Podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | RSS
ABCD’s of Cooking
On her blog, ABCD’s of Cooking, Chitra shares her family recipes from South and North India as well as her own creations from things that inspire her, like local ingredients and other cuisines. Chitra is writing her first cookbook on Bangalore recipes using local ingredients and runs a small batch Indian condiments company called Brooklyn Delhi. As if she isn’t busy enough, Chitra hosts pop-ups featuring Indian inspired cuisine and teaches cooking classes.
I am so excited to have Chitra Agrawal of ABCD’s of Cooking and Brooklyn Delhi joining me today.
(*All images below are Chitra’s.)
On Her Blog:
I guess I have been collecting a lot of my family’s recipes for a long time, and I also get a farm share every week during the growing season. So I usually take a lot of those recipes and then use whatever vegetables or produce that I have and make these recipes my own.
The name ABCDs of Cooking comes from that because ABCD means American-Born Confused Desi which is basically someone like me who grew up in the U.S. but is of Indian or South Asian descent. A lot of my cooking is an analogy of that where it’s based in traditional Indian cooking techniques but then using influences local or even just like cuisines that I grew up eating in the U.S.
I always was cooking for my friends in high school or in college. I remember even my roommate and I, we would religiously go to the grocery store every week, and as a college student, I think that was weird because a lot of the times, college kids go out and eat a lot, but we made it a point to cook at home. It was basically also the way I grew up. My parents have always even though they worked nine to five jobs, they always had home cooked meals on a table. So I think, it’s just the culture that I grew up into.
On Her Condiments Company, Brooklyn Delhi:
I make achaar or Indian pickle. So it’s basically a spicy condiment that is made from vegetables and fruits, and of course in India, it’s also made from local vegetables and fruits. A lot of times, green mangos or thin skinned lemon, gooseberries.
My farm share actually inspired me to come up with a lot of these recipes. The farm which I actually source from now is called Wilklow Orchards and they were the farm that was supplying the Greene Harvest CSA that we were a part of when we lived in Fort Greene, which is basically the neighborhood over from where we are now. And we got rhubarb, heirloom tomatoes, green gooseberries, and I started making achaars from all of these different vegetables and fruits, and I started serving them at my pop-ups and at my cooking classes, and then I got so into it.
My husband is a food packaging designer. He was like, “Why don’t we start packaging these?” and basically we just went with it, and I contacted the farmer directly and I was telling him that I tested all my recipes using his ingredients, and now I want to order like hundreds of pounds of the produce. I literally just text him, and then I get the produce, and then I make it in a commercial kitchen space that I rent out.
It really helped that I already had the recipes pretty much down. The next part was testing to see that these recipes could be shelf stable according to FDA regulations. So there’s all these different hoops you have to jump through when you are making a product for store shelves. So that was definitely a learning process. Luckily, I have a lot of friends that are in the Brooklyn community, in the food community that have either launched products or knew people that did launch. So I was able to gather a lot of this information through that network and then quickly bring everything to market. And it helped because Ben has that background as a food packaging designer. So, he was able to navigate for me really quickly as to how the label was going to look. I didn’t even know how big the font size should be or these types of things. So that was extremely helpful to have him there.
I think that achaar also is an unfamiliar condiment. So a lot of what we’re still doing is educating people on how to use it. A lot of people compare it to a chutney but it’s definitely more intense in flavor because it’s actually pickled in the oil, and the salt, and the spices versus a chutney that a lot of times can be definitely more mild in flavor. So that has been one thing where when I walk into a store and I want the buyer to try it, I have to explain through all of those different uses of the product versus if I was selling like a ketchup or something like that. So I think that’s probably been the main challenge, but it’s also been cool because a lot of store owners that really love the product, had been huge advocates for us, and when you have that type of support from local stores that are talking to their customers about new products that are in the store, they become advocates for us when we’re not there.
On Writing Her First Cookbook:
The cookbook is all going to be about Bangalore, South Indian style cooking. My mother is from Bangalore. So all of the recipes are based in traditional South Indian cooking techniques but also, as I cook at home, I am using a lot of the local ingredients that are found seasonally. So that’s the spin on it and it’s all vegetarian. A lot of it is gluten-free. I am a lifelong vegetarian, so this book is the story of my family and how, a lot of these recipes came to be. I have just been working on that for the last year or so.
There are so many different types of cooking in India, and they actually vary quite a bit. My dad is from North India. I guess I can speak to the difference between those two cuisines, what you find in the restaurants a lot of times, North Indian cuisine, non-curry. But South Indian cooking is a lot based in rice, lentils, you may know, dosa or idli, the fermented kinds of foods, and then both regions have dals but I’d say that like sāmbhar or rasam, these are some of the lentil dishes that are popular in the South. And so those are some of the differences. Even some of the spices, like curry leaves, are used more in South India. Black mustard seeds, even the beverage is different. So after a meal, you’ll drink tea in the North usually, and in the South you drink coffee that has chicory in it. So those are some of the differences but even in the book I talk about how, the cooking that is of my mom’s family from Bangalore is a lot different from South Indian cooking that may exist in Tamil Nadu or in Andhra Pradesh.
Bangalore is a city in Karnataka. So there is all of these different layers to cooking, and especially regional styles of cooking in India vary not only from North, South, East, West but within South India, to even from household to household. Because when I was researching a lot of the recipes, I found that my aunt may make one recipe that is according to what her mother-in-law may have taught her versus another aunt that is making the recipe according to how my grandmother taught her.
On Her Pop-Ups and Teaching Cooking:
I guess the pop-ups started because I started selling prepared foods at some markets in Brooklyn and my friend, who I used to do the prepared foods with and a pop-up that was Indian Mexican. So we started coming up with all of these different recipes, we did Indian Tacos at this one market. And that was actually pretty soon after I had started the blog, too. So I started to realize that, not only do I like writing about and creating the recipes, but I really like feeding people, and so that part became one that I wanted to explore further. After doing the market, we decided to do a pop-up supper club. That was in 2009, and we were just playing around with all these different recipes.
We would make like Indian Tamales. We would make all these enchiladas, all these crazy sauces and condiments, and then we would invite people, and this pop-up was in her house. And so we would literally would have these tables in her dining room and set it up all nice and everything, and then we put out tickets, and people bought them, and they would show up at her house. And so it was so fun.
So we did those, and then I started doing some of my own, where I would do, I did one at Brooklyn Winery, where they had someone that paired the wines with my meal. So that was the North and South Indian dinner I had done. And now, I do a dinner with my friend Diana Kuan, who is a cookbook author. She wrote, The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. So what we do, and this one is called Tangra, we make up recipes that are mix of Indian and Chinese cooking, and it’s all vegetarian, and also uses local ingredients. We always partner with a farm and also a local brewery, and then we are able to offer our creations to whoever wants to come.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
Chef’s Table on Netflix. That show is amazing.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Not Eating Out in New York, my friend, Cathy Erway’s site. She posts every week and it’s very interesting because she also is very in tune with seasonality and what she is getting in her farm share. And she also calculates how much each meal costs because for a year or two what she did was, she just cooked at home. So it’s an odd pairing to be eating-in every day in New York. It’s like the city of restaurants. I feel like she has a very cool take and spin on what she does, and she posts very frequently, which I feel like is sometimes the anomaly now with a lot of food bloggers, myself included sometimes.
And then another one that I’m sure you may know is A Brown Table, Nik Sharma, I feel like his photography is just mind blowing, and he is such an awesome guy too. He always has super creative recipes and I love his blog.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
On Instagram, I love Diana Kuan’s feed, who I partner with for our pop-ups because not only is she a really talented chef, but she’s also a talented illustrator as well. So she always has something really cool that she’s working on on her site. I love The Feed Feed, they are reposting photos from other food bloggers or food Instagrammers, and there’s always something so interesting that you can get from there. And then, of course, I love again, A Brown Table and his Instagram feed.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
So, this is my tempering pot. It’s this little pot and basically this is what I fry all my spices in. You put just a little bit of oil and then different spices, and what happens is in the hot oil, the spices, the flavor just blooms, and after that, you pour the spices, the tempering, on top of the dishes. So it could be a lentil dish or it could be a yogurt dish. But I love this thing. I take it everywhere when I’m teaching classes, and I always encourage students to buy one as well because I think because of the small surface area, it really does the job well, and I love poaching eggs in it because it’s so tiny that you can poach an egg perfectly in it.
In different parts of India, it’s called different things. So sometimes, it’s called what tempering is, it’s called chaunk, or it can be called vagharne, or it can be called tadka. So there’s all these different names.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Oh, bitter gourd. When I was growing up, I hated it. It was just so bitter, and now, I’ve developed a taste for bitter things. So I actually, I’m going to include a recipe for bitter gourd chips in a cookbook, and there’s a farm actually, Hepworth Farms, that started growing bitter gourd locally, too. So it’s awesome because we can get local bitter gourd and, yeah, the bitter flavor, I like it now.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
Well, I have like all the Ottolenghi cookbooks. I feel like I just love looking at those photos. They’re just amazing, and I think he just combines recipes in such interesting ways. Another cookbook is of course Diana’s cookbook. That’s my Bible for Chinese cooking, The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. Louisa Shafia’s, New Persian Kitchen. I have that. I have so many cookbooks piled up all over the place for looking at, but those are some of the ones that I really love, and of course, the classic Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, A Taste of India, all those classic ones are like gems.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
Well, I love Shangri-La by The Kinks. I love that song on so many levels, but what I love about it too, I guess, when you compare it to cooking, is that, it always surprises you. Some parts of the song are really sweet and all of a sudden, it becomes this cacophonous noise, and I love that about cooking too. There’s the slow simmer and then if you’re tempering spices, the crackling of the spices, so it’s that type of dynamic, I like.
On Keeping Posted with Chitra:
Probably Instagram, and I am just Chitra, and then on Twitter, it’s my blog, ABCD’s of Cooking.