the same one that young Saee’s nose received its early education. “She’d save her mango pits and place them over the rice vessel, so the aroma of raw mango scents the rice. If you grow up eating like that, you can help but love food — both, eating and cooking.”

Dumpokta by Saee Koranne-Khandekar for #1000Kitchens
Dumpokta by Saee Koranne-Khandekar for #1000Kitchens

In the dining room, a table has been laid. Saee places quarters of banana leaf over each plate: “It’s not a traditional meal without these!” The table is laid out with mohori-che-lonche, a raw mango pickle with emulsified mustard and jaggery; pungent and sweet. Another mango dish marks the season — raw mango and chana dal salad, and then, a light and dreamy tomato saar that we abandon all etiquette for, slurping into like soup. The dumpokta, as promised, is rich and decadent, a complex and earthy dish that re-confirms every story of Persian hedonism. And it is in fact, the tiny onions, soft and melting, that steal the show. Not until we see dessert, do we believe the meal can get any better. A creamy colostrum pudding in little ramekins, sprinkled with deep fried crumbs of dink (edible gum), a few drops of kaakvi (aged sugarcane molasses) and juicy segments of seasonal oranges, bring together a delicious contrast of texture, with a burst of citrus.

Tomato saar by Saee Koranne-Khandekar for #1000Kitchens
Colostrum pudding by Saee Koranne-Khandekar for #1000Kitchens
Dumpokta by Saee Koranne-Khandekar for #1000Kitchens

Saee's Dumpokta Recipe
1 kg small sized potatoes, peeled whole
1 kg small sized onions, peeled whole
1 kg baby eggplant, scored
1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
3 tsp shahijeera
5 cloves
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp mace powder
1/2 tsp nutmeg powder
3 tbsp grated ginger
1/4 cup garlic cloves
1.5 cups dried coconut, grated
1.5 cups onoin paste
3-4 green cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tsp saffron strands
1 cup yogurt
3 cups thick ghee
Salt, to taste
Sugar, to taste

Blend all the spices (cumin seeds, coriander seeds, shahijeera, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, red chilli powder) with ginger, garlic, onion paste and grated coconut until smooth.
Heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed pot and tip in the ground masalas. Saute over medium heat until raw smell disappears, the fat separates out along the sides, and the masala begins to look dry.
Add the yogurt, salt and sugar, and saute again until the fat from the yogurt begins to separate.
Add in the vegetables and adjust seasoning as required. Coat the vegetables well in the masala. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pot. 
Cook over low heat for 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are all tender, stirring occasionally. 
Serve hot with a pot-shrikhand meal.
**Dumpokta usually tastes better as it matures, especially if made with meat. Prepare ahead and refrigerate for best results.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Richa Kashelkar.