Ambassador of Indian food serves up a side dish of culture
"India only has three indigenous spices," says Julie Sahni. "It's not really the spice cuisine people think it is."
Those three native spices, she explains, are black pepper, cardamom, and turmeric. Saffron was later adopted as one of India's own, but most spices generally considered Indian, including those in curry powder, come from the eastern Mediterranean.
Ms. Sahni, one of America's leading experts on the food and cooking of India, is demonstrating dishes from her native country at Masala Art, a contemporary Indian restaurant in Needham, Mass.
As she speaks, diners are riveted. A cuisine that once seemed complex, distant, and exotic is suddenly more accessible. Foreign-sounding dishes such as Idli (steamed rice cakes), Murg Tak-a-Tak (chicken with cashew nuts), and Jalebi (sugar swirls) become familiar as they are tasted and talked about.
Sahni is doing what she does best: acquainting diners with Indian ingredients and cooking not only by pleasing their palates but also by sharing her vast knowledge of and passion for a 2,500-year-old cuisine and the colorful culture it comes from.
In recent years, as Indian restaurants have become almost as common as pizza parlors and burger joints in cities across America, Sahni's job as an educator has become easier. Long gone are the days when Indian restaurants served only red, green, or yellow curry dishes. Now one can find those that specialize in not only northern or southern Indian fare, but also in sophisticated dishes from a particular region, such as Bengal.
Sahni couldn't be more pleased. "Americans are so adventurous," she says. "They are lapping up Indian food, even eating it with their fingers." She attributes exploding interest in Indian cooking partly to the high-tech boom, which led to business dealings between American dot-comers and Indians, especially those from the southern part of her country.
Also a factor, she says, is the desire among Indians who moved to America in the 1980s to establish a voice, a sense of identity, in their adopted homeland. Some of them have founded Indian newspapers; others have opened restaurants or specialty food shops.
That has created quite a different climate for Indian cuisine, says Sahni, who recalls back in the late 1960s the dearth of spices in US markets and the strange looks she got when wearing her sari at Columbia University School of Architecture, where she was a graduate student.
Today, when she visits the Indian community in Queens, N.Y., which she does often, she feels as if she were in New Delhi. "Indians have found a sense of belonging in America," says Sahni. "I am perpetually in a state of excitement about this."
When Sahni came to America in 1967, she had intended to get a master's degree and then return home, smarter, more worldly, and ready to employ a household of servants, including cooks.
But she felt compelled to stay. "I had choices in the US that I wouldn't have had back home," Sahni says. "That's what attracts Indians to America. You can choose what you want to be, where you want to live, whom you marry...."
After school, she settled in New York and became an architect and city planner. On the side, she began teaching a few curious colleagues how to make simple Indian meals in her Brooklyn kitchen, which, in 1973, she named Julie Sahni's Indian Cooking School.
The New York Times heard about her moonlighting work, observed her, and published a glowing profile. The article helped Sahni realize her gift and her unique niche, and soon after, she quit her job to follow her passion.
It was a heady time for cooking teachers. Julia Child was charmingly demystifying French cuisine for viewers of her public-television hit "The French Chef," Graham Kerr entertained viewers as he demonstrated complex dishes, and both TV chefs introduced the idea that cooking could be fun and creative, not laborious. Their contributions, as well as those of other culinary giants such as James Beard and M.F.K. Fischer, helped Sahni feel good about her own choice - despite opposition back home.
"In India," she explains, "cooking is a blue-collar job that is almost unthinkable for someone with my background."
Her mother still asks: "Julie, when are you going to get a real job?"
But that hasn't stopped Sahni from sticking to what she calls her "mission." Since those early days, she has written five cookbooks, including "Classic Indian Cooking," still considered the definitive book on Indian cuisine, had numerous articles published in newspapers and magazines, and was nominated as one of America's three best cooking teachers in both 1999 and 2001 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Her celebrity status has been a boon to her cooking school, which now draws students from all over the world, including Australians, Swiss, and many American-born Indians eager to learn about their culinary heritage.
Sahni doesn't seem caught up in her own stardom. Focused on her calling, she insists on teaching beyond how to make the best Chicken Tikka or Lamb Masala.
"I put Indian food in cultural context," she says. "Why spices react a certain way, why people sit on the floor, why they eat with their fingers, how food relates to art, craft, and religion. I want my students to understand what Indians are made of."
Still, Sahni is realistic about the extent to which Indian cooking has infiltrated the US.
"Any culture needs time to be accepted," she says. "We've come a long way, but whether a family of four in Flint, Mich., is going to serve Tandoori Chicken for Sunday night supper is another story. It could take another two generations before that ever happens."