A Mother-Daughter Duo Teaches Indian Cooking for Amateurs
Priya Krishna's personal new cookbook, Indian-ish, demystifies everything from ajwain to ghee to sabzi.
When I was twenty-one, I drove from my childhood home in Georgia to a new life in California. To aid me in my transition into adulthood, my mother gave me a fully-stocked masala dubba—the spice box crucial to starting one’s own Indian kitchen. But on the long trip west, the precious steel container slid onto my car floor, and the spices got jumbled. The resulting confusion seemed a portent of that first year of so-called grown-up life. I couldn’t tell any of the powders apart—the garam masala mixed with ground coriander; the hot red chili swirled with bright turmeric. I didn’t know the difference between mustard seeds and cumin seeds. I was too lazy to fix it, and, accordingly, did not manage to cook any of the recipes my mother tried to talk me through over the phone.
Not for another half-decade, that is. My masala dubba is now in order, and homemade Indian food is suddenly within reach.
Mastering your spices is one of the first things Priya Krishna recommends for the Indian chef in-training. Dallas-raised Krishna is author of the new cookbook Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 23), which she collaborated on with her mother, Ritu—a working parent who thought up the recipes to satisfy her kids’ multicultural palates.
Indian-ish is beginner-friendly, offering a handy flowchart to help you match oils and ghee with the correct spices, instructions for South Asian staples like homemade yogurt and chutneys, explanations of crucial techniques like chhonk/tadka, introductory dal recipes, and plenty of recommendations for substitutes. You’ll also find in its colorful pages mattar paneer, lotus root and jammy tomatoes, South Indian lentil pancakes, quinoa shrimp pulao, and even a desi take on Tuscan ribollita.
With a foreword from Padma Lakshmi and a whiff of early Madhur Jaffrey about it, Indian-ish marks a moment of change for a cuisine once silo’d in the West as Mughlai creamy butter chicken and takeout "curry" (which, as Priya and I wish to remind you, is not a thing). Indian-ish is on sale April 23.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SS: The cookbook opens with a reflection about you coming to terms with your own "Indian-ish" identity. You mention those cringe-worthy experiences like what I’ve heard called the "lunchbox moment," when you’ve brought something smelly to school while everyone else has a tame PB&J. When did you start relating to your culinary heritage differently?
PK: I wish I could say it happened really early on, but I dont think it really happened for me until I became a food writer. When I was growing up, like many people, all I wanted was to fit in, and at my school there weren’t that many Indian kids or people of color. It was mostly affluent white Jewish kids. I wanted to eat what they ate and look how they looked. It seemed to me like my identity was getting in the way.
Later, I entered the food world and realized that a lot of the people writing about Indian food weren’t Indian. What I had to offer was that I’d grown up in an Indian household and had this base of knowledge.
When I was trying to cook for myself for the first time, my mom would describe a recipe over the phone and everything would be inexact, and my version would turn out terribly. On the flip side, if I found a recipe online, it would come out tasting like knockoff Indian food for white people. Did you ever struggle with that imprecision?
It’s maddening! My mom was the same way. I’d turn away from the pot for a second and she’d be adding all this stuff, like a teaspoon of cardamom, and I’d be like, "There’s no caradmom in the recipe!"
She cooks with andaaz-aise—that untranslatable thing that means something like "intuition." This is the reason Indians don't do as good a job as Western people of codifying and writing things down. There isn’t this rich history of recipes from India as there is a rich history of recipes in French and Italian food.
But I’m not an intuition-based cook. I wanted someone who’s a total amateur at this to nail mattar paneer at the first try.
I included things like chhonk and that flowchart about ghee, oil, and spices in hopes that people can later use those to improvise. There’s also a basic guide to dal. You can add spinach, add tomatoes, etc., later, but I wanted to give people a repeatable algorithm first.
The book contains an ode to tadka, or chhonk—tempering spices in oil or ghee. Thank you for explaining it. My mom always says "add tadka!" and I forget what that means.
It’s what gives Indian food that last layer of complexity and richness. By tempering spices in oil or ghee you’re not only bringing out the aromatics of the spices themselves, but infusing the oil or ghee with those flavors and spices. The key to homemade Indian food, and what makes it good, is that you’re slowly adding layers.
Also, it’s what makes dal really addictive—having ghee coating each lentil, even ever so slightly. And you’re not adding that much. It’s like when you make pasta and throw butter in at the last minute.
You say most of the recipes are "forgiving" and substitutions or skipped ingredients are okay. But what can first time Indian-food cooks absolutely not compromise on?
Do not use prepackaged curry powder or garam masala. Using whole individual spices and not powders is the reason this food tastes good and complex.
My Instant Pot has made cooking Indian food a dream and is basically my prized possession. Is it cheating?
I am totally pro Instant Pot, and the Indian-ish recipes have modifications for electric pressure cookers. I grew up terrified of using my pressure cooker. My mom would give me recipes in whistles, like "Take it off the heat after three whistles!"
Pressure cooking Indian food is not a new thing. The reason pressure cookers work well for Indian food is because they break down the cell walls and vegetables and make the spices blend into the dish. They say that dals taste better on day two for that reason. Pressure cooking is a way to do that quickly.
Can we talk about your dad’s recipe for homemade yogurt, or dahi? How do you explain it to people who don’t understand that Indian dahi is NOT the same as storebought?
It’s chunkier and tangier. My dad once described it beautifully: he said homemade yogurt tastes alive in a way that storebought yogurt doesn’t. There’s something very vivifying about it. It makes your lips pucker in a pleasant way. I’m salivating thinking about it.
You write that the recipes will taste best with ghee, but are also great when cooked in olive oil or other neutral oils. Are there other tricks people could use to make the recipes healthier or plant based?
Most of them are vegan, and they’re pretty healthy. My mom’s kind of a health freak. You could make the dal and not put chhonk on it, but that’s just so bad to me! Ghee is actually really good for you. It’s got all those healthy fats—that’s why these nutritionists are so into it. Granted, they call it "ghee butter," which is hilarious, like "naan bread," or "chai tea."
But I feel like the recipes are pretty friendly to all the on-trend diets. (There’s only one chicken recipe in it because it’s the only one I need.) I grew up eating vegetarian—I eat meat when I go out to eat. But eating vegetarian at home is more environmentally responsible and less expensive—you don’t always know where your meat is coming from.
Who tested your recipes and how did you choose them?
I made a list of food I ate growing up. I did a first test. Then I put out a call on social media and invited people to be recipe testers, and 200 people signed up! I had three or four amateur home cooks testing each recipe, giving me brutal raw feedback. It was tough, but made the book infinitely better. I feel like the recipes are somewhat bulletproof because they’ve been rigorously tested.
What percent of those people were Indian?
About 25 percent.
I was excited to see you have recommendations for food to travel with. I’ve always been afraid of toting around Indian food. Blame that indelible lunchbox moment. What do you suggest people travel with or take for lunch at work?
For travel, you cannot beat roti roli poli—they’re foil-packed treats packed with flavor. I also think Bombay toast—sabzi crushed in a plain crust with cheese, dipped in some ketchup—is delicious. There is a really good herby avocado sandwich, a very classic my mom sandwich—avocado, tomato, onion, with tons and tons of herbs, treating herbs like you would salad greens.
Dals and khichdis are perfect for lunch—just taking some dal chawal and a sabzi in a bento box. One of the one pot meals in there is the quinao shimp pulao, which is a traditional rice dish that my aunt makes with quinoa.
There are some dishes that fall more on the "ish" side than the Indian side, like the lima bean and basil dip, or the tofu and green bean breakfast scramble. Did you grow up eating this stuff at the same meals as the purely Indian dishes?
Yes! It was all sort of one in the same. I wanted to be very intentional about that. There are recipes in the book like a dump cake—of course, there’s nothing inherently ‘Indian’ about that except that my Indian aunt used to make it with me and on the side we’d have srikhand, the cardamom yogurt pudding that is one of my favorite desserts of all time.
I wanted to normalize a table where Indian food and a lima bean/basil dip all fit together really seamlessly.