Recipe: The Making of “Aarti Paarti”
My mum wouldn’t let me leave Dubai without a jar of chicken tikka powder.
I was packing for my new life as a journalism student at Northwestern University, when she put a small bottle of her secret blend on the bed next to the mounds of clothes, photos, shoes and notebooks gathered there.
“You never know when you’ll need a taste of home,” she said.
How right she was. In fact, years later, it was a craving for that taste of home that led me into the kitchen. There, I experimented with the unfamiliar (the spices, seeds and herbs) in search of the familiar (dal, rice, chicken curry, green beans with coconut, yum!).
I never conquered Mum’s recipes in college though; nothing ever tasted the same. I followed her recipes but, if any of you have harangued your mum or grandmother or aunty into writing down their signature recipes, you know how difficult it is to follow them—instructions like “a little turmeric” or “cook until the chicken is cooked” (my favorite!) ran rampant through my Mum’s neat handwriting. I couldn’t blame her though; Mum had been cooking for so long, ever since her own mother had passed away leaving her to take care of her four younger siblings, that I don’t think she could remember a time when she didn’t know how long chicken takes to cook.
And so I gave up. But thank goodness for that chicken tikka powder. All through college, Mum’s secret blend turned up at Valentine’s dinners, camping trips, birthdays, even Thanksgiving one year. It was a taste of home, a signature perfume that took me right back to our kitchen in Dubai where Mum would serve it with a potato and green pepper salad. On those freezing Chicago winter nights, that chicken was a welcome blast of warm desert air.
A few years ago, I started playing in the kitchen again. I was flush with the joy of being a newlywed; I had just left New York for Los Angeles to be with my husband, Brendan, who is an actor. My visa was still processing so I couldn’t work, and I couldn’t drive yet because I was petrified of our stick shift Jeep (now my best friend).
The first few days were a lazy bliss of watching “The View” and drinking as much coffee as I wanted!
But soon, I grew restless. I thumbed through a wedding present, a copy of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking . Then I’d plot out my shopping list, and trot down to the supermarket, about a 20-minute walk. I’d stop at Surfas, a restaurant supply store (every food-lover’s heaven!) for the perfect pan or spoon, and lug all my booty back home. By the time my husband had returned from work, there was a hot meal on the table. Rinse, repeat, for a few months.
I have to give my husband a lot of credit here. He ate a lot of less-than-spectacular meals! But he could see something brewing in me that I couldn’t. I was starting to get really passionate about cooking; I’d watch cooking shows all day, get cookbooks out from the library, all in a quest to learn as much as I could about what makes cooking tick. Lo and behold, for Christmas that year, Bren presented me with a gift certificate to the part-time cooking school in my neighborhood so I could take my passion to the next level.
Meanwhile, I was still trying to put my Northwestern education to use—I co-produced “Sand and Sorrow,” the documentary about the Darfur crisis, eventually bought by HBO. But after I finished the documentary, and my internship at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, I still wondered what I was supposed to do with my life. The fire in my belly for news had died out. I didn’t think I could cut it in a restaurant kitchen for the rest of my life. A friend suggested I make my own cooking show. But I thought, isn’t this a waste of my education? This doesn’t seem to be a serious enough profession, one that would make my family proud. It took another friend of mine, a fellow journalist, to say, with your cooking show, you can make people feel happy, relaxed. You can teach people. That’s serious and important!
Bren suggested we call the show “Aarti Paarti,” and within a few weeks, we were shooting our little cooking-variety show in our tiny kitchen! You can find it on YouTube and on my blog, aartiparti.com . The show helped me figure out my cooking style—Indian food by way of America. A great example is my grilled cheese sandwich with tomato chutney, which you’ll find below (you can also find the video for the recipe on my blog). It’s a great way to introduce Indian flavors to the unseasoned, plus for us Indians, it makes for a nice sweet spot between the food of our ancestors, and the food of our future generations here in America. Right?
By the time the casting call for The Next Food Network Star went out, I still wasn’t sure I had the culinary chops to compete, but I felt like God was pushing me, hard, in that direction, so we shot a video, and here I am! Of all the contestants on the show this year, I’m the only one who got in based on their video alone! A miracle!!
Well, I hope this column has given you a good sense of who I am and where I come from: a South Indian girl, who grew up in Dubai, and who is blessed to call Los Angeles home. And you’ll find all of that reflected in my food. Give this recipe a go, and stop by my blog to let me know how it turned out!
GRILLED CHEESE WITH TOMATO CHUTNEY
2 cups grape tomatoes
a little more than 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup red onion, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
Handful cilantro, minced
2 tbsp vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp urad dal (optional)
1 tsp black mustard seeds
Pinch of red chili flakes
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
Cheese of your choice, freshly grated (I used cheddar)
Throw tomatoes, vinegar and onions in a pot over high heat. Season with salt, boil for 5 minutes.
Add garlic, ginger, cilantro and brown sugar plus a splash of water if it’s too dry. Stir and boil for another 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, warm oil until shimmering. Add urad dal and red chili flakes. When dal has turned a little darker, add mustard seeds, and stand back! They’ll splutter! Once they’re done spluttering, pour into the tomato mixture (which should be done boiling).
Turn the heat down, simmer 20 minutes until the tomato mixture takes on a jam consistency. Try to keep some of the tomatoes whole.
Allow chutney to cool. Then make grilled cheese.
Heat nonstick or cast iron skillet over moderately low heat. Make sandwich with cheese and tomato chutney. Slather some mayonnaise on the outside of one side of the sandwich. Place it mayo-side down in the skillet. Slather mayo on the other side. Wait a couple of minutes, until it’s browned, then flip and brown the other side.
Cut into triangles and serve!
Aarti Sequeira was selected as one of the 12 finalists on Food Network’s current show, The Next Food Network Sta r. Check out the show to see her progress. Aarti’s cooking blog is http://aartipaarti.com.
Source: India Currents
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