Indian-ish | Priya Krishna
By Priya Krishna
Intro: Welcome to The Cookery by the Book Podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Priya Krishna: Hi. My name is Priya Krishna, and my cookbook is Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family.
Suzy Chase: This is not your traditional Indian cookbook. This is a love letter to your trailblazing mom who is depicted as Rosie the Riveter on the cover. When did it hit you to organize this family project?
Priya Krishna: Well, the book really wasn't, honestly wasn't my idea. I never thought about doing a cookbook about my family recipes. I'm very much like a utility cookbook kind of person. Then I was approached by a cookbook editor who'd worked on the cookbooks for Lucky Peach where I'd previously worked and my mom had contributed a few recipes. I told her some stories about how amazing and put-together and just accomplished my mother was. She came to me, and she was like, "I'm interested in a cookbook that not only tells this really modern story about what it means to be a working mother, what it means to grow up in a family where your parents are immigrants but also that provides a really accessible point into Indian cuisine." She was like, "I don't think that there's a cookbook like that for young people that people can flip through the recipes and not but intimated by the ingredient lists."
That totally is my mom's food. This is the food that she learned to cook when she immigrated here and that she had to cook when she only had 20 minutes to put dinner on the table on a weekend. It all fit together beautifully, and once I started writing the proposal, I realized that there was really something there.
Suzy Chase: By the way, we all miss Lucky Peach. Just had to throw that in there.
Priya Krishna: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I'm looking at my collection right now. It was really special.
Suzy Chase: They're so expensive on eBay, by the way.
Priya Krishna: It's so funny because I feel like that was the founder's vision that the magazines would be collectibles, but maybe not perhaps in this exact way.
Suzy Chase: Why do you think there's a myth that Indian food is hard to make?
Priya Krishna: I have no idea, to be honest. I don't know where this came from. I think maybe it's because of the spices people get very intimated by, but I don't know. I mean, I suppose that most of our knowledge about Indian cuisine was shaped by the British. The British were some of the first people to codify Indian cuisine for the west. I suppose that they sort of exoticsized it in a way and perhaps made it seem a little bit esoteric, but do you know, it's so funny because I grew up with Indian food as my everyday food. This was the food that we threw together the last minute. It wasn't complicated. Every dish had two or three spices in it, but it's no different than a soup that calls for bay leaf and rosemary and peppercorns, and now, I'm so happy that grocery stores now have these full suites of spices, so you can really get most of the ingredients at your average grocery store.
Suzy Chase: Indian-ish was never supposed to be the title of this cookbook, but the title seems so perfect. What other titles were you kicking around?
Priya Krishna: Really terrible ones. I remember sitting on this bench at my gym and having this mini brainstorm session. There was one that was like Cool Mom Recipes or Mom and Daughter or Indian Mom. It was just, I had, they were just terrible, terrible ideas, and finally, I just gave up. I slapped Indian-ish on the proposal, and I wrote "better title coming soon" below, and then we went into all of these meetings with publishers, and every single one was like, "My favorite part is the title. If we buy that book, that title needs to stay." It just stuck.
Suzy Chase: I love it. You describe your mom's cooking as 60% traditional Indian, 40% Indian plus something else, and mostly vegetarian. Talk a little bit about this.
Priya Krishna: Yeah. I mean, so my mom, her mother didn't really care much for cooking. In my mom's age, it was traditional for women to learn how to cook. My mom never learned how to cook, so she arrived in American, and all she really knew was how to make roti. She started watching PBS cooking shows, people like Martin Yan and Jacques Pépin and combined that with her memories of her mother, her grandmother's cooking, the flavors that she loved. She basically was learning to cook while she was in America, while she was having this job as a software programmer for the airline industry that was requiring her to travel around the world. She was learning how to cook as she getting all of these influences. While her memories were rooted in the Indian food she had growing up, she was tasting pesto pasta and pizza and spanakopita for the first time. Obviously, when you're having all those experiences, you can't help but incorporate that into your cooking.
Suzy Chase: You kicked off this cookbook with frequently asked questions like why are there no curries in this cookbook and what are your thoughts on peeling things, or the last question is, why should I trust you?
Priya Krishna: Yeah. I love a good fake FAQ. Yeah, it's actually inspired by Mindy Kaling. Her very first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and other questions, she started out with a fake FAQ, and I just thought it was so funny. It was sort of a chance to preempt, it was her chance of preempting haters, and I kind of loved that concept. I started writing what are the questions that I want people to ask so I can shut them down? That was how the fake FAQ was born.
Suzy Chase: So why should we trust you?
Priya Krishna: The first half of that is my mother who is not only a gifted recipe writer, but just an insanely talented cook. I really do feel like there are cooks who've gotten good because they practice a lot, and there are cooks who are just intuitive in the kitchen. My mom has unbelievable intuitions. This is food that reaches that illusive middle point between accessible and hyper-flavorful and creative.
The second thing is I worked really hard at these recipes. They have been tested me, my mom, retested by me. I had like over a hundred recipe testers, all amateur cooks test each and every single one of these recipes, and the ones that didn't get good feedback or nixed, every single recipe was sort of finessed and zhooshed over and over and over again. Whenever I do any kind of project, I feel like I am the person who's going through the fine-tooth comb, so this definitely feels like that, and these recipes feel airtight to me.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. You had two whole pages of thanks to your recipe testers in the back. That's-
Priya Krishna: That was-
Suzy Chase: ... crazy.
Priya Krishna: ... one of my favorite parts. Yeah. Yeah.
Suzy Chase: I would be remiss if I didn't bring up your dad. Who needs store-bought yogurt when we have the recipe for your dad's yogurt? Describe this.
Priya Krishna: We have been eating my dad's yogurt basically for as long as I can remember. My dad has been making it homemade using a culture. He's been perpetuating for over three decades. There is nothing like his yogurt. I think my dad once described it as yogurt that tastes alive. It has this chunkiness, this tanginess. It is just so good. I'm like, my mouth is watering right now thinking about it. The house was never without homemade yogurt. I mean, if you try store-bought yogurt, and you try my dad's, it's not even a comparison.
Suzy Chase: Your dad wrote in the cookbook, "My yogurt is fabulous. I have a cup a day. It keeps my system nice and regular. What more could you want?"
Priya Krishna: He's a guy of simple taste. He loves his yogurt, and he wants to have a regular system.
Suzy Chase: Don't we all?
Priya Krishna: I love that line. That essay is one of, another one of my favorite parts of the book is just my dad at his most earnest. It's just, I love it.
Suzy Chase: He looks so happy in the pictures.
Priya Krishna: Yeah, I love... That also was everyone who are part of the photo shoot. My dad needed no, he needed no direction. He just got on camera and just immediately just knew what to do.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of yogurt, talk about the idea of putting yogurt into a sandwich.
Priya Krishna: This is a recipe that is very much one of those... I mean, it's like a grilled cheese sandwich, that sort of back pocket recipe that a lot of Indian moms and Indian dads have when there's nothing else in the fridge. The idea is you mix yogurt, once you mix yogurt with cilantro and onion and chilies, you spread it on sourdough bread, and you griddle it. What happens is the yogurt retains its tang but also takes on the flavors of those other things you've mixed in. It becomes thick, like almost like a thick-strained ricotta. Then you griddle it just like a grilled cheese. Then you top it with curry leaves and mustard seeds that have been tempered in oil. This is called bhaji toast, and it's one of the most famous breakfasts in our house. I like think of it as an Indian-ish grilled cheese sandwich, but it's so much better.
Suzy Chase: One of the many things I learned from you is something called chonk, which his one of the fundamentals of Indian cuisine. What is chonk, and what do you put it on?
Priya Krishna: Chhonk is basically the idea of tempering spices and/or herbs in oil or ghee to bring out their flavors and aromatics and to give texture to a dish. It's something you finish a dish with that you pour over the top. It adds richness. It adds flavor. It's just amazing.
To answer your second question, I think a better question's like what can't you put chhonk on? As I've experimented throughout the cookbook the process, I found that chhonk tastes good on pretty much everything. Obviously, I put it on dal, I put it on sabzi, but I also put it on top of salad, like on top of raw vegetables. I'll put it on top of roasted vegetables, noodles, nachos, a steak, like instead of a compound butter, put a chhonk on top. It is sort of just this ingenious Indian cooking technique that has near-universal applicability.
Suzy Chase: I heard you say once, "Chhonk is life."
Priya Krishna: Yeah. Yeah. It is. It is our life. I mean, it's so funny too because it is something that I totally took for granted when we were growing up. My mom would, it's called chanko, she would chanko the dal, and that meant the dinner was already ready, and I only cared about chhonk. So far as when she was making chhonk, it was almost time to eat, and I'd usually be starving.
But then as we got older, I realize chhonk is this, it's really just such a smart idea that once you've flavored a dish, you've got something and you want to add just another layer of interest, you add chhonk. Indian food, especially like dals and stews, it can often have a very homogenous texture, and so you add chhonk so you get a crunch of cumin seed or a chili partway through. It's just very satisfying.
Suzy Chase: Last December, you had a recipe in your Indian-ish column in Bon Appétit, which was one of your party tricks: a vegetarian sloppy joe called pav bhaji. I'm probably killing the pronunciation, but I've never seen an open face sandwich quite like this. Can you describe it?
Priya Krishna: Sure. It's basically a toasted buttered bun topped with a gravy made of cauliflower, potatoes, peas, and tomatoes. It is just a very classic Indian street food. You'll find it in Bombay. Putting things on buttered buns is very standard practice on the streets of Bombay. Once you put the gravy on, you top it with lime, you top it with onions. It's sort of this beautiful marriage of bright, spicy, hot, tangy flavors. It is just addictive. My aunt Sonia makes absolutely the best pav bhaji I've ever had. Thankfully, I was able to get her recipe.
Suzy Chase: It sounds so good.
Priya Krishna: It's a great vegetarian entrée, and it's a carb on a carb, which, what more could you ask-
Suzy Chase: Hello.
Priya Krishna: ... for?
Suzy Chase: When making cilantro chutney, what's your moms philosophy about using stems and the leaves?
Priya Krishna: She is pro-stems, one, because she is anti-wasting anything, two, because the stems have water that helps get the blades going, and the stems actually have a lot of flavor. Discarding the steps, the stems sometimes have even more flavor than the leaves do. I feel like sometimes people hate the texture of the stems in your mouth, but when you're making cilantro chutney, it's all getting whizzed around in a blender anyway, so... and it makes your job easier. You just dump everything instead of having to pick the leaves off.
Suzy Chase: What is one recipe in the cookbook that isn't a riff of something else, one that's uniquely your mom's?
Priya Krishna: I would say her bhindi, which I love. It's okra. Okra's a very standard sabzi made in Indian cuisine, and it was one of those special occasion-only dishes that she made. We loved it. I feel like okra has this reputation, it's slimy, it has a weird-
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Priya Krishna: ... texture, but when my mom cooks or, or when most Indian cook it like a sabzi, they doing something like dry-frying it a bit. You're just cooking it on really, really high heat with oil. It chars and crisps. It loses all of that sliminess, and it gets coated with these lovely caramelized onions and seasoned with ajwain, which sort of tastes like earth and oregano. It is just so delicious. That is one of those recipes that is a total classic and we did not want to mess with at all.
Suzy Chase: Immigrants come to this country and can't find ingredients they're looking for, so they find substitutes and beautiful discoveries like your mom's saag paneer, which I made over the weekend. Talk about the idea to replace paneer with feta.
Priya Krishna: When my mom came here, she... You can make paneer, but it takes a little bit of time, so she was always looking for substitutes. She found mozzarella. She found tofu. Then my family went to Greece, and my mom had Greek salads, which had those huge hunks of feta, and she just loved that briny, salty taste. We... Spanakopita, which has spinach and feta, and she thought spinach and feta are sort of a match made in heaven, so she tried making her regular saag, and then instead of putting paneer or tofu or any other substitutes, she tried putting big cubes of feta. The feta not only salts the dish, but it just adds this totally other layer that you're not expecting. I was so skeptical when I first tried it, but it got to the point where I like saag paneer, but I just adore saag feta. I dream about it. It is just so addictive.
Suzy Chase: I've never drizzled lime juice over spinach. Is that the usual ingredient in saag paneer, or did your mom do that?
Priya Krishna: We just are a family that loves acid. I think that a lot of Indian dishes lack that bright acid component, and they just feel a little too, don't want to say heavy, but just a little too rich in terms of the spicing component. I'm not sure what's traditional or not traditional, but we tend to go pretty heavy on the lime.
Suzy Chase: I also made your recipe for chickpea and tomato stew on page 153, what makes this a shortcut recipe?
Priya Krishna: Cholay traditionally is just made from dried chickpeas. It takes hours and hours and hours. It's not a quick thing, but I love cholay so much. When I was in college and I was craving my mother's cholay, she developed this recipe that I could make in my teeny, tiny apartment. One winter, she sent me this, and I bought all the ingredients, and I just made this cholay and over and over again. It only takes about 30, 35 minutes to put together. It's a really filling meal, and it sort of just became my go-to. It has all these great tricks to it, like she boiled cholay down to its essential spices, so it's got all of the complexity of the really standout spices of the dish.
Then instead of waiting for the chickpeas to thicken, which takes hours, she mixes in yogurt, which naturally adds that thick, luscious element that you get from chickpeas that have been cooking for a really long time, and she uses a can of chickpeas, which works totally fine in this recipe, and who has time to stare at a pot for hours as chickpeas cook.
Suzy Chase: Cholay is life. That's my new saying. I also made Anvita's dump cake on page 207 and-
Priya Krishna: I'm so glad you made that.
Suzy Chase: You wrote, it made me laugh, you wrote in the book, "You're probably wondering why in this book of pseudo Indian foods is there a recipe for 1940s-era American dessert, and who the heck is Anvita?" Talk a little bit about this dish.
Priya Krishna: This dish is so near and dear to my heart. I knew the minute I signed the book proposal that I needed this recipe. My aunt, Anvita, she's my mom's cousin, she, when you used to visit her in Michigan, this was the dessert that she would make all the time. It was taught to her by another family member as something that was really quick that served a crowd that didn't require dirtying up more than one pan. You could use pre-made cake mix. It's so funny. I don't love nuts in my dessert. I don't love that artificial-tasting pie filling, but somehow, in this recipe, all of these things work so nicely and served with a scoop of vanilla, it is just perfect.
Suzy Chase: I couldn't find canned cherry pie filling so I used blueberry, but it was still really, really good.
Priya Krishna: Yeah. I mean, I imagine with any berry filling, that would taste great.
Suzy Chase: Now for my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Priya Krishna: I would probably have a first course of dosa, and the dosa would have on the side probably all of my mom's greatest-hit sabzis like her sweet and sour squash or her paneer, her saag feta. There'll probably be a course or roti pizza, which is in the book. Then after that, I think it would just be noodles of the world. There'd have to be an Indian course, but then I just want noodles. I want a Cacio e Pepe. I want a khao soi with those thick noodles. I want soba. I want some ravioli. I just want carbs. Basically, the theme of this meal is carbs in many forms: dosa, followed by to roti pizza, followed by noodles.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Priya Krishna: Well, so my website is priyakrishna.me, but the easy, best way to find me is on Instagram or Twitter, and I'm @pkgourmet, P-K-G-O-U-R-M-E-T.
Suzy Chase: This has been so much fun, Priya. Thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Priya Krishna: Of course. Thanks for having me. It was great.
Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram @cookerybythebook and subscribe at cookerybythebook.com or in Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery by the Book Podcast, the only podcast devoted to cookbooks since 2015.