fD Interview


fD Interview: Monica Bhide, Food Writer

April 26, 2009
by Shannon Firth
Monica Bhide has always enjoyed unwinding in her kitchen in a cloud of spices after a long day. She has also always wanted to write. Since her mid-life career change five years ago, she’s written for The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Bon Appetit, The Washington Post and dozens of other publications. She has also published three cookbooks, the third of which, “Modern Spice,” was released April 22.

fD: You wrote on your blog that your husband likes it when you get upset, because when you’re upset…

MB: I cook up a storm [laughs].

fD: Do you find cooking therapeutic?

MB: I think it’s very therapeutic. I teach cooking classes and I think if people would just leave their fear of cooking at the door and treat it like any other activity they’d find it’s so soothing. And at the end of the activity you actually have something you can enjoy.

fD: What can you tell me about the transition from working a corporate office job to having the freedom to follow your passion?

MB: A few years ago a very close friend of mine passed away very suddenly, and when that happened I felt terrible. She had young children, as did I, and I kept wondering if this had happened to me, did I live the life that I wanted? Did I do everything I wanted to do? So one morning I just quit. I went to resign from what people call the “golden handcuff” job, and I decided I was going to do exactly what I always wanted to do, and that was to become a writer.

I read a lot of books and I got lucky because I’d been writing online. One of my essays won a scholarship to a conference as the “upcoming voice of the year.” And I just started pitching like crazy. Some editors would say, “No, you’re too green.” And I would say, “Listen you’ve got to take a chance on me.”
fD: Tell me about your new book, “Modern Spice.”

MB: It has a forward by The New York Time’s columnist, Mark Bittman, and it’s a collection of modern Indian recipes, inspired by spices and by my love of Indian food and flavors. It has a lot of my food essays, which talk about how food is so closely tied into everything we do.

In “Modern Spice,” I also show people how to use a simple spice and how to bring out the flavor. You may pick up a recipe and it says use nutmeg, but what are you going to do with it after. I don’t see people making the same recipe like 17 times. The book uses the same ingredients in several dishes because you can keep trying with that ingredient.

fD: Tell me more about how family and cooking are intertwined?

MB: I have an essay in “Modern Spice” and if you look at it, it’s about teacups, but it really isn’t. It’s about the fact that my husband and I had a fight, and he left the house, and I started cleaning the cabinets to throw out all the old teacups because nothing matched. And I ended up not being able to throw anything out because every single cup told a story.

I’m always ashamed when people come over because they say, “You’re a food writer and none of your cups match!!” But it all comes down to how it affects us. The story was excerpted by the Washingtonian in May, and they photographed all my mismatched mugs.
fD: In your first book you talk about how religion plays a role in Indian cooking. Can you explain why it’s so important?

MB: Most Hindus don’t eat beef. The Muslims don’t eat pork. There’s a religion called Jainism, and the Jains don’t eat anything that grows under the ground.

There was a rule when my grandmother was alive, that once everything was cooked the first taste was given to an animal outside the house, whether it was a cat or a dog or a stray cow, [because] the gods are always pure souls like animals.

[My grandmother said] tasting the food while cooking it would make it impure. So, I actually learned to cook by sound, smell and sight, learning at which points to add things. And that’s how I teach.

fD: On your blog, you’ve written about your feelings on Americans’ views of India after seeing “Slumdog Millionaire. Could you elaborate?

MB: I used to be upset at CNN for the longest time, several years ago, because they had one shot, I think of Bombay around the slums, and every time they talked about India it seemed like they were showing the same thing. But there’s so much more.

I grew up in the Middle East and my only exposure to the U.S. was watching “Miami Vice” on TV and “Dynasty,” and I thought everyone here lived like that. In 1991, I moved to Virginia and there was not one single high rise, and I mean forget good-looking cops.

Everything shows a slice of life and I think “Slumdog Millionaire” shows a slice of life.

fD: How do you feel about slum tours?

MB: You have to have an iron stomach. I couldn’t do it. I went once. But poverty is not contagious. There are also other things in Bombay that are beautiful. And the people are fabulous, including the people in the slums. They’re very friendly, but I’m not sure they would appreciate a person coming in and taking their picture just to show how poor they are.
fD: What are your thoughts about the local food movement?

MB: Over the summers and for a good part of the early fall and spring I buy from the local farmers, but there’s also wastage. People waste so much food it’s unbelievable. I’ve been learning how to use leftovers.

It’s not always easy because I run a recipe-development business and I used to always wonder what to do with so much food, and I have really well fed neighbors. Happy neighbors.

fD: Do you think Indian food is more diverse than other cuisines?

MB: It’s extremely diverse. India is obviously a big country—a billion people. Three-quarters of India is surrounded by the ocean, so certain parts of India have a lot of coconut trees. They use a lot of coconut in their cooking. The western part of India uses a lot of peanuts. The eastern part of India uses mustard seeds.

And there’s so much diversity because of history. Lots and lots of people who came in and took over India left their mark on India. The Persians came. The Moors, the Mongols, the British came, the Portuguese came [and] the French came. They all left their mark.

fD: What’s your favorite spice?

MB: That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. I would say for the most I like cumin seeds. They’re so versatile.

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