Cooking is my lifeline and I can never stop learning

An actress, model, VJ, author and a chef, I’ve always believed in doing more. Here’s why I am always inspired to learn new things.

26 Jun 2020

I will always be a film and theatre actress. In a way, cooking videos and shows are also performances and I am comfortable doing it because of my stint in films and stage work. Cooking is my lifeline and I can never stop learning. I am fascinated by cuisines and cultures and the history associated with it. 

Starting early

As a young girl, I always cooked at home under the tutelage of my mother and grandmother. The kitchen was their space where they would whip up their magic in no time. Today, despite my culinary training in London, France and New York, I cannot cook as well as them! So I consider myself a student – always excited to learn new things.

Passion for food and travel

My quest for learning has taken me to various places.  I am an itinerant traveller and I love meeting new people, learning the languages and customs, and of course cooking new dishes. A country’s cuisine helps me understand the culture better. Food is about people first and then ingredients. I love hanging out and eating with locals wherever I go. 

One of my favourite trips was to Mexico and I was fascinated with the language and their cuisine. Mexico is the only country that loves its chillies more than India. I was amazed to learn how different real Mexican cuisine is from Tex Mex, which is what we mostly eat in India.

A completely parallel culture that shares a spiritual bond with us is Japan. I’ve always felt India and Japan are Ram aur Shyam – one is a colourful chaotic character, the other a quiet, restrained one. In Japan, I learnt to make ramen and was taken aback by their love for Indian food. I was in awe with the culinary history of Japanese curry, which began in the Meiji period when the English introduced Indian flavours to Japan.

The videos that I do right now are a way of sharing a special or symbolic recipe that represents a cuisine or country best. I try to show people what is authentic versus adapted. For instance, when ingredients are not available, we have to tweak so that we can experience at least a part of what’s different.

Life in the US

These videos also showcase my love for teaching, which I fell into accidentally. When I first moved to the USA post-marriage, I was very lonely. I was used to being on film sets surrounded by friends and I missed that electrifying atmosphere. I read in in Boston community magazine that a local school was looking for an Indian cooking teacher. I applied and I think that they hired me because they couldn’t find anyone else! 

I was lousy when I started. I wasn’t prepared for how curious Americans are. They want to know everything about the science of cooking. My vision of combining culture and food with confidence and faith helped me. I started reading, experimenting and documenting. 

I taught an average of 2000-2500 students annually. I learnt as much from their experiences as I hope they did from me.
During this time, I also became fascinated with baking. In fact, home cooks in the USA bake a lot more than Indians. But that’s picking up here too. American home cooks use slow cookers to make one-pot meals for families because they are generally working moms. Introducing the baked casserole and the slow cooker into our culture will make life much easier for women. India and the USA are both cosmopolitan countries with multiple cultures, languages and communities so cuisines are diverse.

Food shows and more…

Currently, I am doing a series called ‘Chat Masala’ on Insta Live where we have a discussion with an interesting person about his/her food experiences and the new public initiatives that are helping people during COVID. I am also working on the Kindle version of my collection of short stories ‘50 and done’, which was based in Bombay in the ‘90s. 

My journey as an author began with “A Sense for Spice” which came from the recipes of my grand and great grandmothers. While it focused on Saraswat food, I also wrote about the food history of the Konkan coast. 

The next cookbook—An Indian Sense of Salad – Eat Raw, Eat More —was based on two central thoughts. The first was how to make raw and healthy salads in India with local ingredients. The other thought was how could I take India’s best vegetarian recipes, deconstruct their flavours and apply them to a raw salad. In other words, use raw versions of classic Indian dishes and incorporate global techniques with Indian ingredients. For instance, for the bharta Japonnaise, I took inspiration from classic Japanese ingredients like miso and t wasabi mayo for flavour, in the sarson da saag salad, I used the American wilted salad technique while sticking to the same ingredients employed in this Punjabi classic. 

My kitchen essentials 

My kitchen and pantry essentials reflect my roots and my diverse taste in food. For me, Parsi dishes spell comfort food as much as Maharashtrian varan bhaat. So what are the most versatile ingredients in my pantry? The list includes good quality salt (which could be rock, sea salt or pink Himalayan salt), a pepper mill or fresh pepper, fresh herbs and salad leaves from my balcony garden. There’s also good artisanal bread – like a sandwich loaf, brioche or sourdough. When it comes to ghee, I use the best quality one or sajuk toop (as we say in Maharashtra). The other must-have ingredients are varieties of artisanal rice, noodles and pasta.

My kitchen also includes a lot of vintage cookware and serveware. I cherish my modak patra which belonged to my great grandmother. She also gave me a ghee pot, which sadly got lost during one of my moves. I have hunted high and low for this shape and style but was unable to replace it. I also have antique Japanese maple wood rice cake makers, which I often use to make sandesh. Over the years, I have collected vintage copper cookware from Europe and traditional serve ware from many different countries like the old stovetop iron waffle makers from Scandinavia and coffee makers from New England.  

Sustainable kitchen

Apart from cooking and baking, I am also passionate about growing things at home, even if it is a small herb garden. 
Zero waste and traditional cooking are well established in India. It’s only a small percentage of the rich here who waste or eat exotic foods. We are a country where we use everything -- seeds, rind, pulp, skins and peels to cook food.

In India, we are growing more urban gardens and consuming more greens. My advice to first-time growers is to start with plants that grow fast and easily like amaranthus, watercress and mesclun (small salad greens). It will give you confidence.Try growing microgreens. This doesn’t need patience and it gives you quick salads. Try to buy high-quality seeds from reputed sellers. Move to growing exotics once you are confident -- this will bring novelty to your kitchen.

From urban gardening to food history and from traditional cuisines to new cooking techniques, there are so many aspects to learn about in the culinary world. And that’s what so exciting about it! It’s safe to say that the learning will never stop. 

Cookbook Tara Deshpande Konkani food Saraswat cuisine herb garden