October Blogger of the Month: Colleen Mahal of A Curry of a Life

October Blogger of the Month: Colleen Mahal of A Curry of a Life

After her marriage to a boy from Bombay, Colleen Mahal went from living the life of a small-town coastal girl with no desire to cook to finding her calling as a bi-cultural, increasingly popular home chef and food blogger. Her blog, A Curry of a Life, chronicles the coming together of two intricate cultures and the adventures of this all-American girl as she transforms into a paneer-making, Punjabi Hot Pocket-creating, curry-cooking traveler with a knack for photography, food, and writing.

Although we can read the amazing story of your whirlwind romance with an Indian man, his incredible culture, and the delicious results on your blog, gives us a quick and dirty rundown.

Okay, here we go: I met my husband in college. He lived in the apartment below mine, so we were neighbors. Two and a half years later we were married. We had one wedding with my family in the US, then flew to India and had a full-blown Indian wedding in Bombay. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. My American wedding had 25 people and the Indian wedding had 450 people!

In the first year of marriage my husband was the main cook and taught me to make the dishes he loved. After learning a few simple dishes from him, it didn’t take me long to realize he didn’t know much about cooking. He used to tell me “everything is made the same way, you just throw in different vegetables.” That’s when I decided I had better learn to cook on my own.

At first, I taught myself Indian cooking using YouTube videos and lots of phone calls to my mother-in-law. Once we started making regular trips to India, I decided to make videos of her cooking all my husband’s favorite dishes. This was a great help once I got back home and it wasn’t long till I felt confident with Indian cooking.

The blog began a few years later. I had so many friends asking me how I learned to cook Indian food and asking for recipes. I noticed many of my friends wanted to learn Indian cooking but were too intimidated to try it. That’s when I realized I could help them with all I had learned about Indian cooking. If I could learn to cook authentic Indian food, than anyone could do it. I wanted to show non-Indians that authentic Indian cooking is not so complicated; it just needs to be broken down step by step and explained well.

Tell us the ten essential ingredients any Indian chef must keep in their kitchen.

I love this question because I just wrote a post on the essential Indian spices. For great Indian cooking there are actually only three essential spices:

1. Salt – Everyone’s got this one already!

2. Turmeric – A lot of people may be familiar with this spice, it’s available at most grocery stores. This is the spice that gives Indian food its signature vibrant color. It doesn’t have much flavor, but you can use it to create a golden-colored curry. Add a couple of red chilies or red chili powder and you have a vibrant orange. Many people’s favorite Indian dish is chicken tikka masala, [which has a] signature orangey-red hue. How does it get that color? A mix of turmeric and red chili powder.

3. Garam masala – This is the magic spice of Indian cooking. This is the spice that gives every dish that essential Indian flavor: full-bodied, a bit of heat, layers of flavor. It all comes from this one spice. Actually, it’s a spice mix. It has a blend of cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper and red chilies. But I count it as just one spice because I can buy a package of garam masala at the Indian store. I’ve also seen garam masala for sale at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, so I think it’s becoming more widely available.

As for other essential ingredients, it really depends on which type of Indian food you are cooking. South Indian food uses coconut in almost every dish as well as curry leaves. North Indian food will always have a base of onion, ginger and garlic. I can tell you about the Indian food I tend to make, which is North Indian. Since my husband grew up eating his mom’s scrumptious North Indian cooking, this is the kind of food he prefers.

Practically every dish starts off with the same five ingredients:

1. Onions
2. Garlic
3. Ginger
4. Green chilies
5. Tomatoes

In fact, as I’m writing this I can hear my mother-in-law chopping in the background. I can guarantee you she is prepping these five ingredients!

I can’t resist mentioning the one essential item you would find in any Indian kitchen, just for fun: a spice box. Every Indian kitchen has a round steel container, fitted with small round bowls filled with colorful spices. This is called the masala dabba, or spice box. It sits at the ready on the kitchen counter for quick and easy access. Most Indian kitchens don’t have a spice cabinet or a spice drawer like Americans do; they keep it all in this box.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten abroad?

Last year I was in Bombay during my first Diwali festival. Diwali is the biggest festival of the year, kind of like Christmas. I went to a lunch where the table was laid out with ten different dishes to choose from. At the end of the meal they gave me a glass of milk to wash away all the flavors before dessert was served. I took a big gulp only to discover it was a glass full of buttermilk! I was so shocked I almost couldn’t swallow it. For me, enjoying a glass full of plain buttermilk is something I just can’t get used to. There are stranger things though. For example, today I made a cooking video with my sister-in-law where she cooked fish eggs for her husband. She offered me a taste, but I refused as politely as possible.

With annual trips across the sea, you must spend a lot of time in planes, trains and automobiles. Give us some advice on travel eats.

I should say, there are only two times I’ve gotten food poisoning. One was from street food and one was from airport food. The street food is to be expected. Whenever I indulge in street food, I am taking a risk. But an airport is the last place I expected to get food poisoning. We were traveling from Punjab back to Bombay and I decided to get some lunch during our layover in the Delhi airport. I spent the next week in bed.

When I’m in India, I have the luxury of having access to home cooked food everyday and because of my previous bouts with food poisoning, I avoid outside food such as restaurants and street food. I figure, there’s so much good food to be had at home, why risk it again? I wish I could enjoy the street food like all the locals; street food is a big part of Bombay culture. However, I’d rather not go through food poisoning ever again!

You write a lot about your mother-in-law. What’s the best piece of kitchen-related advice she’s ever given you?

The thing my mother-in-law (I call her Mummy-ji) does best is [she] takes a very simple dish, made with only two or three spices, and makes it taste amazing. I think a great cook can make a simple and basic dish taste irresistible.

Describe your food philosophy and culinary style. What’s it take to make a great dish?

What makes a great dish? A great recipe is a good place to start! But I can make the same recipe many times, and sometimes it comes out great and sometimes it’s as boring as stone soup. So what’s the difference? When I want to make sure a dish comes out well, I have to make sure my heart is in it. If I’m rushing through all the steps so I can get back to whatever I was doing, even the best recipe will fall short. It may sound sentimental, but I think if I cook a dish with love, it always comes out better.

My style of cooking is not to over-complicate things, which can be so easy to do with Indian cooking. I’m also all about home cooking. If I want curried mushrooms cooked with mineral salt found only in the peaks of the Himalayas, I’ll go to a restaurant for that. In my own kitchen, I want food that’s enjoyable to eat and enjoyable to make.

My philosophy on food changes as my needs change. A few years ago, when my schedule was packed with work, I was grateful to pull out a store-bought frozen Indian dinner from the freezer. Our schedules were so tight; we didn’t feel we had the luxury of home cooked meals. If we did make food at home, we used shortcuts like frozen pre-cut vegetables to make a quick pulao (rice dish). For breakfast, we ate store-bought frozen parathas (stuffed flatbreads). It was after a doctor’s checkup that my husband and I saw our cholesterol was rising and we knew it was from all the convenience food we were eating. We knew we had to make healthy, home-cooked food a priority.

We had to find ways to fit home cooked food into our tight schedules. We made a lot of daals and one-pot meals in bulk so we could cook once or twice a week and have it on hand. Having the same dish for two or three days was not my favorite way to eat; it gets boring no matter how delicious it tastes. At the time though, it was the only way we could manage making home cooked food.

Now that my workload has lightened, I’m able to spend more time cooking and I enjoy reconnecting with food. I’ve learned to make at home some of the items I always bought at the store. I discovered how much cheaper it is to make your own almond butter at home, and it was so easy, too! I did the same with ghee (clarified butter, which is used a lot in Indian cooking). I discovered how amazing fresh baked bread is. The more I experimented with making things with my own hands, the more I saw how much money I could save. So I started to see what else I could make myself and save on. I’ve learned to make my own salad dressing and mayonnaise. I’ve even made my own paneer (Indian style cheese).

I also feel I’m contributing to our household in a big way. We save a huge amount of money by making food at home and we got our health back, too. Both my husband’s and my cholesterol went back down to a healthy level. I lost about ten or twelve pounds and my husband lost thirty (and he was pretty skinny to begin with). Making my own bread and almond butter is a big shift from the days of reaching for prepared food. I’m really enjoying the experience of making as much food as I can in my own kitchen.

Where does American cooking have Indian cooking beat, and vice-versa?

American cooking has a great baking tradition. I love to bake. If I want to make a great dessert, I go for American pies, cakes and cookies over traditional Indian sweets.

I think Indian food has mastered the art of flavor. Indian [cooking] has it all: sweet, sour, bitter or spicy. The layering of flavor in just one dish is amazing. An American favorite like the baked potato is a perfect example. We just bake a potato; add some salt and a bit of butter and it’s ready to eat. With Indian cooking, the simplest potato dish would have at the very least a blend of four or five spices and most likely some onions, chilies and bit of garlic. My stepfather described it perfectly one evening, when I brought an Indian vegetable dish to share. After having a bowl full he told me, “That sure is an enjoyable way to eat your vegetables!”

Tell us one dish you can’t live without, and tell us how you’d cook it.

There is one dish that I turn to again and again – Malai Kofta. It’s a stunningly delicious curry dish. It’s full of cream and spice, with dumplings made out of cheese and potato. In the authentic version of this dish, the koftas (dumplings) are deep-fried, but I bake them in the oven so I can enjoy this dish more often and not feel guilty! This is the dish I turn to whenever I need a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The curry sauce is the real star of this dish. I’ve even had readers who tell me they never liked curry but love this sauce, which always makes me feel great.

Describe the biggest cultural differences between American and Indian cooking.

American style cooking has a “main dish” which is accompanied by side dishes. With Indian cooking there is no side dish; every dish is the main dish. Vegetables, lentils and beans, meat or fish are all served together and enjoyed equally. I came from a family where the meat was always the star of the meal and the vegetables were made as an accompaniment. I began eating a vegetarian diet when I was 15 or 16 and many of my food choices were limited to just the side vegetables. I ate a lot of steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes. When I discovered Indian cooking, a whole new world of tasty dishes opened up to me. Indian cooking is food heaven for vegetarians; there are just so many choices.

How has food shaped who you are, and where do you think it will take you?

Strangely enough, I was never much of a “foodie.” I didn’t even know how to cook before I met my husband. But food has been my window into Indian culture. When I meet Indians, they get so excited when they hear I enjoy Indian food and that I know how to make it. When I travel to India and ask people if I can come into their homes and make a video of them cooking their best dishes, it opens up a friendship and I’m able to connect and bond with them, where otherwise we would have had nothing in common.

In my case, food has been the way I am able to connect with people who are completely different [from] me. Plus, it’s really fun to see how happy people get when they get to teach you their recipes show you their skills. My dream would be to travel to the different regions of India, going into local people’s homes and document their best dishes. That would be a great way to see more of India, meet new people and see how one dish can be made in fifty different ways!

If you could tell the whole world one thing about food and why it matters, what would it be?

Food brings people together. I love food because of what it represents. A table full of food means there’s also a table full of people to enjoy it with.

A Curry of a Life has been featured on BlogHer and Foodista, and is regularly featured in the Santa Cruz Media Lab and Santa Cruz Sentinel. Check out ACL’s Facebook page, or send comments and questions to acurryofalife@gmail.com. Photo provided by Colleen Mahal.