After her Masters in English literature, Saee Koranne-Khandekar worked for nearly 10 years in the e-learning industry. Blogging began on the side in 2007, while she was still working as an instructional designer. However, it was when she took a maternity break that she realised that food was her true calling. A certificate course in bakery and confectionary had been part of her college curriculum, and initially, her blog – www.myjhola.in – chronicled her interest in baking. Today, it includes fiction, photography and videos, primarily centred on food.
"I've always been fond of cooking," says Saee. "I began cooking when I was in school; whenever my mom was out and my brother and I were hungry, we would play around in the kitchen." It could also be genetic, she confesses. Her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were both terrific cooks who were fond of cooking and feeding people. "I guess that's where the fondness for the art really comes from."
We quiz her on her favourite cuisine and pat comes the reply, "That's a very difficult and slightly unfair question to ask a food enthusiast," she smiles. "I love to experiment and am always on the lookout for something new. I really enjoy tasting various regional cuisines." Saee is not the kind who likes a sit-down meal of modern cuisine "with clouds and foam". She enjoys everything as long as it is not over-the-top. Anything that is traditional, and presented in a traditional format, whether it is Gujarati, South American or Thai, she has enjoyed. "I don't see the point of eating a dahi-bhalla in the form of a gel or a globule," she says firmly.
Most people say they love cooking for their loved ones and Saee is no different. "I enjoy cooking for family and friends, but who doesn't?" she asks self-deprecatingly. What she really gets a kick out of is cooking for people who have no idea what they are about to eat. For instance, "Cooking Maharashtrian food for non-Indians and non-Maharashtrians has given me a tremendous amount of satisfaction," smiles Saee.
The Blog: Myjhola
There are several things which make Saee's food blog stand out: "I believe recipes for baking and traditional Maharashtrian cuisine are the USPs of the blog. What also sets it apart is the fact that I don't do any restaurant reviews and it has fiction writing."
The blog's 'Fiction' section is where Saee pens her thoughts on parenting, shares anecdotes about her life and stories. It is also a space where she writes about food in a non-recipe context, something that she enjoys doing. Her latest short story, Kitchen Kindred, is an example of that.
The first recipe she published on her blog was shrikhand, or fried fish. "I can't remember exactly," she confesses. But she knows her favourite published recipe – thalipeeth crackers.
Saee's childhood memories are closely associated with regional celebrations, which she has shared with her readers. A video on Hurda, a festival celebrated during the harvest of tender jowar, received a lot of appreciation. "It is akin to Hanami or the Japanese cherry blossom ceremony, but not many people know about Hurda even in Maharashtra," says Saee.
What dish does she think would best define My Jhola? "It would either be something from the traditional Maharashtrian category – something from coastal Maharashtra, perhaps – or a recipe from the bread category, using lots of berries and citrus fruits."
Popularising Maharashtrian cuisine
Saee feels that it's not just Maharashtrian cuisine, but many other regional cuisines have not got their due exposure – those from the northeast of India, for instance. "India has a variety of cuisines," she says, "and even within a particular region, there are differences." For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Hindu cuisine is very different from its Muslim counterpart. The Konkan region has sub-regional cuisines such as the Koli cuisine, the Pathare Prabhu cuisine, the Konkanastha Brahmin cuisine, and the Konkani Muslim cuisine. "They treat the same produce in different ways," she points out.
"It is very sad that nobody has made the effort to research or unearth these cuisines to bring them to a commercial establishment," she rues. "People are still eating kothimbir wadi and batata wada." She blames the Maharashtrians equally for not doing much to expose their friends to the cuisines of their forefathers.
Does she also blame the Indian tendency of looking down upon anything Indian? Saee laughs. "Someone I worked with told me very recently that yoga had to go to the US, take on a very fashionable form and then return to India for Indians to realise that yoga is actually good for health! It works that way for cuisines as well." Which is why she has started repackaging traditional Maharashtrian cuisine. "Unless someone makes it fashionable, they are not going to believe it."
She conducts a series of workshops called 'Modern Maharashtrian'. It is well attended by college students, professionals, housewives, people who are trying to set up their food business, and also travellers who want to experience something local. "That is because there is more awareness about the health benefits of cooking your own food," she states. "People are also looking for a change in their lifestyles."
The whole point of calling it 'Modern Maharashtrian' is to make it more appealing to a universal audience. "I don't change the chemical composition," she avers. "I don't make foam or clouds or gases." But people have not really tasted Maharashtrian cuisine, and they have some mental block about eating it. She feels that Maharashtrian cuisine is usually equated with Malvani food, vada pao, misal pao or Veg Kolhapuri, which is just "a red curry with a lot of chillies in it." But real Maharashtrian cuisine is much more than that, says she. "There are so many sub-cuisines within the Maharashtrian culture, and the whole idea of 'modernising' it is to make it more accessible to non-Maharashtrians.
The food blogging scene
Food blogging has become very competitive and remuneration oriented, says she. "Everybody is trying to make money through their blog." But that doesn't work for her. For Saee, her blog is a place where she can share some very personal experiences that people can read and relate to. She is very happy with a niche audience. "My blog is a very personal space. What really matters to me is the feedback I get when people write to me saying that the recipes are similar to what their grandmother used to make, or that a bread recipe worked so well that their four-year-old refuses to eat commercial bread anymore."
Talking about the food blogging scene today, Saee feels it is both easy and difficult. It is easier for people who want to make money if they want to review restaurants. It is difficult because there has been an explosion of food bloggers. She feels that one has to find a niche or USP so the blog stands out. "There will always be readership, but unless you have something to talk about or worthwhile to tell, you cannot hold on to your readers." Her advice to aspiring bloggers is to find out what motivates them, to stay true to themselves and to find their own niche. "It might take a little longer if it is an average restaurant review type of blog, but if you know what you want to put out there, and are willing to make that effort, then it will work out," she says. But, she warns, it is not enough to publish two recipes every other day, or a recipe every second day. "People will come to you for six months perhaps, but unless you innovate and carve out something for yourself, you will begin to sound repetitive.
Who are the food bloggers that she looks up to? "There are so many!" She smiles. "But offhand, I would say, Roshni Bajaj – she really does a lot of research before she puts anything on the blog; Harini Prakash, whom I admire for her stunning food photography – it is very minimalistic; Nikhil Merchant – for his recipes. He is someone who puts in a lot of effort into understanding flavour profiles and matching them. I told him I can't wait for him to open his restaurant."
Our daily bread
Is it difficult to bake bread? "Not at all," she says firmly. "As Indians, kneading atta in our DNA. We understand flour. We live on aata every day. What scares us is yeast. We are not used to it." But understanding yeast is a small technical issue, she feels. Once you get that right, you're ready to roll. Baking bread, she claims, is much more forgiving than baking cakes. With the latter, you have to be very careful about the measurements and the temperature. "With bread, thoda idhar udhar ho jaata hai, toh bhi (even if the measurements vary a little) you will still get a good loaf of bread."
Saee says that she hopes this trend towards baking bread at home isn't a fad, "It is very sustainable, primarily because commercial bread can never compare to a homemade loaf." She feels that there is a tremendous amount of interest in cooking and baking. It is more about people wanting to experience something new. People are bored of making the same kind of food at home, she feels, and "they want to learn how to make a new dish from other regional cuisines." And she is right there to help.
Your most memorable cooking experience?
Curating the Maharashtrian thali as part of a 15-day food festival for a premium property in Navi Mumbai. I got to work in a commercial kitchen and show the chef that an Indian curry doesn't have to only consist of red/brown/white gravy. We did some unusual dishes that even Maharashtrians don't know about.
An ingredient you would love to experiment with?
Various kinds of citrus fruits. I enjoy making marmalades and there are various kinds of limes and lemons indigenous to India. I would like to play around with them a lot if I can get my hands on them!
A must-have kitchen tool.
Mortar and pestle – I have some 10-12 of them. I love them in all sorts of sizes and shapes and materials, and they all yield different results.
A recipe that you took a while to perfect.
Croissants – because it is a very technical thing, and to work with a laminated dough (dough that consists of many thin layers separated by butter, and is produced by repeated folding and rolling of dough) in a humid climate like Mumbai is very difficult. It took a lot of time before I got it right.
What ingredient would you love to splurge on?
Berries. All sorts of berries; it is my only indulgence.
What ingredient can one always find in your kitchen?
I don't know if you could call it an 'ingredient' but you will always find homemade bread in my kitchen.
Is it good appliances/gadgets or the spirit that makes a good chef?
Always the passion! You can work in a very, very minimal kitchen and still create wonderful dishes. In fact, if we were to go back to our grandmothers' kitchens, they hardly had any appliances but they nonetheless cooked some really interesting food.
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