Julie Sahni's Second Act
It's a crisp fall day in New York, the kind where sunlight bleeds through the windows and onto the floor like melted butter, and Julie Sahni is in the process of dicing a green chile. She is teaching me how to make ande ki bhurji, or scrambled eggs with cumin and herbs, in her small-but-efficient kitchen in Brooklyn Heights where she lives and teaches her legendary Indian cooking classes.
While prepping her mise en place for the eggs, she casually name-drops the people she has taught to cook Indian food. This is not Sahni bragging; this is just her reality. The list includes everyone from legendary food writers to influential CEOs and chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants. Sahni turns her attention to the gas stove and gently melts a luxuriously large spoonful of ghee—the amount you know will make anything taste good. Not taking her attention off the pan, she sheepishly reveals to me that Gourmet used to send staffers to take her class so they could more accurately edit Indian writers like Madhur Jaffrey.
While Jaffrey is arguably the more famous Indian cookbook author (perhaps due to Sahni’s reluctance regarding the internet), it is Sahni, 74, who is responsible for first introducing Americans to Indian home cooking. Her seminal cookbook, Classic Indian Cooking, was published exactly 40 years ago and still remains a beloved reference text for Indians and non-Indians alike. (Food writer Mark Bittman, for example, said in The New York Times Magazine that Sahni’s cookbooks were “instrumental in helping me gain a foothold” in cooking Indian food.) Personally, I first came across Classic Indian Cooking nearly a decade ago as a college student who was homesick for the flavors of my mother’s kitchen but had no easy set of recipes to mimic.
As she sautés the large chunks of onions and cooks the eggs (“Indians don’t like a soft scramble,” she warns), Sahni explains that she fell into a life of cooking professionally through a series of unexpected events. The second of four daughters from an upper-class family in New Delhi, Sahni spent her teens as a nationally acclaimed classical dancer before she headed off to architecture school. Soon after, she added a master’s degree in city planning from Columbia University to her resume, while taking cooking classes for fun on the side. It was coworkers at the New York City Planning Commission who first convinced her to teach an Indian cooking class. At the time, she says with a laugh, “I was mapping out the subways and such.”
Soon after, in 1974, The New York Times writer Florence Fabricant wrote up one of Sahni’s classes, noting that “some day it may become her vocation rather than a pastime.” Fabricant’s observation foreshadowed a career change—and several cookbooks for Sahni. And though her mother, who is in her 90s and lives in India, still doesn’t understand exactly what it is that she does, Sahni remains deeply devoted to teaching Americans about the pleasures and joys of Indian food.
The magic of Classic Indian Cooking, and in many ways of Sahni herself, is just how incredibly thorough both are. Sahni tells me she tested the book for seven years before she allowed it to be published. “Every recipe has been tested hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. They’re kind of idiot-proof,” she adds with a wink. (Once, for a microwave cookbook she wrote, Sahni says she tested every recipe using four different microwaves.) The book also opens with nearly 100 pages that serve as an exhaustive primer to the spices, tools, techniques, and serving sensibilities of Indian food, and its pages are filled with innumerable facts on Indian food and history, giving any textbook stiff competition.
And while the cookbook is prodigious in volume—it clocks in at 560 pages—it is devoted to demonstrating just how approachable Indian cooking is. “There is no mystical secret behind Indian cooking. It is, in fact, the easiest of all international cuisines,” Sahni wrote in the introduction 40 years ago. It’s a lesson she has hammered home in her cooking classes since 1973 and something she still deeply believes in today. The bhurji, for example, is just three steps in her book and is ready once Sahni finishes it with a flurry of fresh cilantro, toasted cumin, and those chiles.
At her dining room table, which sits adjacent to a long hallway and is covered with more pots and pans and cooking utensils than your average Williams Sonoma, Sahni piles the eggs onto a blue plate that she feels is more photogenic. As I tear through the flaky paratha she laid next to the bhurji, I ask her if she thinks the perception of Indian cuisine has changed in the four decades since she first published Classic Indian Cooking. Suddenly she seems tired, her boundless energy and playful optimism betrayed by a difficult reality check.
“Not much has changed except the ability to get groceries,” Sahni notes. When she first started teaching classes, some Indian ingredients were impossible to source. Now, she drives students (who she lovingly refers to as her kids) in her BMW to visit several Indian grocery stores to gather supplies, though she still prefers to pick up fish from the Korean markets in Queens.
Her biggest hope is that one day soon, people will learn to acknowledge the immense regionality and diversity of Indian food. “Everyone seems to understand that there is a big difference between French food and German food and Italian food,” she states. “Even within Italian food, people know the difference between Tuscan food and Roman food. Why can’t Indian food be understood in the same way?”
Sahni laments that Classic Indian Cooking mainly focuses on the cooking of North India, “because that is what people were cooking,” she explains. She hopes to remedy that with a new book she is working on; it catalogs the recipes of the far-reaching Indian diaspora which extends from Fiji to Trinidad and beyond. “I just have two more places to travel to,” she beams. In addition to the new book, Sahni has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Her calendar is filled with classes to teach and tours to India to lead. Forty years later, she is just getting started.
Get the recipe: Scrambled Eggs with Cumin and Fragrant Herbs (Ande Ki Bhurji)