The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

Menu Close

Tag: cooking

Video: Food, Health, Cooking

I learned to cook from my husband, my mother, and the Internet. It is hard to classify the food I cook as Keralite, Gujarati, Mumbai-style, or anything else. It is vegan cooking, Indian-influenced. It is what works for me and the husband, and I have tweaked it endlessly to make it our own.

Three big changes: Switching to the steaming method to cook vegetables, shifting to a low-carb diet, going vegan.

Cooking Indian Food in India, by Chef Daniel Peach

(Read chef Daniel Peach’s story – Part 1 here.)

Q. Do you remember the first time you sampled Indian food? When/where was it? What was your reaction?

A: I first tried Indian food when I was 14 (2003). My friend’s dad was obsessed with this Indian restaurant in Columbia and was a regular there. We went in, and he knew all the people working there. I remember eating naan and some chicken curry and enjoying it, but it didn’t stick with me.

After that I didn’t have Indian food again until 2008. I ate lunch with a friend at an Indian restaurant called Chinar that used to be in downtown Charleston. Again we just had some naan and a cashew chicken curry. It blew me away; I felt like the spices were intoxicating.

I don’t feel, however, that I really tasted Indian food until I got to India. The first meal I ever had in India was a masala dosa at a little restaurant in Mumbai. I remember being unable to contain my smile. I loved it. Last year when I was in India, I woke up the first morning of my trip and had some kanda pohe on the street in Andheri (East). It was so simple and yet it almost moved me to tears. I think most of it was just emotional, as I was happy to be back in India since it had been a year since my last visit. Anyhow, I am off on a tangent now, but hopefully that answers your question.

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Q. How does an American get a job as a cook at an Indian restaurant in India? 🙂 How was that experience?

A: I worked in several restaurant and ashram kitchens in India and all of them have different, unique stories behind them. Most frequently it would go like this: I’d eat somewhere and love the food, then ask to talk with the owner. I’d then explain to them that I was a chef back in the US, working in an Indian restaurant, and looking to learn more recipes and cooking techniques. Several times I was invited into the kitchen without having to ask, and other times I had to do some convincing that I didn’t want any money and was just there to learn. The fact that I spoke Hindi was a huge bonus, as people who works as cooks in India don’t generally speak English.

Last year I worked at a very famous restaurant in Kolkata called Kewpies. The owner, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, is well known in the city, and the restaurant is in the bottom floor of her ancestral home. Her mother wrote the first Bengali cookbook in English (Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook). I contacted her several months prior and she agreed to having me come and work in the restaurant during Durga Pooja. That was the most formal experience, whereas the trip before that I worked in a small restaurant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh near the railway station. I stopped there one day for lunch, and was blown away by the food. I met the owner and not only did he let me work in the kitchen but even gave me a free room in their hotel in the building above the restaurant.

My experiences have been as varied as the places I’ve worked, but there are a few commonalities. The first of which being I learned that the people working as cooks in India are for the most part very low class citizens. Most of them make about RS 120 ($2)/day and work from sunup ’til sundown. They generally live upstairs from the restaurant, usually sleeping on the floor and sharing a small space with all of the other cooks. Because of their low status in society I realized a lot of them couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that some guy from the US was interested in what they were doing. I got the impression from people after I had been in the kitchens for a while that, by me being so interested in what they were doing they discovered a new found pride in their craft. Some of them had families living in villages near town while some were young and on their own. They all had incredible work ethic and always, no matter how busy the restaurant got or how much work they had to do, maintained a positive attitude. That definitely put things into perspective for me, and helped me see how to handle the challenges I face in my job with grace. So many people working in restaurants in the US just stay stressed, whereas the folks in India worked just as hard (sometimes harder) and did so stress free.

Cooking in India

Cooking in India

I also found that restaurant kitchens in India are much less hygienic than restaurants here in the US. In a lot of ways, it is not a big issue and people traveling to India should not be worried about eating out (though I would stay away from meat). All of the produce is delivered in the morning and cooked that day. Everything is really fresh, mostly because there is no refrigeration. That being said most kitchens, even in restaurants that seem ‘nice’, are fairly primitive. I used to work at a sweet shop in Rishikesh, and the walls were covered in dark grease because they were frying enormous amounts of sweets in pure ghee every day. I came back a few months later, and was impressed to see the walls a shining silver color. I asked a friend if they had cleaned, and he laughed saying, “No, we just painted” (over the grease).

The Health Department in India is, like the rest of the government, corrupt. If a health inspector should visit a restaurant for an inspection, they usually just take a bribe, make a few comments, and leave.

Lastly, I found that due to the sheer availability of cheap labor in India, most kitchens have an enormous amount of people working in them. This allows people to become very specialized in one skill, which I think has allowed Indian food to evolve so much. If someone is doing the same thing all day every day for years, they eventually figure out incredibly efficient systems and get that product to a point near perfection, something that is not possible in a restaurant where the average cook is responsible for making 20-30 different things each day.

(All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)

“I don’t cook.”



Shirley from Basically Vegan posted a quote on Twitter by Mark Bittman. It goes, “Anyone can cook, and most everyone should.” I couldn’t agree more, really.

It is easy to go back to the days of childhood for comparison although the truth is that that was a different period. And I grew up in a different country. But some things remain unchanged. Food, for instance. And nutrition. And health. And family, sharing, joy… all that good stuff. It may be an Indian middle-class habit (meaning, solely driven by practical reasons) to cook at home, each day and every day. Going out for dinner was reserved for special occasions like birthdays or treats (for topping the class or winning a competition… good times, huh!). There was a sense of luxury associated with eating out even though we didn’t ever go to fancy/expensive restaurants. Oh, the colloquial term for restaurants in India is ‘hotel.’ So our constant refrain, “Achcha, can we please go to hotel tonight?” simply meant, “Dad, can we please go out for dinner?” Some days, the answer would be ‘yes.’ And then Mom would begin mentioning that we had leftovers from lunch, and then there was the vegetable curry she had made yesterday that would suffice for one person, and so on. Her last card used to be, “You guys go. I will eat at home.” And that would essentially bring an end to the discussion. And G and I would accuse Mom of being the perennial spoil-sport, hmmph!

The point made is simple. Home cooking is the best kind that ever exists. No matter what you cook at home, it will taste infinitely better than the fanciest food you get from a restaurant. I never bought into this philosophy as a kid/teenager but now, as a homemaker and a regular cook, I can only say – Yes, oh yes, absolutely, without a doubt. There is simply no comparison between the dishes that come out of a restaurant kitchen and those that emerge from my humble 4-burner gas range. The simplest lentil dal from my home kitchen outshines the Penang Curry from the best Thai restaurant. There is something to be said for the hand and mind and heart that cook out of love, for the pure joy of feeding and sharing, for the simple purpose of nourishment and sustenance, for the ones we love.

As Bittman says, everyone can cook. You may not be able to whip up a flawless souffle or a complicated Biryani but you can cook. You will not starve. And you will be able to feed yourself and others the best, simple food that is inexpensive, delicious and healthy. It is wholly possible. It is a life skill, really. And I think it is time folks realized this. Like you learn to drive, like you learn to clean a home, like you learn to do all the tasks that a regular adult does… you can learn to cook.

Such a long time…

Have been MIA a long time, haven’t I?

Maybe you can say that “real life” intervened. Actually, nothing as dramatic as that. P’s parents arrived from India a couple of weeks back. They brought along with them truckloads (okay, that is heavily dramatic) of goodies from home. Some were lovingly made by my mother, mother-in-law, aunts and friends while some were carefully purchased from local stores. Spiral chaklis, ribbon pakodas, crisp jackfruit chips, thin round banana fries, rectangular gol-papdi (possibly my favorite Indian sweet ever), peanut chikki, globular til laddoos, spicy poha chivda… the list goes on. We have managed to make a dent in the supply pretty well, even if I say so. In any case, fried food doesn’t sit well with me. Or my digestive system. It starts to develop an aversion of sorts which works out excellently in terms of preventing me from bingeing on any goodie.

My mother-in-law is a fabulous cook. She has tons of tips and tricks, techniques and methods that she has honed over years and years of cooking for a full house with little help… in addition to working full-time and running a home and taking care of a little kid. She is super-efficient and ingenious with her use of ingredients and resources. In spite of all the years of cooking experience, she is always open to new flavors, cooking techniques and new kinds of foods. Last time she visited was in 2007. Dad-in-law and she stayed us with almost six months. During the entire period, I didn’t step into the kitchen. Or maybe I did… to do the dishes, clean up, all those sundry tasks. This time, I have been doing a lot more than that. Makes me happy to think that I can cook for my in-laws and do a decent job of it as well.

Boy, have I matured as a cook.