By Anjum Choudhry Nayyar
For many of us, whether we’re chasing after our little guys, (or teens for that matter) or that looming deadline, getting that traditional Indian meal on the table can sometimes be a challenge. While many of us aspire to be like our moms and aim to have a perfect meal ready when everyone comes home, we usually try to find a way to make that meal as painless as possible.
Author and mother, Shubhra Ramineni, grew up enjoying healthy, traditional Indian food and learned to cook from her mother, an excellent home cook and a professional dietitian. Determined to eat well despite her busy schedule as a chemical engineer with an MBA, Shubhra set out to adapt traditional Indian recipes for the lifestyles of today’s busy moms and professionals. The result is her creating dozens of delicious, easy-to-prepare Indian recipes using easy to find ingredients and everyday cookware, all without sacrificing the authenticity of the taste. In her award-winning book, “Entice with Spice,” she shows Indian food enthusiasts how to prepare delicious meals at home without spending hours in the kitchen.
She recreates authentic Indian flavors using easy techniques and fresh and easily available ingredients. With nearly 100 recipes with helpful photographs—from samosa to naan and mouth-watering curries—Shubhra gives readers tricks and short cuts she has learned from her own mother. We had a chance to interview her about her book and growing up as an Indian-American.
Where is your family from?
My parents are originally from Punjab, which is in northern India, and my in-laws are originally from Andhra Pradesh, which is in southern India, which reflect the regions in India where my recipes are from in my book. My husband and I grew up in the United States.
What was meal time like in your home growing up?
On most weekdays we would eat Indian food that my mom had cooked on the weekend. On Fridays and on the weekends we would order pizza, or go out to our favourite Mexican and Italian restaurants. My mom would also sometimes make spaghetti, tacos, and home-made pizza. She would put fennel seeds in pizza, and when I was a child I did not like that, but now I like a sprinkle of fennel seeds in my pizza.
What inspired you to take on a career in food and cooking?
I have always enjoyed to leisurely cook for fun, but after graduate school I became a busy working professional and I realized I did not know how to cook tasty and traditional Indian food in a quick and efficient way. I got tired of frozen meals and unhealthy take-out food. There were many days I wanted to have a healthy and wholesome Indian meal quickly ready to eat after a long day at work, but I did not know how to prepare it. I realized that I needed and wanted to learn how to make quick, easy and delicious food like my mom does.
I started to learn basic Indian cooking from my mother and mother-in-law, but it was hard at first since they do not use measuring utensils, and instead would just eyeball measurements and cook with experience. When I would ask my mom on the phone how to cook a recipe, she would say “a bit of turmeric, a pinch of cumin seeds, etc.,” and it was frustrating since I was lost. I would have to ask her again and again, and she would say she has already explained that recipe to me. Then, on top of that, my handwriting is not the greatest, so my notes and scribbles were hard to read or lost somewhere in my pile of papers. That is when I decided to watch my mom in the kitchen by her side, and I made her use measuring utensils. I did the same with my mother-in-law.
I finally standardized their recipes with accurate measurements, and also added my own personal touch so anyone could easily make an Indian meal in a short amount of time.
I developed a no-fuss cooking style that recreates authentic Indian flavours using easy techniques and fresh and easily available ingredients. I was on vacation in Canada visiting the Niagara Falls with my husband, and was relaxing in the hotel when a thought popped into my head – I had a good written collection of my Indian recipes and from a recent visit at a bookstore, I noticed there were not any other Indian cookbooks out there written by an Indian American with quick and easy, every day, basic Indian recipes; someone who has grown up her and knows our busy lifestyle and what is easily available at our local grocery stores.
I then came up with the idea of writing a cookbook so that I can share my quick, easy and tasty recipes with anyone that loves Indian food but is too intimidated to cook it. After a lot of hard work, my book, Entice with Spice, Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People (by Tuttle Publishing), came to life and has done quite well and has received great reviews and awards. It has won the 2010 Gourmand Award for the Best Indian Cookbook in the Unites States, and the 2010 Gourmand Award for the top 4 Indian Cookbooks in the world.
Who were your mentors along the way?
Definitely and most importantly my mother. She is a busy dietician who puts family first. After a tiring day at work, she happily made sure my dad, my brother and I had a healthy and delicious home-cooked meal. Even now when I visit her, she whips up an amazing Indian meal in a jiffy and I am still amazed at how fast she does it. I am amazed at how my mom balances her career and home-life, and her planning style. She usually does most of the week’s cooking on Sunday and refrigerates the food, so dinner simply needs to be heated up after she comes home from a long and busy day at work. My mother has taught me her style and how to cook Indian food quickly and efficiently, while still keeping it delicious and authentic. For each recipe in my book, I have given the freezing time, refrigeration time, and how to reheat the food. I have also indicated when prep work such as boiling a potato or eggs can be done in advance and put in the refrigerator. My editor, Holly Jennings, also was very helpful in the process of writing the book, especially since it was my first book. She gave me advice and suggestions and was always supportive and patient.
As a mom, how do you plan your meals at home? What tips can you offer moms looking to keep things quick and simple?
I plan ahead for the week, and I learned this from my mom, and I would suggest this to anyone to keep things quick and easy. For example, my two year old loves rice and any dish with rice in it. So on some Sundays, I will make Kichidi (Rice and Lentil Porridge) and Vegetable Pilaf and alternate those dishes when I pack it for her lunch during the week along with yogurt, fruit, and some cheese and crackers. Sometimes I make Rice with Cumin and Peas, along with a vegetable dish such as Mushroom and Pea Curry or Channa Masala (Chickpea Curry) and pack it for her lunch. So basically, I cook one or two days a week put the food in the fridge or freezer.
What is the focus of your book Entice with Spice? How did you decide on the content?
My cookbook, Entice with Spice, Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People (by Tuttle Publishing) has about 100 quick and easy authentic, everyday Indian recipes using easy to find ingredients and lots of time saving and plan ahead tips. There are helpful photographs for almost every recipe so that the reader can know what to expect. One can make a traditional Indian meal from the appetizer to dessert. The recipes are basic recipes such as mango chutney and mint chutney, to appetizers like samosa, to breads, rice, chicken, lamb, fish and seafood, lentils and legumes, vegetables, eggs, Indian cheese (paneer) dishes, and drinks and desserts. There are popular dishes from all of India, mainly from Punjab, which is in northern Indian where my mother is originally from, and from Andhra Pradesh, which is in southern India, where my mother-in-law is originally from. I also have popular restaurant favourites that I have recreated such as Naan Bread, Chicken Tikka Masala, Saag Paneer (creamy spinach with cheese cubes) and Mulligatawny Soup, which I learned about from the Seinfeld episode of the soup nazi!
Who is this book best suited for?
My book is for anyone who wants to cook a quick, easy and authentic Indian meal. It is for a young person who has never cooked before, or a seasoned cook who had not yet tried their hand at Indian food. It is for busy professionals, newlyweds, moms with a hungry family to feed, and anyone wanting to cook a simple and delicious Indian meal. I have included basic directions on things like how to boil a potato and egg, which I had no idea how to do at one time. Just the other day I had a person write to me and say “I am so impressed with all of your recipes, I feel like I can actually make Indian food with ease and not be frustrated being on the phone with my mom during the process!” This made me so happy, since I completely understood her because I had the same challenges when I started learning to cook Indian food from my mom and I wanted my book to help others avoid that frustration. I made a great effort to make sure that my recipes have simple step-by-step directions so the reader can feel I am there with them in the kitchen. I also made sure to standardize all of the measurements in both metric and English units.
What spice do you always have on hand in your kitchen?
I actually always have five basic spices on hand, which are used in many of my dishes. Two of them most people already have, which are salt and ground black pepper. The other three are ground red pepper (cayenne), ground turmeric and whole cumin seeds. My recipes use easy to find spices and ingredients, so you do not have to make special trips to ethnic markets.
What challenges do South Asian moms have today when it comes to traditional Indian cooking for their families?
Moms not only have the important job of being a mom, but may also be busy career women and wives that have hungry hubbies, and everyone looks to mom to see what’s for dinner! That is why I really hope my book can help ease the task of having a traditional Indian meal ready for the family. My recipes are so easy that anyone can make them, so Mom doesn’t always have to be the one cooking dinner…hint, hint Dads!
If you could make a meal for any celebrity, who would it be and why? What would you make?
I would like to have lunch with Giada De Laurentiisand have both of our daughters there to join us. I love Italian food and I like Giada’s cooking style…her recipes are easy, yet elegant, and I often make her recipes. For our Indian lunch, I would make my flavourful Vegetable Pilaf, which is sort of like an Indian vegetable fried rice. It is an easy one-pot dish with so many exotic flavours and healthy vegetables. My 2 year old daughter loves this dish, and I often pack it for her school lunch, and am so happy when she brings home an empty lunch box. I have a feeling both Giada and her daughter would enjoy this dish as well! For our dessert I would make Kulfi (Indian ice cream). It is incredibly easy to make, and I would freeze it in Popsicle molds for a fun touch for the girls to enjoy!
Can you give us a snapshot of your favourite recipe from your book?
Although I absolutely love desserts, one of my favourite main dishes is the Vegetable Pilaf that I just mentioned. (Stay tuned in the next issue for Shubhra’s recipe for Vegetable Pilaf!)
For Shubhra’s upcoming classes and events, please visit www.enticewithspice.com. Readers may contact her from her website for any cooking questions they have for her.
Follow Shubhra on facebook: www.facebook.com/enticewithspice
On Twitter: @shubhraramineni
The Award-winning cookbook, Entice with Spice, Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People, is available worldwide at major bookstores such as Barnes & Nobles, Om Bookshop inDelhi, India, Indigo Chapters Bookstore and on Amazon.com. It is also available in independent bookstores in Houston, as well as at Central Market and Williams-Sonoma and will soon be at Whole Foods Markets. Shubhra is currently working on her next cookbook, which will be about healthy eating using fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables and tofu.
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