Spicing Up America

An Indian American writer and cooking instructor explores food, family and culture in her work.

As a cookbook author, cooking teacher and food writer, Monica Bhide is often assumed to be chiefly preoccupied with food. She says that’s not the case.

“I’m writing about the relationship between food and family and culture,” she says. “It’s all about relationships and how food brings people together.”

Bhide, an Indian American living in the Washington, D.C. area, uses recipes with plenty of the ingredients commonly associated with South Asian cuisine—from chutneys and tandoori chicken to samosas and chapattis—but her culinary advice is equally likely to be spiced with stories about her family and childhood in New Delhi.


Memories and menus
When Bhide writes about her father, for example, she tells of his complicated recipe for the classic Indian dish, butter chicken, which she has found daunting even as an adult.

She tells of making kheer, a traditional rice pudding with cardamom, while alone and desperately homesick as a graduate student in a small Virginia town. Its enticing aroma attracted another Indian student, Sameer, who was on his way to the library. They have now been married for more than 17 years and have two sons.

For Bhide, a spice like cardamom can become a means to trace key events in her life. “When I was a child in Delhi,” she wrote in Saveur magazine, “cardamom was as familiar as the air I breathed.” In Bahrain, where she lived for many years as a schoolgirl, Bhide discovered gahwa, the fragrant Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom.

After moving to the United States in 1991, she writes, “Cardamom has been both a link to home and a bridge to other cultures.” When she describes her older son’s changing food tastes in another article, the story becomes a lesson in peer pressures at school and how to cope with them.


Food writing
Bhide’s interest in food began in childhood when she learned traditional Indian cooking from both parents, but also became fascinated with the strange foods, such as peanut butter and chocolate brownies, that she saw on American television programs. At 10, she stunned her parents by secretly preparing an entire meal to celebrate their anniversary, although the neighbors did help out.

Food and cooking didn’t seem to be in Bhide’s future, however, and after high school, she earned an engineering degree from Bangalore University and two master’s degrees. One was in information systems technology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C; the other in industrial systems management from Lynchburg College in Virginia. Bhide worked in the corporate field for 10 years, primarily in professional training and development with consulting firm Ernst & Young. Years later, she found herself shaken by the sudden death of a close friend and, with her husband’s encouragement, quit her demanding job to find a new career path. It was her husband who prodded Bhide by pointing out that, along with cooking, she loved nothing more than writing. Why not combine the two? So she did.

Bhide, now an American citizen, is the author of three cookbooks, including “The Spice is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today,” 2001, and “The Everything Indian Cookbook: 300 Tantalizing Recipes,” 2004. Her most recent book is “Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen,” 2009, which has just been released in India as well.

“Meals laced with stories, inspirations and grandma’s tales along with trendy combinations,” said the Mumbai Mirror in its review of “Modern Spice.”

In 2004, Bhide won the Susan B. Langhorne Scholarship for Food Writers. Along with articles for national magazines, she publishes a weekly online column in the Washington Post called I Spice.


Tradition and change
Bhide is one of a new generation of cooks and food writers who are changing the image of Indian cooking while still remaining true to its fundamental traditions and tastes. “I love tradition, but embody change,” Bhide declares. And in “Modern Spice” she writes, “While traditional Indian cooking was perceived to be difficult and fussy, the foundation of modern Indian cooking is perfection and simplicity.”

The results are recipes that combine Indian staples and spices in exciting new combinations. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman cites potato-peanut tikkis and shrimp in green mango butter as among his favorites. The India-based food blog, Saffron Trail, points to such unexpected spice combinations as mango-almond chutney and a fennel-chili dry rub.

“The joke among my friends is that I would spice my spices if I could,” Bhide wrote in one of her I Spice columns.

Innovating with traditional foods and spices in any culture raises the tricky question of what is authentic and what is not. Bhide is impatient with such debates. “Authenticity and tradition are born out of personal experience of the home cook and the embrace of the environment,” she says, adding that the way her mother makes lentils is quite different from the way her mother-in-law makes them. Both are equally “authentic.”


Indian American cuisine
Bhide is eager to combat the stereotype of Indian cuisine in the United States as largely based on curry dishes, and her columns and cookbooks are showcases for the remarkable diversity of Indian cooking. They also demonstrate that, far from being mysterious, cooking in the Indian tradition can be “easy, fun and intensely flavorful.”

The popularity of Indian cooking has grown rapidly in just the nearly 20 years since Bhide made her lonely pot of rice pudding in Virginia, when she was faced with “few choices of pickles, no chutneys, no packaged rotis or naans.” In her early married life, she recalls making paneer from scratch and grinding her own pastes and masalas.

“Today, the level of knowledge and experience about Indian foods and spices has gone way up,” Bhide says. She frequently gives tours of an Indian food store in suburban Virginia near her home that stocks a wide array of items ranging from flours, chapattis and paneer to chutneys, Indian-style yogurts and many fresh and packaged spices.

Recently, Bhide has given talks on the history of India through food, and she has stretched her writing to finish a collection of short stories now making the publishing rounds in New York. Her philosophy is simple, she says: “Focus on your passion and what you love and you will be happy in your life.”


Howard Cincotta is a special correspondent with America.gov.