It’s not everyday that someone drops a solid, well-paying career to write about food—and actually becomes wildly successful in the process. But that’s exactly what happened to Monica Bhide.
Five short years ago, Bhide was working as an engineer when she realized that what she really wanted was to cook and write about it, with a focus on her native Indian cuisine. Fast forward to today and she’s penned several cookbooks; Padma Lakshmi deemed the latest, Modern Spice, one of her all-time favorites in Newsweek. Bhide also blogs about food for the Washington Post and has an essay in Best Food Writing 2009, among many other credits.
In addition to being highly talented, Monica is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met—we’d just gotten to know each other when she found out I was expecting, and she sent me a huge package of spicy treats that satisfied my out-of-control cravings for the rest of my pregnancy. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to share Monica’s journey, as well as her advice on using spices to make bland food more delicious and nutritious.
Monica, what inspired you to leave the corporate world for food writing?
My first memory in my life is of food! And I had been writing, mostly for myself, as far back as I can recall. While I followed the traditional path of becoming a “person who could get a real job”, I never did find engineering to be my passion.
Then, one day, literally, everything changed. A close friend passed away suddenly. Her death made me wonder if I had done anything I really wanted to do with my life.
Still, even though had already written one cookbook by then as a hobby, I did not know I was going to be a writer. It was my husband who pointed it out: “You write at the drop of a hat—what about doing this as a profession?” So five years ago, this month, I began my journey on this new life.
How did you learn to navigate your way around the kitchen?
I grew up in a food-obsessed family where all the discussions generally started and ended with food. Much to my grandmothers chagrin, I would spend time with the cooks in the kitchen watching how they chopped onions, how they used their nose to tell the freshness of cilantro or how they immersed potatoes in water to prevent them from turning brown. I learnt mostly by trial and error but I did have two excellent teachers—Mom and Dad.
Why do you think people (even proficient cooks!) are so afraid to use spice in food? And what’s your advice for spice newbies?
People are afraid of spices because in some cases they seem exotic and often daunting. There is only one way to learn about spices – be their friend. Look, touch, see, feel, taste them!
I found that the more I touched the spices, the more I held them in the palm of my hand, the more I learned how they behaved when I dropped them in hot oil or roasted them on a hot griddle, the more they began to share their secrets with me.
Do you have a go-to spice that makes it way into a lot of your food?
I use so many that I feel like a bad parent choosing one. But I would say cumin and turmeric are my go to. I love the toasty flavor of cumin and turmeric gives food such a grand and beautiful yellow color—what is there not to love?!
What unusual spice or flavorful food do you think more people should be using?
I recently did a blog post about a lovely spice mix called Paanch Phoron. It’s a mixture of five spices—nigella, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cumin and fennel—and adds such great flavor and depth to food. Heat some oil, add the mix to allow the spices to release their flavors, toss in chicken or vegetables or fish and cook till done. Serve with a smile!
I imagine you must test a ton of food. How do you make sure you’re eating in moderation?
Let’s put it this way – I have very, very happy neighbors! Yes, it is a challenge. I try to taste a bit at a time and it is hard sometimes—especially when I am testing desserts.
Could you share a favorite recipe?
Rice Pudding with mango is one of my absolute favorites. Here’s the link.
Thanks so much, Monica!