At the age of five, Julie Sahni began attending a school run by Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement, in the city of Kanpur, in northern India. Classes there trained her to be a perfect housewife. Born in 1945 under the name of Deepalakshmi Ranganathan Iyer, she learned to knit, to treat a sick man, to make dosas. As she grew older, she became very proficient in the kitchen. Her mother, Padma, warned her not to cook too much at home, lest the family cook would run away. During the summers, however, Julie’s father, Venkataraman, gave the servants vacations. When Julie was barely big enough to reach the seat of her bike, she would pedal to the mandi, or market, to pick vegetables, and it was often his job to cook dinner. She took care of the garden and spent her evenings doing phulkas, whole wheat freckled breads that would swell on their burners like birthday balloons. Using brooms made from twigs, she and her sisters cleaned the old-fashioned latrine and swept the four-room house twice a day. Those summers weren’t easy, but those early routines shaped Sahni. There was dignity in the job, she realized.
The Iyer were a Tamil Brahmin family, perched at the top of the Indian caste ladder. They encouraged their daughters to pursue education and training in the arts. Sahni has become a prodigy of Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form, performing across Europe and the Middle East in front of thousands of spectators. Venkataraman was a botanist who worked for the Indian Ministry of Defense, and the family moved several times for his work. Every time they came to a new house, they built a chulha, or pan, from scratch. They decorated it with rice flour and said a prayer before filling a boiling pot with lentils or rice.
At university, Sahni studied architecture, but in her spare time she studied North Indian cuisine. She knew, however, that as long as she stayed in India, cooking would be little more than a hobby. So she started to think about where she could live instead. In 1968, she obtained a scholarship to study urban planning at Columbia University. Her future husband, Viraht Sahni, an aspiring physicist she had met in college, was also studying in New York. Sahni graduated and took a job at the Town Planning Commission, and at night she took up Chinese cooking lessons. But she found that her teachers and classmates often wanted to learn from her. They harassed her to explain the difference between cooking chicken in a Chinese wok and an Indian one kadhai. They suggested that Sahni give cooking lessons herself, and the idea took hold in her mind.
In 1973, Sahni established the Julie Sahni Cooking School in her Brooklyn Heights apartment. That same year, Madhur Jaffrey released her first cookbook, âAn invitation to Indian cuisineâAnd drew a generation of Americans to kitchens nationwide. Sahni wanted to help teach Americans that there was more to enjoy than rice and curry, but she struggled to find essential spices and herbs in New York City. She would often ask her family members in India to send her ingredients, such as tins her mother made home-made. relentless, or Sweet Mango Pickle, which nearly exploded in the mail. She welcomed her students gently into the world of Indian flavors. She taught them to cook gobi sabzi, a dish of tender cauliflower flavored with ginger and green pepper, and “ten ingredients” pulaos, riots of basmati rice spiced with spices and adorned with golden raisins. She encouraged her students to eat with their hands, telling them that their food had to be soft enough to break with three fingers.
The lessons have taken. âMs. Sahni’s passion is food and cooking,â observed Florence Manufacturer in a 1974 profile in the Times. “Maybe someday this will become his calling rather than a hobby.” After the article was published, Sahni’s classes were booked for two years. But she was still juggling a career in town planning. By day, she headed a task force to standardize New York sidewalk cafes. At night, she would show the students how to make lamb rogan josh, the meat covered in thick spicy cream. She began to think about writing a cookbook and found role models in other women who had transitioned from teaching to writing. Through the city’s network of cooking schools, she connected with Marcella Hazan, who had faced her own struggles trying to expand the American idea of ââItalian cuisine beyond spaghetti and the red sauce. Hazan reminded Sahni that change won’t happen overnight.
In 1980, Sahni released âClassic Indian cuisine, A five hundred page volume by publisher William Morrow. âThere is no mystical secret behind Indian cuisine,â Sahni assured readers in the first few pages. “It is, in fact, the easiest of all international cuisines.” Methodical in her explanations of techniques and ingredients, she included basic recipes for spice blends, such as her Mughal garam masala, a chewy blend of cardamom pods, crushed cinnamon sticks, ground cloves. and black peppercorns which were not commercially available in America at the time. She has used her subtle flavor to enhance labor-intensive dishes like murgh khubaniâBraised Cornish hens in a tangy dried apricot sauce â and flavored dum aloo, or potatoes simmered in a puddle of yogurt. Most of the recipes in the book were from North India, but Sahni made detours to other areas. It included a South Indian dish from Mysore soaked in tamarind rasam, and poached West Bengal fish fillets in spicy onions and yogurt. The book was not comprehensive at the regional level, nor did it claim to be. How could a book summarize a cuisine as diffuse and multifaceted as that of India?
âClassic Indian Cookingâ received a positive reception and Sahni gave up his career as an urban planner once and for all. In 1983, she got her first job as a restaurant chef, managing the kitchen of Nirvana Penthouse, a trendy Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant, and its sister restaurant Nirvana Club One, which opened the following year. According to Times, she was “the first Indian woman to be a chef in a New York restaurant”. But Sahni had just separated from Viraht and was raising their young son, Vishal Raj. At the restaurant, she sometimes did not finish her shift before 2:30 p.m. A M In 1986, she decided to quit her job and refocus on writing and teaching.
Sahni then wrote half a dozen more cookbooks. She helped expand Americans’ understanding of Indian cuisine and paved the way for future chefs of Indian cuisine. (The Times obituary because Indian-born chef Floyd Cardoz, who died in 2020, was wrong to call him “the first chef to bring the sweep and balance of his native Indian cuisine to fine dining in the United States.”) But , throughout his life in America, Sahni often thought about what his parents had instilled in him: an imperative for personal development. âA long, long time ago, I learned that it is not only important to be good, but also to be satisfied,â she once said. There was honor in his work, and pleasure too.
Mughal Garam Masala
Extract from the book âClassic Indian Cookingâ by Julie Sahni. Text Copyright Â© 1980 Julie Sahni. Illustrations copyright Â© 1980 by Marisabina Russo. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
- Â½ cup (about 60) black cardamom pods or â cup (about 200) green cardamom
- 2 cinnamon sticks, 3 inches long
- 1 tbsp. cloves
- 1 tbsp. black peppercorns
- 1 Â½ teaspoons grated nutmeg (optional)
Break the cardamom pods. Remove the seeds and set aside. Discard the skin. Crush the cinnamon with a kitchen mallet or rolling pin to break it into small pieces. Combine all the spices except the nutmeg and reduce them to a fine powder (follow the instructions below). Stir in grated nutmeg, if desired. Store in an airtight container in a cool place.
To note: The recipe can be cut in half.
To grind the spices: Put the spices in the jar of a coffee grinder, spice grinder or electric blender and reduce them to a fine powder. The food processor is not suitable for grinding a mixture of spices of varying hardness and size. This works well for spices that crumble easily, like roasted cumin seeds.
For sprinkling small amounts of spices, like half a teaspoon of fennel seeds or a small piece of asafetida, it is best to use a mortar and pestle, a kitchen mallet or a rolling pin. If using a mallet or rolling pin, place the spice in a small plastic sandwich bag between two sheets of waxed paper or plastic before crushing it; otherwise the instrument will constantly take on the smell of the spice. Store in airtight containers in a cool, dry place so that the spices do not lose their fragrance.
This is the third in a series of columns adapted from “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, âBy Mayukh Sen, which was released in November from WW Norton & Company.