Cultural Identity and Coconut Chutney: Musings of a First Generation Konkani-American

By Pooja Kini

Being a minority within a minority is pretty interesting.  Growing up, I was pretty hesitant to talk about my heritage or culture with those I didn’t share it with. 

I went to elementary school in a predominantly white suburb, so I’d always just say I spoke Hindi because it was the only Indian language people knew about. Even as I attended middle and high schools with predominant South Asian populations, when people would ask me what part of India I was from, I’d struggle to answer. I’d say something like, “Oh you wouldn’t know it.” or “It’s complicated, but do you know where Bangalore is? My family lives in and around there.” 

On the rare occasion I did mention my heritage, barely anyone knew where or what I was referring to. And instead of educating them, I’d usually just give broad, overarching answers like “I’m South Indian” or reference a more familiar language like Kannada or Marathi. For some reason, I never quite believed in Konkani’s ability to speak for itself or stand out

Being fluent in Konkani didn’t really mean anything if I didn’t have any friends to speak it with or any pop culture to reference. I could never find Konkani on the drop-down menus for languages on applications and winced when I had to select “Other: ” and manually type it out. I also didn’t feel like going into a spiel about how the British weren’t the only imperial power to colonize India and how the Portuguese really did a number on my ancestors. Essentially, it was kinda like keeping a not-so-secret secret. 

At the time, I didn’t realize this was technically erasure. I never felt shame for my birthplace, I just longed for someone to relate to or at least acknowledge my people existed. In retrospect, this should have been made clear to me when Deepika Padukone started to become a household name. I have never felt the joys of representation so strongly. I was ecstatic, filled with pride, openly claiming her on behalf of the community – MY community. 

As the years have passed, I’ve extensively reconnected with my heritage. I am so thankful to have come from a family that prioritized the ability to speak our mother tongue, which is only spoken by about 2 million people worldwide. 

I’ve always been passionate about food and the role it has played as a link to my heritage. Food has always been there to connect me with a past that seemed almost invisible to most people. Some of my fondest memories come from eating Konkani food cooked by my mother or grandmothers or aunts; I can’t go a week in its absence without missing it dearly. 

I have always wanted to share Konkani cuisine with the world. I admire how it showcases our people, how sustainable it is, how it incorporates super unique gastronomic elements, and how reminiscent it is of life along the coast. It challenges the flawed notion that the Indian subcontinent, or any part of it, is a monolith. The truth is, despite its size, the Konkani community is incredibly heterogeneous and culturally rich. And the area in which it ~really~ shines is its food.
With that, here’s a simple recipe that showcases an ingredient familiar to any of us that have roots on the coast. This is my mom’s recipe for coconut chutney. The depth of flavor from the crispy, seasoned curry leaves, the pop of mustard seeds, and the juicy texture of the coconut make this simple chutney so special. I love eating it with Pan Polo, a Konkani variation of Neer Dosa.


coconut chutney

Ingredients

Base:
Shredded Coconut
Green Chilies
Ginger
Tamarind
Seasoning:
Hing (Asafoetida)
Curry Leaves
Mustard Seeds

PREPARATION

  1. Combine the coconut, chilis, ginger, and tamarind then grind them together with some salt and water. Feel free to use a blender or mortar + pestle, depending on the time you have and the consistency you prefer. 
  2. Set aside.
  3. Prepare phanna (tadka, chhonk) by heating some mustard seeds in coconut oil.
  4. When the seeds start to jump, add fresh curry leaves and hing (asafoetida) and immediately remove from the heat.
  5. Add the mixture to the chutney and enjoy!

About Pooja:

Pooja is an Economics and Accounting student at UC Santa Barbara pursuing a full-time career in public accounting. At any given point in the day, you’ll probably find her drinking coffee or listening to one of her (way too many) personalized Spotify playlists. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and loves being outdoors, exploring new food spots, and styling recipes for her food blog on Instagram.

Instagram: @poojxk


2 thoughts on “Cultural Identity and Coconut Chutney: Musings of a First Generation Konkani-American

  1. Hey there fellow Konkani….’keshe asai’ (apologies for the terrible attempt,my parents are better at typing konkani in English 😂). It was so nice seeing your article. Put a massive smile on my face. Just wanted to say hi. 😊 Best wishes from a Konkani in the UK.

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