Category Archives: Jevan Khann

Food is music to the heart

“Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart”

 It was a huge pleasure meeting Konkani Bandhawas at the Ugadhi function. There was new found energy and happy faces. “Long time no see” and “coming out of hibernation” were the mantras. There were warm hugs, entertainment and tempting food with Konkani written all over it. Speaking of food, the music group “Culture Criminals” with their soulful renditions of songs from the “good old times Bollywood” enhanced the flavour of the food without even taking a step into the kitchen. That is the beauty of music. Thank you “Culture Criminals”.

Sounds can make eating food pleasant, enjoyable and even change the perception of flavour. I have walked into a low-end pizza place with loud music blaring and compared it to an upscale pizza place with the soft music of Luciano Pavarotti playing. Those notes take you to the heart of Italy and gently guide your senses to a more authentic taste of pizza.

At home, the sound of boiling water and pouring it over tea creates a feeling of anticipation. For Konkani’s it is the sound of the sea, bringing to mind seafood.  And by association, seafood and breaking of the sea surf. For a trial listen to this in the background when you are eating your next meal of fish:

 Mi Dolkara Daryacha Raja With Lyrics | मी डोलकर डोलकर डोलकर दर्याचा राजा | Lata Mangeshkar – YouTube,

At home, we rely on certain sounds that can act as a cue during cooking and give an indication of how to proceed. When preparing the tadka, the crackling sound that arises when mustard seeds splutter in the pan of the hot oil indicates that the oil is hot enough to draw the flavour from the food and it is time to reduce the heat. The popping sound of corn kernels exploding in the presence of heat is a gauge to determine the cooking time of popcorn when preparing a big bowl of popcorn for movie night. 

Is there a connection between that crackling sound you hear and the rating you give to that movie? Of course, sound and aroma go hand in hand with acting and script!

We pick up sound through auditory receptors, tiny hair cells inside the inner ear organ called the cochlea. The hair cells contain stereocilia, a bundle of hairlike processes that can pick up sound. Sound waves enter through the outer ear and travel through the ear canal to the eardrum where the drum begins to vibrate. The intensity of the vibrations depends on the intensity of the sound. The brain in turn processes this information to tell us about the source and quality of the sound and we react accordingly. Importantly, our ear canals are connected to our nose and olfactory pathways.

Sometimes the start of the meal is marked by saying grace or the ringing of a musical instrument, such as a bell. The purpose is to create ambience in which the food is eaten and often sound is a way to make guests conscious of the story behind the meal.

Research has been conducted to determine whether air pressure changes or cabin noise are responsible for airline passengers’ preference for beverages and meals in flight. The studies simulated the air pressure and/or sounds experienced in a commercial airplane cabin at cruising altitudes. In one study people were asked to taste combinations of the five basic tastes – sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and savory. Their responses were recorded in the presence or absence of loud sounds that stimulated airline cabin noise. Out of the five basic tastes, only sweet and savoury were significantly affected. In particular, the perception of savory increased in the presence of loud noise, while the perception of sweetness started to decrease. So sound and its intensity do in fact influence the perception of taste.

The right sound can positively influence your meal, just as the wrong one can have a negative impact. Loud sounds can be distracting and make it hard to concentrate. Not a great way to consume any meal. Next time try for yourself loud blaring music drums versus the soft beat of Santoor on your next dining experience.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma (Santoor) – Raga Yaman – YouTube

Music has a way of reaching deep inside to wake up your taste buds. It can make you smile; it can make you weep; it can make you hungry. An invitation is hereby extended to share your feast of your ears, great songs that fire your taste buds. As for our household, the go to music is always a version of:

 LEGACY: Asha Bhosle & Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – Pure Indian Classical – YouTube

So, the next time you are eating or cooking, pay attention to the sounds around you and the sounds the ingredients or food make. These sounds may not only amplify the sensation and bring out the best from your taste buds.

 Is it too much to ask for a glimpse of “culture criminals” at all the OKA functions?

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Food For Fingers!

The popular expression goes “You are what you eat.” Less well-known but no less true is “You are what you perceive and how you perceive.” The wonder of our human senses.

 That is how I felt when news of the opening of an Indian restaurant “Desi Mane” (Amchigele Ghar) hit my Whatsapp box. Thanks, with happy emojis, was my immediate response.

Desi Mane is a global Indian restaurant chain that recently opened its first location in Toronto. Traditional south Indian food in all-you-can-eat format served on a banana leaf. No spoons, forks or knives. All you can eat with your hand.

I can almost envision a giant banana leaf laid to perfection and two little bowls. A waiter comes with hot white rice topped with a drizzle of aromatic ghee and pours some piping hot dal speckled with cumin seeds. Another bringing sauteed and stewed vegetables and another bringing my all-time favorite papad, pickles, and green and red chilies. I am not the only one who is feeling hungry and relieving the memories of a visit to a Venkateshwara temple.

In South India people eat with their hands. This is a practice from the Indian science of Ayurveda – a system that sees food as medicine to prevent, rather than cure. Our fingers cumulatively represent the elements of life: Thumb for fire ( a.gni), the forefinger for air (vayu), the middle finger for space (Akasha), the ring finger for Earth (prithvi), and the little finger for water (jala).

Eating with your fingers stimulates these five elements and helps bring forth the digestive juices in our stomach. Kind of a system of correspondence, to receive vital energies of life and to enhance the taste with touch. Not to mention eating with our hands creates a physical connection with food and helps to be more conscious of the food we eat. By taking food with our fingers, our attention becomes tuned to the temperature, texture, and aroma of the meal. Translating into better digestion and better health.

In the vedic texts collectively known as Upnishadas, there are many musings on food as the fundamental substance of the universe passing from field to plate to the stomach to soul until a human being dies and turns back into food. Seen in this light, eating is a direct embrace of life, distinct from the knife and fork culture of the west or the chopstick culture of the Far East .

Eating with our fingers denotes presence and pleasure for our fingers, not to mention a primal delight to a South Indian.

Of course, even in cultures where the use of cutlery is the norm, we all eat with our hands-on some occasions – an apple or a carrot stick, a sandwich, or a slice of pizza. But these foods do not need that five-finger coordination.

To millions of people around the world who regularly eat with their fingers, the mechanics are highly sophisticated, the result of long practice from childhood.

During my early years in Canada, locals who saw me eat with my hands used to laugh and poke fun. However, when they tried to imitate, that cumulative experience of hand eating wins hands down. It takes great skill and even artistry to grab a chapati and use your index finger as a clamp and your thumb and middle finger to pull off a small piece, then the top of all fingers to fabricate a little scoop for dal. Even more complex is the art of filleting a fish while you eat squeezing each morsel to take out all the bones. This added work slows down the meal and deepens the enjoyment of eating a fine piece of fish.

Last but not least, finger eaters are environmentalists to the core. Ahead of our time without even knowing it! No food wastage, utensils in need of washing, and even the plate can be composted. Came from nature and give back to nature.

 Now that the in-person events have begun, isn’t it time for our OKA president to plan on a meal served on a banana leaf and indulge our five fingers at the next OKA function? Go fingers!

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

There is a sweet secret I would like to share with my OKA family. Come every weekend our own Nandan Shanbhag puts on his chef’s hat to deliver a homemade brunch for his family. If you are thinking of eggs, bacon, toast or waffles, kasle tu vichar karta. Instead, it is always a trip down memory lane with upma, niru dosa, mushty dosa. And this is just the start. Nadan’s recipes have a special family linkage as they are from a cookbook published by his late mother, Geeta akka Shanbhag about the recipes written by his late grandmother Kaveribai Shanbhag affectionately known as Lilli mamamma to Nandan and Lilli akka to a huge joint family, relatives and friends in India and abroad

It has been more than 30 years since Nadan arrived in Saudi Arabia and with a bit more time on his hand began to develop his culinary skills. Home sick in the land of Sheiks and missed his home, because so many great memories are inextricably linked to food and family history.

Nandan’s remarks on cooking:

“I have many loves and good eating, amchigelo, is right at the top. I get so much enjoyment from cooking, mindfulness and sharing that joy in the form of homemade food. It is not just cooking, it is spiritual. From the simplest of ingredients, you can produce a mouthwatering aroma and that is what makes for a satisfying meal. Also, given that our children are growing up in North America and have so much external influence there is always a tendency towards diluting your own culture, hence keeping that essential link to our roots is a sacred duty.”

Roots of that kitchen wisdom stretches back to Lilli akka’s cookbook bound by traditions, simplicity and locally sourced ingredients.

Lilly akka was born in Udupi district in a Katapadi village in a prominent Nayak family. A Nayak family with deep roots in ayurvedic medicine. He explains his vivid memories of his multiple visits in his childhood and youth to that ancestral house which has still stood the present times. Visiting that place one can feel that belongingness to the roots. That place embodied that energy or vibration and at the same time love and warmth. A great example of a large big joint family. This is the place where his grandmother grew up. The family’s involvement in India’s freedom struggle and being surrounded by that spirit perhaps have helped in shaping her personality as most caring, standing for righteousness, sharing, doing good to humanity as whole etc. which was evident from the life she lived. When her recipe book was published, she was just 82 years of age full of energy   with an ambition to write a book on ayurvedic medicine, which unfortunately remained only as a wish. Lilli akka kept abreast with politics, cricket, movies, even self-taught herself to read the headlines of the english news papers 

Fast forward, Lilli akka gets married into the Shanbhag family of Hegde which is a village in North Canara district of Karnataka state, that’s where Nandan’s beloved mother Geeta akka’s  entry happens in this scene of our story. She decides to edit and publish this book to fulfill her mother’s wish. It has her mother’s original recipes not only from her upbringing in Katapadi but also through her stays in Hegde and travels around the whole country. Simply put, Konkani is a culinary culture as we understand it. This cookbook was published in Hegde in 1992. Talk of Hegde brings memories of my own ancestral home with mango, coconut and jackfruit bagayat. The book reveals the importance of food and community through healthy eating  though locally sourced ingredients.

The book cover picture above was taken by Nadan’s dad, an avid photographer, who had his own film developing technology. A picture is worth a thousand words and the cover is just skimming the surface of what is inside. If the cover makes your mouth water and brings the memories of ruchi jevan, wait till you see what is inside!

The book reveals the importance of food and community through a holistic perspective and takes you on a journey through the coastal regions of Karnataka (South Canara and North Canara (now named as Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada districts) also testing waters of north indian cuisine. Although she was a strict vegetarian void of even root vegetables, Lilli akka perfected the skill to prepare mouthwatering non-veg dishes to feed her loving family who were strict non-vegetarians, jokes apart.  Normally, cooking tasty food is a central theme of all cookbooks, but this book evolves the recipes through back yard grown vegetables, sustaining nature, spirituality and migratory patterns. Is it any wonder that our Gokarn Partagali Srimad Vidyadhiraja Teertha Swamiji officially released the first copy of the book with his divine blessings.

Konkani is a shared communal shrine to the shared communal history of the migration of Saraswat brahmins. To me these pages offer gratitude to the great chain of Konkani lives, nourishing ingredients and sustaining traditions delivered as a gift of memory to the generations to come.

Here is a bit of my chat with Nadan Shanbhag,

Madhav:  What is the impact of this book on you?

Nandan: Huge! This is a sacred copy preserved in my book library. There is a saying isn’t it, if one has to hide some secret cash in a household, the best place is the holy book Gita as we never open it to read it. There are exceptions however. In contrast, this is my “Geeta”, (my mother who is behind this book with my grandmother), which I open from time to time to read & for me, in a way it is a spiritual connection, to think of those great souls This is a way I remember them, pay tributes and respects through the most simple but profound element – food.

Madhav: Tell me the significance of the title of this book?

Nandan: The book is in Kannada titled “Sanyukta Grihapaka” meaning “Combined or compiled recipe book”. Since the book has compiled Konkani’s typical breakfast, lunch/dinner and desserts recipes; typical traditional food and sweet dishes Konkani’s prepare during different festivities. Not to mention it does not disappoint non-vegetarians, not even an inch. It mentions the subtle ingredients, spices in its measured quantities. Every time I prepare from this book, I wonder how mamma could articulate that exact measure which in effect makes that big difference in the outcome of the product.

Madhav: Would you like to share a recipe of a unique dish?

Nadan: Mushti Dosa:

It simply means “ Fist measured dosa”


4 “mushti” or measure rice

1 “mushti” Udid dal

1 “mushti” fresh grated coconut

1 “mushti” powa or puffed rice

2 spoons salt ( or to taste)

Method: soak the rice & udid for a few hours; before grinding it into a batter make a powder of powa when the grinder is dry (it is just my tip) and keep it aside. Grind the rice and udid into a thick consistency of dosa batter. In the grinding process add the fresh grated coconut and the powdered powa. Leave the batter to ferment (be mindful of cold climates we are in which can take longer time to ferment). Finally add salt to taste before making the dosa.

Tips: Some of the household tricks can be used such as covering the container with a towel or keeping the batter in an oven with the light on for creating the right ambient temperature. By the way, this is not in the book.

Serve with the accompaniment of your choice – my favorite is coconut chutney.

This dosa can be cooked on one side only- depends on the individual’s liking. This is a thicker type of a dosa so not much spreading of the batter on the hot tava (indian frying pan) is required. Important thing is to close it with a lid while cooking.

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Valentine’s Day Special




It is February, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. One of the most romantic moments occurred to our Konkani mam while walking through the pizza aisle in his favorite food store when his loving wife said. “None of these frozen pizzas have the taste of your homemade pizza.”,

Konkani madame could no longer enjoy readymade pizza. That is the beauty of home cooking made with generous amounts of love. Amchilgelo mam muttered and that made for a classic TV moment.

Every cook seems to have their own rules about which foods should always be prepared fresh and which can be purchased, whether from a grocery store or restaurant. Some of these reasons are cultural and some are personal. My mother used to make her own butter. I bet the present generation would think it is rocket science and would not even dream about making their own butter. When our kids were younger there were always a few cans of Campbell’s soup in the pantry. Now that they are grown and gone, our cupboard has never since been graced by those red and white cans. These days soup or kolombo is always made from scratch.

In my experience, when you cook an exotic dish people think you have some kind of talent. We recently served our guests homemade falafel and hummus. Even though we found it a breeze to make, they were impressed because of the perceived difficulty. I think it is because the packaged and restaurant varieties of these foods are so ubiquitous that we imagine them to be trickier to make than they actually are. Few things are more exciting as a cook than the moment when you discover that food you believed you had to buy is no trouble to make.

We each have our own mental barriers about foods that are too intimidating to prepare but once tried, the homemade version will often trump the packaged version.

Browsing through the library of cookbooks, I came upon an interesting book, “An Unapologetic Cook” by a young chef named Joshua Weissman, who is trying to encourage people to make more foods from scratch instead of buying them. Weissman’s argument is that you do not know how much better something can be made until you make it yourself. This brings me back to the comments from Konkani mai, that homemade pizza made with sauce from scratch made grade A plus for authenticity and taste.

What is the point of making your tomato sauce and pizza crust when it is so easy to buy? Mr. Weissman offers a few different reasons. He observes that making your own is an instant ego boost and an even bigger flavor boost. What about making something like butter? Josh’s view is that it is “essential to learn how to make “one of the greatest foods on the planet.”

It is certainly a fun project to follow Weissman’s butter recipe by whipping heavy cream in a food processor for a few minutes before straining and rinsing in ice-cold water. Once you try your finished pat of golden butter you think “wow, did I really make this?”

That evening Konkani mam got an interesting suggestion from his Valentine, “How about franchising your pizza recipe?”. Cheers and smiles!!!, A happy wife is a happy life, that was the musing from Konkani mam. That made for a very happy Valentine’s Day in this Konkani household.

Here is a challenge for my OKA family. How about making something romantic for your Valentine from scratch and sharing it on OKA Facebook page. Creativity and romance all in one.

Wishing all of my OKA family Happy Valentine’s Day!

Source Image Credits

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of a few hours of leisure and nature time

Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

Here is a quiz, which company popularised the slogan: “Membership has its privileges”?

If you said American Express you are right on the money. You may remember some of the commercials full of exotic vacations, multi-course gourmet meals among other luxuries. The commercials would usually end with their now famous slogan.

That is exactly how I felt when I received a neatly wrapped gift basket for Diwali, compliments of the Ontario Konkani Association. Thank you, OKA!

It was not just an ordinary gift basket. What was inside that neatly wrapped gift basket, defined who we are as Konkanis. The assortment of goodies had our culture, traditions and heritage all wrapped in one, adding to that a healthy quotient of dry fruits. Kudos, whoever thought about this thoughtful gift for the festive season.

Along with other goodies, what made my taste buds tickle was Chakri (chakuli) and banana chips. The staple of afternoon kashai or teatime in a Konkani household, a celebration of culinary konkani foody-ism and Panchadik (gossip or chit chat?!)

I have always associated chakris with an elaborate showcase of flour based architecture. The anatomy of each  varies with the creativity.  These particular chakris had the right amount of flour, water, salt and spices combined to make the dough and fried to perfection. As I  munched on them, it left  a little aftertaste of butter and an exotic memory of a visit to my native place. Needless to say,  it was all gone in a span of minutes. My better half remarked “You ate it all, what about me?”  Want more from this dialogue? Sorry not available in stores.

It turns out those delicious chakris and banana chips came from the gourmet kitchen of OKA food coordinator Mrs. Sheela Kamath.

Below are the highlights of my conversation with Sheela about her initiation to kitchen essentials. To me it is always an added pleasure chatting with another Mumbaikar, a special “ apnapan” or “amchimumbai’, whatever you call it. A relaxed and informal vibe.  I found Sheela easy to chat with and open to explaining her upbringing and how she found joy and solace in her niche culinary delight.

Growing up as the youngest of the three girls in a GSB family she hardly ever entered the kitchen. As Sheela moved to Kuwait, the driving force to develop her culinary skills came after marriage to a Mangalorian foodie guy with fine taste buds.

The human will and minds are truly ingenious. As another famous slogan goes, “When there is a will, there is a way.”

With  frequent conversations with her mother and friends, and a process of trial and error, Sheela was able to get over that initial hump. “There were cookbooks as friends too”, Sheela remarks. “There may be no one to show you how to achieve the desired results but on the flip side there are no constraints. Because nobody showed me, I didn’t have anyone holding me back.” said Sheela.

Through her trials, Sheela  realised that the less complicated the recipes are the closer they seem to be to the original version.

Following her instincts and evaluating the results, Sheela developed her own style, and Bingo, a star is born with gourmet written on every creation.

When it comes to adapting to her much loved  Arabic food, Sheela says initially she relied on guesswork.  “I have the natural ability to eat  something in any country and pinpoint most of its flavour and go home and be able to recreate the same.” 

Something else Sheela believes is using only fresh ingredients and keeping her recipes and her cooking simple: “Simplicity and a more relaxed vibe while cooking has served me well” remarks Sheela.

Thank you Sheela for taking time to chat with me, so interesting.

Coming back  to the recipe of those yuum Chakris , well you do not  see Coca Cola putting their recipes on the internet. That is a trade secret. Quality goes in before the name goes on.

To me, this well made Chakri will certainly laugh at the Punjabi Aloo thiki or Gujarati Dokla for taste, crunch, and flavour and is certainly the queen  of  a lovely afternoon tea time.

It is December, and Christmas is right at the doorstep. Wishing my extended OKA family  happy holidays and best wishes for a happy New year!

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

What  struck me  most was  Manoj Pai’s chef’s hat. Well positioned and truly defined the task at hand. Nevermind that infectious smile and tons of enthusiasm. I am talking about the Ontario Konkani Association Shravan cookalong. That chef’s hat told the story in bold letters, that the kitchen does not have to be only a woman’s domain. Given an opportunity men can be versatile and creative in the kitchen too, and at least helpful. Full credit to our presidents, Anita and Vivek Nayak for giving Konkani folks of both genders an equal forum to display their culinary skills. That is the true leadership of an equal opportunity “employer”. Kudos!!! 

While being respectful of  stereotyping and gender biases, historically women embraced the role of feeding the family at home. “Mom” is a word that defines the celestial virtues of compassion, kindness, and respect.  After all the phrase  “Maa ke hath ka khana” (home made food by mom) rules the world versus “pitajike hath ka khana” (order from Uber). 

It is more than just the cooking of meals. Creating something from scratch, solely through your own doing, as a comfort for yourself and family members should make anyone feel good about themselves. Add to that the kindness and respect for what the body wants leading to better overall health. The phrase “Kitchen is the heart of the home”  says it all.

Extrapolating from these motherly qualities, you would expect women to rule as head chefs in leading restaurants and even host  shows like Master Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and for that matter Khana khajana. Surprise!Surprise!! But instead the hosts are invariably male. Not only that, the hospitality industry is dominated by male chefs. As one data point, enrollment in culinary schools is 75% male. Even  Growing up in India whenever we had a big function we always had a male coming to  chef meals, nevermind it was always a male in dhoti. The word “bawarchi” literally means a male chef. 

This difference in gender between at home versus outside begs the  question, why are so few of the top restaurants with female chefs ?

According to one survey, the answer may have  something to do with the preferences of the patrons. The Gastronomy Association of England conducted a year-long survey and asked people who they preferred as chefs. The findings were startling because even women clients found male chefs to be better than female chefs. One may say that this is purely an error in perception because female chefs are as good as male chefs. The survey even is quoted as saying that female chefs lacked innovation and were less experimental than their male counterparts. 

Many of you may disagree. In my household, the female chef has for many years also been the more creative and innovative chef! 

Angela Hartnett is one of the best chefs in England. She is a joint owner of five excellent restaurants, three of which have women installed as head chefs. Though contrary to how she runs her businesses, even Angela believes that female chefs are more hesitant to go beyond the conventional when it comes to experimenting with food.

Even science may be ganging up against more women becoming top chefs.  It is believed that biologically women have a slightly less sensitive  sense of smell than men. Smell plays a very important role in cooking. All chefs are endowed with fantabulous olfactory senses. There’s a Greek term ‘Keroza’. It means, the ability to distinguish the smell or aroma of a food item after putting salt and spices. The female olfactory nerves often fail to differentiate between the salted and spiced forms. Male olfactory nerves can naturally distinguish this extremely subtle difference which is also known as ‘Naghaish’.

Well, my views tend to differ from these studies. Just look at the tyrant behavior of Chef Ramsey, really how many women would act like that. Add to that the  pressure cooker environment, sexism and  shift work probably does not fit the feminine domain.Never mind the physically demanding work and putting up with testosterone fuelled rage.

All said and done, where male chefs miserably lack is the department of emotional involvement. Female chefs are far ahead of them on this count. Male chefs may cook more innovatively, but they can’t cook emotionally like Mom. 

Finally, I saw a sign in restaurant recently, that sums up the whole debate:

“A chef must think like a scientist, organise like an accountant, plate like an artist and cook like a grandma.”

Those words should put this debate to rest. I will be happy to hear your three C’s, comments, criticism and compliments.

As for the chef’s quiz: What do each of the following chef’s specialise in?

1)Pantry chef 2) Executive chef 3) Sous chef 4) Station chef

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

A good way to build a good appetite before dinner is to take a walk. This has been our routine  for god knows how long. It is not just about burning a few calories and more about exercising your taste buds.

Confused? Let me explain.

Although barbecues and kitchens are out of sight, there is always that aroma in the still air. Hanging long enough to give hidden clues about what is cooking in the house. This aroma is more pronounced when barbecues are fired up. While the sources  are hidden in backyards, a whiff of smoke fills the entire neighbourhood and that aroma stimulates appetite. I can almost guess who is cooking chicken, who is cooking sausages and for that in a multicultural neighbourhood like ours even tandoori chicken.

Today propane has been the go to source of heat for neighbourhood barbecues. But we do still occasionally get that aroma of old fashioned charcoal. With manufacturers putting all the bells and whistles, propane bbq’s have become one stop outdoor kitchens. These are fancy, fashionable and easy to light grills. 

Call me old fashioned, or  ancient, but to me the charcoal BBQ still  reigns supreme as far as delivering the mood and the flavour of the food.  There is something special about that gentle struggle to light charcoal and then fighting to keep the coals alive. It contributes to  that spirit of cooking in the wild.  

Charcoal might be an ancient fuel but it still has a place in modern times. I agree charcoal is dirty to handle, it can be hard to light, it takes longer to get up to temperature, and there can be flare ups that can burn food. It is hard to tell what temperature you are cooking at, it is hard to turn down the temperature rapidly. If you do not give charcoal enough oxygen it can deposit soot all over your food and there is ash to clean up. So what is about that unique charcoal smoke that has drawn generations to outdoor cooking? I decided to find out.

The starting point of charcoal is wood, a useful fuel because it is full of molecules that can react with oxygen and give out heat in the process. Wood is the internal storage system of the tree and the scaffolding that holds the tree. The internal serum flows through a system that nourishes the tree and holds the tree up for many years. The strength of the tree comes from cellulose, lignin and long molecules with carbon backbones that form a thin wall around every cell in the tree. These molecules are what makes wood a fuel.

When you start to heat wood with  fire the first thing that happens is water evaporates. As the temperature rises to 400 or 500 degrees fahrenheit, cellulose and lignin start to break down but do not burn yet. The heat causes the other molecules in the wood to escape as gases and these burn in the air just above the wood surface. These are the flames you see as burning wood.  As the burning continues and the wood temperature rises further, the lignin and cellulose breakdown further, and all the mobile molecules evaporate and join the flames. What is left is pure carbon and that is the most potent fuel. When it burns, the carbon reacts to turn into carbon dioxide. There is no smell but a lot of heat.

Charcoal briquets are mostly carbon. The point of charcoal is to skip to the final step. In the commercial process of making charcoal, burning takes place in large concrete silos with limited oxygen. It  pushes wood through all the stages, stopping at the point where mostly only carbon remains. . 

This “lump charcoal“ burns hot and fast. Barbecue enthusiasts often use briquettes, which are made from powdered sawdust charcoal and then pressed into bricks with a binder. They are slower burning and more predictable.

Who would have thought that the authentic and appetizing aroma of charcoal is remnants from the tree?That is the story of science and charcoal. On the metaphysics side, there is something to be learned from that tree.  Panchmahabhutas came from earth, nourished with water, then fire, air and went into ether (akash) with smoke. The volatile molecules that survive the final barbecue also flavour our food, not to mention add “ bon appetit” , stimulating scents on a pleasant summer day.

Summer is a short and happy barbecue season for my Konkani Bandhwas. Finally, drop me a line if I have succeeded in converting you from propane back to a charcoal barbecue.

Something to think about, ”real men do not use recipes, they use BBQ.”

As for the BBQ quiz, what is the BBQ capital of the world?

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag holds a Ph.D in biochemistry. In his retirement, he enjoys encouraging budding entrepreneurs and imparting the wisdom of our rich culture…

When less is more

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

On more than a few occasions our amchigelomam has driven me around Toronto and gotten lost in the maze of traffic Even with GPS. “Trust your grey matter more than GPS ”that is my mantra, boasts amchigelomam. It happened again to our mam trying to maneuver for a parking spot at a Blue Jays game. amchigelomam explained, kasal karache, I am not alone – a man not wanting to ask for directions.“Call it manhood, trust your instinct, high testosterone, or men are from Mars and women are
from Venus…

The same holds true for amchigelomam while going grocery shopping. “I do not need to write down five things, it is all in my head.” This is exactly what   amchigelomam said to his loving wife  as he headed to the store. But then, once in the supermarket, there he was standing in front of a 20-foot long yogurt section. Staring at all the white stuff. So much to choose from, no wonder his mind went blank. All he could remember was Dahi. What brand? What size? What kind?. Lost in thoughts.

Amchigelomam wondered if he was being indecisive or is there simply too much choice these days to make his mind go blank. All these tubs of yogurt make your head spin. Should I pick Astro, Liberty, Danone, President’s choice? Should I pick up the 5%, 3%, 2% or zero fat; high protein, Greek style, Organic, light, creamy, soya, lactose….And this is before even getting to all the flavours or sizes. Of course, there is an option of calling home, but that would be admitting defeat. That is not in
amchigelomam’s  dictionary.

Amchigelomam reached out for a container with a bold caption “ take me home you will love it”. Once home, just a look in his wife’s  loving  eyes told the story of having picked the wrong item and wrong size. Never mind a  certain lecture from mai, for missing out on sale items. Amchigelomam wondered how  did the supermarket put a googly in his eyes, when all he wanted was a simple plain Dahi. A typical major supermarket chain carries 50,000 over different items. It is not just the yogurt that has gotten out of hand. Entire  isles are dedicated to just breakfast cereals or cookies or soups just to name a few. With hair colours,  I bet there are at least 10 different shades of Brown alone.

Supermarkets offer a great quantitative choice but not a qualitative choice. The longer they can grab your attention with time, the more likely it is you will spend more. Next time you are at the supermarket, take a look for yourself. On the surface in any given category each
product available appears different. Yet when you take a closer look, they are surprisingly similar behind a wall of clever marketing. Confused while shopping, amchigelomam is not alone. For example, compare Shreddies, Shredded wheat, honey coated shreddies, and wheatabix. At a quick glance, all have different boxes, but looking closely at their ingredients they are all similar – mostly wheat, sugar and additives. 

Every season, clever marketers design a new box and then distribute coupons to entice you to break old habits and try their “new” product, at possibly a higher price. . Line extensions are what they are rather than innovations. Call it “retail choice overload”.

One way to not get duped by marketers is to compare products in a nerdy way. Analysing the sizes and doing mental math to figure out the price per 100 grams.  Am I out for an enjoyable shopping experience
or for mental  math practice?  Marketers know that most of us are not mathletes, and this is why it is so easy for them to always stay a step ahead of us consumers. 

This is also one reason farmer’s markets have taken off in recent years. Most shoppers want a curated experience and quality over quantity. I agree, less is more. To verify the concept of “ less is more”, I looked at the stock prices . Below are the stock prices for Costco, with their business model of limited choice, compared to major Canadian supermarkets offering unlimited choice. Financial markets, like shoppers, have also voted with their dollars that less is more. (in full disclosure I do not hold any stock of Costco in my investments).

                  May 2011          May 2021       
 Costco           82                    378                     
 Loblaws         35                     74         
 Metro           57.42            58.76.  
 Sobeys         17.55              32.51
Just goes to show more is not necessarily better. That evening at dinner time, amchigelomam admitted to his better half, that choosing between different yogurts was not easy, and I made a mistake but choosing my life partner was easy, and I have made a perfect choice,  mai just rolled her eyes and said “thataastu!”

Here is a quiz from amchigelomam:
World price of pure Saffron is about 10 dollars a gram, how come locally you can get a Saffron for about a dollar a gram?

About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag holds a Ph.D in biochemistry. In his retirement, he enjoys encouraging budding entrepreneurs and imparting the wisdom of our rich culture…