Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mistress of Spice-Tara Deshpande

-Shivani Mohan
(An edited version of this interview first appeared in the wknd. magazine of Khaleej Times on Friday, July 26, 2013 . More pictures have been added.)

Former actress Tara Deshpande gets serious about cooking up a storm.

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum dons many hats — actor, short story writer, chef and culinary trainer — even though you may best remember her from her MTV India VJ days and her unconventional roles in Bollywood movies such as Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Bombay Boys and Style and the lead role in the theatre play Beghum Sumroo.

Post-marriage, Tara moved to the US where 
she attended intensive classes at the French 
Culinary Institute in New York and Le Cordon 
Bleu in Paris and started Azalea Catering in 2004. Tara taught at culinary schools in New York and Boston for seven years. Her cooking show 
Great Chocolate Cooking was aired on a PBS 
(Public Broadcasting Service) channel and her recipes and food stories have appeared in the media across the US.  

A Sense for Spice is Tara’s second book after 
Fifty and Done (HarperCollins India, 1999) a 
collection of short stories and verse. Published by Westland Books, it is a rich tapestry of recipes 
and stories that takes the reader from the lush Konkan coast to metropolitan Mumbai, launched recently in India. A delightful afternoon was in store for food connoisseurs who attended The Imperial Culinary Club’s unique and interactive live gourmet session by Tara Deshpande Tennebaum on Konkani cuisine. Tara donned chef’s apron and took the audience through Konkan culture with four of her recipes, capturing the interest of culinary enthusiasts.The book was launched by Renuka Chatterjee, Consultant Editor, Westland Books and Vijay Wanchoo, Senior VP & GM, the Imperial Hotel, New Delhi.

Vijay Wanchoo- Sr. executive VP & GM the Imperial with Tara Deshpande
Culinary club members and media enjoying the Konkan cuisine session at the Imperial by Tara Deshpande

An interview with the chef’s-hat-happy Tara who, these days, shuttles between Mumbai and New York and is working on her first novel.

When and how did you get interested in food and cooking? Did you go to a catering college or it’s all imbibed from your family traditions?
I’ve been interested in cooking since I was a child because both my grandmothers and my mother were fabulous cooks. I only went to culinary school when I moved to the US. I was lonely when I first moved and someone suggested I teach Indian cooking at a local school as a way to meet people. I applied and I think they couldn’t find anyone else so they hired me.

Was food a way of keeping connected with your Indian roots?
Yes, in a way it was. Diwali, for instance, a holiday I associate with my paternal grandmother who taught me all the rituals and recipes associated with it; I always celebrated it with a big bash and lots of traditional recipes. Also my husband is a vegetarian and he really enjoys Indian food.

You have played many roles in your life: VJ, actor, author of short stories and now cookbook writer. What have you enjoyed the most?
I have enjoyed all of them as they are all creative pursuits. First, there is just an idea and when 
you put it all together, you have a good story, a 
good dish or a good movie. I like working 
with people and I like doing things that are out 
of the box even though in many ways I am 
old-fashioned. You ran a catering business in the US.

Do you 
include Indian dishes in the menus?
Yes, I did include Indian dishes. Most of my 
catering was new and traditional American fare 
for weddings and corporate events but there were some dishes such as samosas, mini idlis, kebabs that even conservative eaters would request. Besides Konkan, what kind of food you love 
cooking? Italian, Korean... and I like to bake; in fact it’s probably what I like doing best.

Any special tips about Konkan food that first 
timers should keep in mind?
Fresh coconut and fresh seafood are key. Konkani food should mostly be prepared and eaten on 
the same day. Unlike Thai food, Konkan food doesn’t require you to cook coconut milk too much. Always freeze freshly-shelled coconut and shred before you grind: this way they grind faster and don’t get oily.

Who amongst the great celebrity chefs today is your inspiration? Would you like to do a food show of your own in India?
Yes, I would love to do a food show anywhere! 
I admire different chefs for different reasons: Thomas Keller because he is a perfectionist, Nigella Lawson for her down-to-earth approach to 
cooking, Mark Bittman’s food columns, Jamie 
Oliver who gave cooking a social conscience and Julia Child for her painstaking research, which makes her books all time classics.

There is this obsession with exotic ingredients and gourmet food these days while most of us do not even have time to cook regular meals these days. Is food becoming a business and fashion more than actual comfort?
It’s a really good question. Everyone is on a diet these days! So they are eating less. Yet we have more and more restaurants. This could mean many things: either there is a great deal of wastage, or a high mortality rate for restaurants, or people who are on diets are eating much more than they claim or people are out sourcing their home cooking to take out and eat out. There are few urban cultures left where people still cook most meals at home… This is very sad. Cooking at home is not just about saving 
money or spending time with your family but 
also a way of controlling the freshness/goodness and health factor of the food you are serving to your loved ones. Women are working and their burdens are increasing — so if men consider some cooking, it would change things dramatically.

What do you miss about India and Indian food 
in US?
Sadly Indian food in the USA is not nearly as good as in London or in India. It’s getting better but there are still some restaurants making gulab jamuns from pancake mix!

Any dishes you love having in the US that you don’t get in India?
Warm pecan pie and fresh, creamy guacamole.

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