Given my insatiable appetite for all matters related to food, my daughter, Ajna, often joked with me, “If I dressed up as a lamb chop, would I get more attention from you?” My cooking journey launched at the dawn of my teenage years; however, a career in food was not considered respectable in India in those days, I was ushered into science. Science came easy, and I learned a lot, but my senses kept pulling me toward the kitchen. My cooking style initially was largely influenced by the cuisine of Sindh, the lost homeland of my parents, and by the food of Gujarat, the state I was born and raised in. When I arrived in Canada as a young bride, a whole new world of food opened for me. By day, I worked as a microbiologist, but by night, I was stalking grocery and international food stores discovering new foods from around the world. I later immigrated to the United States. Fascinated by the new world I was in, yet pining for the culture I came from, I turned my husband and two young children into unsuspecting subjects of my relentless cooking experiments. Annual trips to India to visit family, where I carried tubs of peanut butter and cardamom cookies for my father, punctuated with stops in Europe opened my eyes to a better way of cooking.
I became a stay-at-home-mom-run restaurant, regaling my kids with daily changing breakfasts—scones for Ajna today, a paratha tomorrow, Nutella crepes or pancakes for my son, Virag, a rotating variety of naan sandwiches for school lunches, and fresh smoothies and cookies when they would arrive home from school. I found out years later that sometimes Ajna would trade her sandwiches for test answers, and Virag for what he deemed “normal food.” To get over their Monday school blues, I would deliver them piping-hot lunches.
Seeing how poorly represented Indian food was in Canada and the United States during the eighties and nineties, I resolved to showcase the subcontinent’s foods in a better way. I had set the intention; the path would follow. Eventually, I found my way into a career in food, first by catering meals for friends and family, then making fresh chutneys and selling them to Whole Food Markets in Houston. This was followed by a brief stint at the prestigious Annie Café, after which I went on to open two successful restaurants, Indika and Pondicheri.
Despite decades of exhaustive cooking with nonstop experimentation, I still have a tremendous sense of curiosity, and every single day, I wake up excited to walk into Pondicheri. Restaurant cooks are some of the toughest people to cook for, but they became my testing ground, and the first time I made pani poori, a quintessential street snack of India, I knew I had a winner on my hands when I would watch them sneak pooris in their mouths —they were intrigued by the flavors and textures! I am at my happiest in the kitchen, and being an intuitive cook, I almost never use recipes and seldom cook the same thing twice, always tinkering with a better way to make it. My philosophy about cooking is that the only way to get better is to keep cooking and get comfortable being in a kitchen. I made a fair amount of not-so-tasty food to arrive at good food. Bound neither by tradition nor a pursuit for authenticity, I use my years of prolific cooking to adjust age-old ideas into today’s world.
, I am sharing with you stories of creativity and courage, about blending colonial ingredients with ancestral techniques. While it is hard to distill a culture this vast and diverse into a few recipes, I offer you my best renditions. My recipes are meant to be guides, so take the ideas, move them around, dream up your own versions. After a lifelong love affair with spices, I am here to share the love. And to convince you to add spices to your daily repertoire—this could be as simple as adding a stick of cinnamon into your rice to popping mustard seeds into your favorite soup to creating your own masala. The tiny bit of wisdom I have gleaned from years of being a student of yoga and Ayurveda, I offer you with hope that you will explore further. My dream for this book is that it finds a permanent place in your kitchen and the pages gradually fill up with stains of turmeric, ghee, and such. Happy cooking!
Copyright © 2022 by Anita Jaisinghani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.