The Taste and Smell of Culture – Cooking with Rinku

Guest Blogger, Rinku Bhattacharya

Today’s guest posting is by Rinku Bhattacharya.  I met Rinku several years ago when I signed up for one of her Indian cooking classes.  We had a marvelous time and learned some terrific recipes, however the best gift from that class is that Rinku and I stayed in touch over the years and have had some very interesting conversations about culture.  I recently asked Rinku if she would write about how she teaches her 2 beautiful children about her Indian culture while living in New York.  (Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of this posting for one of her delicious recipes!)

Can your memories have a scent? Can your culture and childhood have a taste? It is a matter of perspective, if you are like me, where your world and memories are composed of a heritage of food, a heritage of tastes and flavors that link your past to your children’s flavors you would say – yes! Like me, you would remember childhood cures for a cold and your mother’s nurturing touch in a pot of simmering soup spiced with ginger and tomatoes, you would crave traditional rice pudding on your birthday and your Thanksgiving meal would need some cranberry chutney to complete the all day long feast before it made it to the table.

Two decades ago, I made the US my home. It really was a more evolved rather than consciously planned decision. There is a lot of truth to the saying “home is where the heart is!’ Actually in my case, “home is where the “hearth is.”  I also do think you can have more than one home, I do not feel out of place when I go back to India, but also feel very much at sync in New York. Like most people with a foot in two cultures, there is a need not to want lose the richness of heritage and identity. In some ways this becomes more an issue when you are raising children. Our household does not even have a common language outside of English, since my husband speaks Hindi and I Bengali, but we do share a love of food both Indian and Global.

This is not surprising since this is the most basic element of heritage. My earliest memories and my most vivid ones of my childhood are of chatting with my grandmother while she ground spices carefully, used the freshest of ingredients and carefully created simple delicacies that graced our table every time we visited. People often ask me whether I learned to cook from my mother or grandmother – this is a tricky question because while my memories of shadowing them and observing them in the kitchen are deep and very profound, I never actually cooked when they were around. I never needed to. It was only after I left home that I missed home cooking and my own culinary adventures began.

It is to keep this sense of creativity and wonder, I started Cooking With Rinku, a personalized set of cooking classes designed to teach the interested learner a true taste of Indian cooking, in a practical and personalized way. I have been offering classes for groups and couples. We use the freshest of ingredient and students learn how to grind spices and season and flavor food the way I remember it being done growing up. The kitchen is a place of solace, wonder and creation for me. When I cook with my students, it is a very personal connection, the classes are very home style and designed to replicate flavors of simple and pure home cooking.

My classes also help me meet people from so many different walks of life and also allows me to learn the many ways people relate to India. I have students who have visited and lived in the country as curious travelers, others who have embraced the nuances of eastern religion and surprise and teach me the depth of traditional Ayurvedic cooking and other fellow kindred spirits who learn to savor and smell India through my spice box. Indian cooking is so much more accessible today; it never ceases to amaze me how close the world really is.

This is also how my children learn about the richness of India – spice by spice. Their high chairs were in my kitchen and from very early on, their memories of interacting with me are watching me cook and work with spices. My five year son, today calls me “the best cooker!” It is amazing how some things never change, like my grandmother, it is very important for me to both cook and feed my friends and family in a very personal way.

My husband and I also have a deep love of nature and try to grow our own produce, especially in summer. This is why I also like to think that I often cook Indian food with a New York accent; my summer zucchini is seasoned with cumin and turmeric, cherry tomatoes get tossed into a yogurt based salad and my beet greens are tossed and seasoned with almost any imaginable combination of spice. My recipes and food experiences are also shared in by blog – Cooking In Westchester. Keeping the blog has allowed me to also track my life as it relates to food. It often brightens a mundane day to look back and realize the first time you cooked a recipe was when your daughter took her first steps. I also think it helps me provide a real life medium to a food legacy that was passed on as an heirloom by my grandmother.

Recipe:

This recipe is an adaptation of my mother’s tomato chutney recipe. It is from the eastern part of India and is tempered with the classic 5 spice seasoning called panch (5) phoron. This is a mixture of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds and fennel seeds. Most India stores sell the blend pre-mixed, it is used in small amounts and is supposed to bring the entire complement of tastes to the recipe. This recipe is a great use of summer tomatoes that are so plentiful these days.

Bengali Tomato Chutney

Cook Time: 25 minutes
Makes 1 cup chutney

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon oil
1.5 teaspoons panch phoron
1 tablespoon diced ginger
1-2 dried red chili
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 small can diced tomato
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
Papads or pappadums for serving

Method of Preparations:

1. Heat the oil and add the panch phoron and wait till the mixture crackles.
2. Add in the ginger and the red chili and saute lightly.
3. Add in the salt and the canned tomato mixture.
4. Add in the raisins and the sugar and simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes, till the mixture is thick and fairly sticky.
5. While the chutney is cooking, cook the papads by microwaving on  for 1.5 minutes.
6. Cool the chutney slightly and serve with the papads.

About the Author: Rinku Bhattacharya was born in Kolkatta, India and has had a life that has taken her traveling extensively to most places in the world. Rinku has been passionate about food from a very early age and loves to talk and work with food and people. She started teaching Indian cooking in New York about 5 years back to share her love for food and cooking. Her classes can be found at Cooking With Rinku. Rinku shares her food and life experience at her blog at Cooking in Westchester. Rinku live in Westchester County, NY with her children Deepta and Aadi, husband Anshul and her cat Benji. Rinku is trained as a financial professional and specializes with non-profit organizations. She has masters degrees in areas of finance and non-profit management. She is currently working on a cookbook – The Contemporary Indian Table – to be published by the Bryant Park Press.

  • This is a comment from Inga – she sent a note through a different list serv:

    “Fully agree! Just like Rinku, I link some of my childhood memories to things like smell of paprika in the streets of Transcarpathian towns or strong coffee and buttered crepes on weekend mornings in my parents’ home. And when I moved abroad, cooking my most favorite traditional Ukrainian dishes was something that not only made me feel home away from home, but also helped me to introduce people to my nation’s culture (as most of the time, there is one or another story or ritual that goes with food).

    Now I write a culinary column for a Russian-language healthy lifestyle blog, and that’s precisely why I was invited to do that: every recipe there goes with a background story that hopefully introduces my readers to countries and places that I visited, or that my friends live in, or that are just something new and exciting to learn. And if they feel closer to the world’s different cultures while making chutney, fajitas or nasi goreng at home, then I’ve done my job.”

  • Lisa

    As a TCKfoodie, I can definitely say my memories have a flavorful scent 🙂 I've been told I have a global palette and once I eat something, I do not forget the smell or the taste. My friends/family often here me say, "I've eaten this before…or I remember this from…" My dad is still amazed by the small details I remember from my early childhood days dealing with food.

    I'm looking forward to your cookbook 🙂

    • Missy Gluckmann

      I love to hear that you have those beautiful memories from your childhood. I also think of my mom and holiday cookies when I smell vanilla. I feel like I'm 5 years old at our old kitchen table and I can still see the brown liquid dropping into the dough mixture. 🙂