A banker's cook-book

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on December 14, 2011

Subir Gokarn , Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India. - Photo: Paul Noronha   -  Business Line

Kitchen experiments with the RBI Deputy Governor, who never misses an opportunity to rustle up his favourite Mangalorean cuisine.

At the RBI, his “core function” as an economist is the monetary policy and the research departments; with supporting functions including communications. But at home, Subir Gokarn, RBI's Deputy Governor, often plays a very different, and perhaps more interesting, role… experimenting in the kitchen with Mangalorean cuisine.

With great verve and passion he goes into the intricacies of the northern Konkan food having “thinner, more sour and a little hotter gravy, compared to the southern dishes with thicker gravies, more garlic. Each has its own charm and I am fond of both.”

Gokarn's romance with cooking goes back several decades. After completing his Masters in Economics in Delhi, as a 21-year-old he shared a barsati with two others in the Capital, where he worked for a government organisation. “It was a great time of life… we had a kitchen and decided to experiment in winter.” They harnessed a kerosene stove, a pressure cooker and some utensils, played around with different recipes, and soon Gokarn was hooked enough to peep into the kitchens of other friends and pay close attention to what they were making and how.

He started with the basics such as rice, dhal, sabzi and a simple chicken curry. After a couple of years he went for his Ph.D in Economics to the US, where cooking became a part of survival. Here too he shared an apartment with a group of people who liked experimenting with food. “We'd get together, drink beer, cook food… and cooking became a way of life.”

Gokarn completed his doctorate in 1989, worked for a year in the US and returned home in 1990 to join the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development and Research, where he was a faculty member for eight years. Cooking remained an intrinsic part of his life until his recent position in the RBI, which involves a lot of travel.

So what kind of cooking did he do?

“We had a maid who would cook the routine/basic stuff; but anything exotic and beyond the basic my wife Jyotsana and I would make,” he says, adding that they'd even “jazz up the dhals”. Gokarn is a Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin and his region, now in Karnataka, was once a part of the Bombay presidency.

Two distinct cuisines

Elaborating on the specialities of this regional cuisine, he says throughout the Konkan coast — from Kerala up to Maharashtra — there are some common elements. “Essentially coconut is used as the base for most of the curries, with the souring agent being tamarind, kokum or vinegar. The Goan Christian cuisine used vinegar, so there is the combination of the sweet and sour in our food. Actually this is home food for me, and then we improvised around it; it never struck me as cuisine.”

But when he returned from the US and started looking around for more information on the food of his region, “I realised this was a separate cuisine.” What helped was the translation into English of a recipe book originally in Marathi. He got hold of a copy, improvised some more and never looked back!

On the kind of dishes that distinguish this cuisine, Gokarn says, “If you go to seafood restaurants in Mumbai there are two generic cuisines there. One is Malvani (the standard cuisine of the Konkan region of Maharashtra, Goa, and some northern parts of West Karnataka), which is best represented by the Gajalee chain of restaurants. This is more the north coast cuisine; then there is the Trishna Mahesh Lunch Home, which serves Mangalorean cuisine, which has its own distinct taste.”

Kitchen tiffs!

Gokarn says his cuisine is somewhere “in between, so I experiment between the two.” During his long years in Delhi, he and Jyotsana often whipped up a meal for family or other get-togethers.

But were there any quarrels/arguments in the kitchen, which are common whenever a husband-wife team takes over the kitchen at the same time? “Well, not necessarily in the kitchen,” is his tongue-in-cheek reply. “Of course, she would always complain, and still does, that I do the dishes that get the most attention… the more dramatic part of the menu… and she does most of the work and doesn't get any attention! So I tell her: ‘Look, I go and buy the meat, clean it up, etc… anyway, that's an ongoing scrap!”

Not one to give up easily, I persist. Does his wife complain about him messing up the kitchen, because most men are messy cooks? Does he clean the kitchen after cooking?

Gokarn's reply: “My wife complains, yes, but that's about many things! Messing is only one of them. But I do clean up; and of course the maid is there too, so that support system is there.”

Now in Mumbai with the RBI, and having to travel on work, he still cooks, but less frequently. “I eat out much more now, and when my daughter, who is in a residential school in Pune, comes home, we like to eat out.”

And, he cooks for his daughter too. “She likes the dhal fry I make, which is a basic dhal with a dhaba kind of seasoning that she likes. She likes chicken curry and kheema with pao. But my cooking is very eclectic and I always improvise as and when the whim strikes. I enjoy it a lot.”

His favourite restaurants are those serving oriental food; “in Delhi my favourite oriental restaurant was the Oriental Octopus. In Mumbai there are several places, but recently I have started going to Asia Seven. Then there is the Malvani food, which I prefer to Mangalorean, but I eat at Trishna quite a lot.”

Jazz and Blues

Gokarn's other passion is music — jazz and Blues. “I developed a great fondness for both when I was in the US and started to collect both on a systematic basis.” Interested in both the history and evolution of these music genres, when he worked as a faculty in the University, he had six credit hours of free tuition for anything he fancied. “So I signed up for a course in the anthropology department, on the anthropology of American music.

In terms of learning that was my most enjoyable experience as it had no professional significance; it was pure enjoyment.”

He returned from the US with an enormous collection of CDs and cassettes, but “never had the context to listen to it, and this music went into the background.”

Till, of course, he got a lucky break — his daughter upgrading her iPod and passing on the old one to him! He quickly transferred some 50 CDs on his iPod; “now I am back into Blues. On the morning flight (to attend a BL Club event in Chennai) I was on a Blues trip!”

Now of course, with the RBI giving him an iPad, as a “work facility”, Gokarn also hopes to put his music onto it. For a little while perhaps, it'll be still be his laptop, along with the iPad, for work…. and more music and games, such as bowling, on the iPad!

Beyond banking hours

Reading: Time and mind space for any serious reading is very little now. Of course I look through books… but don't finish most that I start. If I am to finish, I'd do thrillers. I love Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth; find them very relaxing, especially at airports and on flights. I like business histories; a lot of my thinking on organisations, evolution and strategy, challenges — apart from my own corporate observations and experiences — is shaped by such reading.

Fitness: I used to be a regular gym person in Delhi. It fitted in beautifully with my routine for seven years. It was basic cardio in the gym and, in the winters, walks in the Lodi gardens. But now, because of the travel, even though I have a gym just below my apartment, my frequency has gone down dramatically.

Stress: Am worried about my erratic fitness schedule. It's something I need to watch because this is a high-stress job. You are on your toes, have to give full attention pretty much through the day; there are very few moments when you can let go. My previous job was not as stressful; I had a lot of time on my own because I was focused on writing. Here it is interaction almost right through the day and a whole range of issues to think about.

Religious views: None at all; I have no religious affiliation.

Dream for himself: To be as effective and ethical as I can be.

Ethics: Very important; it is an absolutely critical part of any judgement or decision I take. It's sad that the moral science classes we grew up with have disappeared from our syllabus. In a way, those are similar to what business schools teach through case studies.

Widening divide between rich and poor: I am most worried about absence of employment opportunities for large numbers coming into the workforce every year. Only a few can afford a business or higher education. We have to deal with this to give them not only skills but also some upward mobility in terms of income. We need to skill people very differently. The current educational framework is a sort of one size fits all, where you go through 10-12 years of school and are expected to learn something. I am not very sure that's relevant any more. Inequality will always exist, but we need to address some fundamental barriers and constraints. People who aspire should get the means to meet those aspirations. We need safety nets to protect people from complete deprivation.

Published on September 08, 2011

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