In this edition of our monthly column on community cookbooks, we look at Rasa Chandrika. You can read the previous column here.

The Rasa Chandrika, written by Ambabi Samshi, is an iconic cookbook unique to the Chitrapur Saraswat community. It was first published in 1943 by the Saraswat Mahila Samaj. The book documents classic recipes from the Konkani-speaking community of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins (and to some extent, by default, the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins) and is available in both Marathi and English.

The Saraswat Brahmins are a unique community. They trace their origins to the banks of the Saraswati, a mythical river that is believed to have flowed up north, even though today they are most commonly associated with areas in the Konkan and North Karnataka. At some point, a southward migration began. Around the 1500s, the Portuguese conquest of Goa and subsequent conversions again spurred the community to migrate, this time toward the Kanara region of Karwar and Mangalore. These migrations led to the creation of distinct identities within the Saraswat Brahmin community – the Chitrapur Saraswats and the Gaud Saraswats who remained largely within the Konkan. The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins eventually moved to Bombay, where their population remains thickest even today. In fact, the Chitrapur Saraswat takes credit for the formation of Asia’s oldest co-operative housing community in Bombay’s Gamdevi area in 1915.

The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins are well known for their love of music, theatre and literature. This is believed to stem from the fact that their language, Konkani, has a fraught and complicated history: nearly banned in the 17th century, written in five different scripts and with the majority of native speakers outside its home state. Konkani was also the first Asian language ever printed, singular in that it retains significant features of Vedic Sanskrit, which are lost in most other derivative languages, including later classical Sanskrit.

But perhaps of most intrigue is the community’s cuisine. From Kashmir to Karnataka – bearing influences from Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat – their cuisine carries the marks of a community’s extended migration over centuries. Their diet is primarily vegetarian with a few fish preparations. Fish was euphemistically considered the fruit of the sea, not truly meat.

Rasa Chandrika is chock-full of useful information, to the extent that it is more encyclopaedic in scope than an average recipe book. It is a nifty and practical size of 8.5 x 5.5 inches, perfect for a new bride or a homesick student to pack into her suitcase. The book is divided into practical, if a little prosaic, sections such as Dishes Served with Rice Gruel, Semi Dry Chutneys and Leafy Vegetables. Some sections at the end lie completely outside the mandate of most modern cookbooks and they include Some Common Ailments and Festivals and Religious Days as per the Hindu Calendar. Very sensibly, it also contains a glossary that has translations for the names of the more unusual ingredients in English, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi and Kannada.

Direct instructions

The book details recipes unique to the community like patrodo – the rich, creamy green (colostrum pudding) – and much-loved snacks such as kadbolis, shankerpali and phenori. Ingredients like tender bamboo shoots, colocasia leaves and banana stem are made into curries with freshly ground coconut. Amchi (as the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins call themselves) cuisine uses tamarind as the souring agent of choice over lime and kokum and dried Byadige chillies over chilli powder. Tamarind is often used in balance with jaggery, the community’s preferred sweetener.

Cooking from Rasa Chandrika seems easy enough – the instructions are direct and the metric system has been introduced into each edition since the seventh Marathi version. This makes cooking from it, even for a cook unfamiliar with the cuisine, much simpler. Certain recipes, however, resort to non-standard measurements for ingredients like “3/4 coconut grated” or “small ball of tamarind”, but in general, precise measurements are followed leaving out the guesswork. Unfortunately, many recipes do not provide time frames, which is disconcerting especially when cooking with new ingredients.

The first recipe we tried from the book is a kadi or a coconut curry. There are several versions of kadi in the book, and we chose one with fried cumin seeds, garlic and peppercorns. Tamarind (a “small” ball), grated coconut (from one coconut) and red chilies are ground to a paste with the cumin, garlic and peppercorns and then brought to a boil with water. The resulting gravy is thick and tangy, but would have benefited from more precise quantities of the key ingredients.

The second recipe we tested is one for a sweet khichdi that is cooled and cut into squares. We were apprehensive about the recipe since it makes no mention of the best type of rice to use for this particular dish, or even how long it needs to cook for. But the resulting squidgy squares of rice, green gram and jaggery were mildly sweet, creamy and delicious.

The Home Remedies section of the book acts as a stand-in for motherly or grandmotherly wisdom that would usually be passed down in a family. An entire sub-section is dedicated to caring for a baby, including what to do in the case of “green diarrhea” and a sweetly reassuring section on what to do “when the baby cries incessantly”. The Common Ailments section, however, is on shakier grounds with its advice. Take the section on headaches: “At four o’clock in the morning, the migraine patient should eat two jilebees and drink cold water and go to bed again…pedhas can also be used instead of jilebees”.

Given the community’s history of migration, and the size of its diaspora, it is little wonder that the book is still in print and likely to be found in every Konkani household. The cookbook sold out its first 1,000 copies within a month. It was then eventually translated to Hindi and English, and the Marathi edition is now well into its ninth print.

Recipe for Sweet Khichdi

1 cup rice
1 cup green gram dal
1 ½ cup jaggery
4 cups water
1 cup grated coconut
8 cardamoms
1 ½ tbsp. ghee

Wash the rice and dal and keep it aside for 15 minutes.
Heat 1 tbsp ghee in a vessel and roast the rice and dal in it till the rice is whitish in colour.
Add four cups of water and cook in the cooker.
Remove the vessel from the cooker after the mixture of rice and dal is cooked well. Add jaggery, grated coconut and powdered cardamom.
Stir it on a low fire till the khichdi thickens and the jaggery is absorbed. Then remove the vessel from the heat.
Coat a deep thali with the remaining ½ tbsp. ghee and spread the khichdi evenly in it.
When it cools, cut it into large rectangular pieces and serve.

All photos by Aysha Tanya.