09 July 2010

Welcome / Bienvenue / Bem-vindo!

Welcome to The Mistress of Spices! I've been wanting to start this endeavor for a long time now, but have only now gotten around to doing it. This blog is a testament to both my love of food and to the globally nomadic path of my life.

As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about food and cooking. Ever since learning the basics of South Indian cuisine from my mother and other family members, I have been an avid cook. Nothing gives me more pleasure than inviting friends over for dinner, concocting the perfect menu for the occasion, searching for the best ingredients, grinding up spices and whipping it all up. I collect cookbooks, subscribe to several cooking magazines, read culinary blogs religiously and love the Food Network and the Cooking Channel (which I can now watch in France thanks to my lovely friends Sunil & Aparna who gifted us Slingbox access as a wedding present). While I adore my job with the UN where I work on supporting education initiatives in the developing world, I often daydream of making a career shift to the culinary world. A few years ago, I made a very amateurish step in this direction by launching a little catering company in Washington DC (where I was living at the time) called Rice and Spice. While this endeavor was not meant to be at the time, I am continuing to cook up a storm here in Paris, where I have lived since 2006 and which - as you can imagine - is a food lover's paradise!

My culinary instincts have been deepened and enhanced by the international life that I've been lucky enough to lead. My Indian upbringing has given me a love of comforting upma, spicy sambar, creamy kormas and delectable biryanis, all of which I love making. But having grown up, lived and worked in the U.S. has transformed my kitchen into the melting pot that the country itself is, with disparate influences from throughout the world. Given that I grew up in Texas, Mexican (or more accurately, Tex-Mex) cuisine is a big feature of my cooking, and I tend to feel a little lost if I haven't rolled an enchilada or made a salsa in a while. My professional career has focused mainly on Africa, and through living and working in Uganda, Senegal, Malawi, Guinea and Angola, among other places, I've also been lucky enough to discover the many treasures of the continent's often-overlooked cuisines. Finally, here in Paris, the gastronomic sensibilities of the French have confirmed for me what i've always felt...that cooking and eating are arts, that they must be cultivated and savored. The bread, the cheeses and the wines that are available just a stone's throw away from my apartment in the 18th arrondissement are incredible, and I've been doing my best to incorporate them and a bit of the "French touch" into my cooking as well.

Why "The Mistress of Spices"? beyond my love of the Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni novel of the same name, the name was chosen because of my fascination with spices, those pungent, aromatic gifts that the plant kingdom has given to us to flavor and color our food and to open our taste buds to the magic of the natural world. Anyone who has marvelled at the power and fury of tiny, innocuous-looking mustard seeds when they are tossed into hot oil or inhaled the aroma of the grains of cardamom that are released when crushing their green pods can appreciate this. But beyond these obvious attributes, spices have the power to heal, to revive, to calm, to smooth, to awaken. These ancient secrets formed the basis of ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine practiced in India which considers nature and environmental forces to be a vital part of human well-being. Focusing on the prevention of disease and illness rather than on the treatment of its symptoms, ayurveda looks at the whole person and considers plants and herbs to hold great potential towards making and keeping us healthy. Cinnamon, for example, can stimulate digestive enzymes. Turmeric can be used as an antiseptic and as a source of fluoride for the teeth. And endless other spices have unlimited other possibilities...

I’ve been studying up on ayurveda for years now and am inspired by these possibilities beyond the realm of traditional Western medicine. The power of the spices was also reiterated for me during a “spice tour” that I took while visiting the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Tanzania in early 2001. Hearing about the Swahili people’s recognition of the health benefits of ginger, cloves, vanilla and other spices made me realize that we Indians are not the only ones to have understood this potential. The language of spices transcends borders and reminds us of both our commonality and the world as it once was...

This blog celebrates that language as well as the adventure of exploring our beautiful world and the simple pleasures of cooking. By describing my travels as well as my discoveries right here in Paris and sharing how these influence what I cook, I hope to speak to all those who, like me, are nomads, endlessly seeking and creating themselves. The recipes presented often represent a fusion of different corners of the globe - a fusion that is sometimes intentional, sometimes born of necessity, but one that is always, always spicy!

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