Umi is nothing without our family of impassioned home cooks. They are the people who feed, nourish, and delight the Umi community on a daily basis.
So it’s our job to make sure they have the opportunity to share their stories and for you to have the opportunity to get to know them as we do. (It’s like MTV Cribs meets the Food Network.)
From the moment I walked into Shalini’s kitchen, I felt like family.
She gave me a hug, welcomed me into her home, and before I knew it I was taste-testing a brand new recipe for her famous banana bread. It was so good that when Shalini asked if I’d like to take home a slice, I forgot my manners and swiped half the loaf. My mother would have been furious…but she hasn’t tried Shalini’s banana bread.
And with that thought it hit me; I kept thinking of my mother’s kitchen. The warm reception, the aroma of foods both familiar and exciting, the sense that every dish was being prepared with unhurried attention for me and me alone — that’s what makes Shalini so special. And that’s what makes Shalini an Umi.
I had an amazing time. Here is what we talked about while we cooked (Shrimp Malai Curry — recipe here).
What is your first home cooking memory?
I first learned to cook with my mother. I was six years old and she taught me how to make a “Quick Mix Cake.” It’s a very simple recipe. This is the reason it’s called a Quick Mix Cake. For every two eggs, there are 100 grams (because of the British System we measure in grams ) of butter, sugar, and flour. You mix everything in one bowl, put it in a pan, and you’re done.
Although there are very few steps, it is delicious.
What is your favorite meal to cook for your family?
As I’m sure you can imagine, we eat a lot of Indian. But, we also like to experiment and branch out, as well. I think it’s important for my children to develop a palate for different flavors
With Indian, you usually eat two to three things together.
One of our family staples is my Dal Makhani (slow cooked lentils). Dal means Lentil and Makhani means butter. But I usually use ghee instead of butter. It is a more clarified and healthful butter. I mix that with Baingan Bharta (eggplant). Finally, I make homemade Roti (Indian bread).
It is a very simply, rustic, traditional Indian dish.
Who’s your Umi? (that person who first nourished you and inspired you to want to nourish others)?
Definitely my mother. She loved to cook. My mother would host a cooking class in our neighborhood and all of the women nearby would come to learn from her (we called them Aunties). Some of my strongest memories are coming after school to a house full of Aunties cooking.
I would come home and taste-test. Soon, I started to help and learn from mother and Aunties. Eventually, I developed my own style but she taught me everything I know.
My mother was a vegetarian but grew up with people who loved to eat different meat dishes. Without taste testing, she was actually able to cook delicious food with the exact right proportions. She was an incredible and clever chef.
What did a weeknight meal look like for you growing up?
I grew up in Kolkata, India. Our meals were traditional Indian. They usually had lentils, maybe some chicken curry, vegetables, roti, and yogurt.
Every Sunday we would do South Indian food. Kolkata is in the north and the south has a very different cuisine.
It is only when I moved to the U.S. that I first experienced different flavors.
What was that like?
As a kid, I loved cooking. But when I first moved to the United States, at 18, I was living in the dorms at Smith college and didn’t get an opportunity to cook very much.
But then I moved to NYC after college…I still remember the first time I tried Thai food…the first time I tried Ethiopian food…I just loved it!
I even remember tasting a bagel with cream cheese for the first time. I couldn’t believe what was in it and how bad it was for me but I was like “Oh My God.” I absolutely loved it.
In New York, I was able to explore. It was in NYC that I rediscovered my love for food. I kept saying to myself…why am I working at a bank instead of in food? It wasn’t until my kids were born that I was able to rediscover my first love.
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I could see Shalini’s relationship with food was profound and she was telling a story about more than her joy in cooking; she was sharing her life’s passion and all that brought her to it.
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Tell me more, how did you get back into cooking?
When my son was born in 2012, I actually almost died during delivery. It was tough, I needed blood transfusions and was in the hospital for a while. I didn’t see him until I came home. He was born without a thyroid. Good food was vital to his health.
So I started to cook so that we were able to control what was going into his body.
The family loved it. So I invited friends in the building. They loved it. They started to ask if they could eat it on other nights…if I would be willing to drop it off for them. So I started to deliver traditional Indian meals to the entire building. I would pass out menus a week in advance and soon I was feeding 100 people a week.
Pretty soon, people from Park Slope and Cobble Hill started to call me. I felt a bit overwhelmed. Umi has been amazing for me in this sense. I can share my food with so many people and I don’t have to worry about packaging, delivery, and everything else. I can just focus on making wonderful meals for people.
What is something you want the Umi community to know about you?
That’s a tough one. When I’m cooking or when I’m not cooking :)?
When I’m cooking, I think the most important thing, which is what I’m trying to share, is that Indian food can be healthy, delicious, and nourishing. It is very healing. It doesn’t have to make you feel uncomfortably full.
This is what I’m using to keep my kids healthy, especially my son. I cook to share this with the world and hopefully make it a healthier and happier place. It might sound cheesy but its true. It’s important for me to do that.
When I’m not cooking, which is about half the time, I’m with my kids. I do it all on my own and I absolutely love it.
My husband is also a big part of the whole process. He has always encouraged me to pursue this passion. If I have an event or an Umi night, he’ll come home early to make sure I can focus and deliver a wonderful experience.
What have you cooked in the past 24 hours?
Yesterday, I made my everyday chicken curry. And I made my spinach Roti. It was my daughter’s birthday so I made the QuickMix cake that my mother taught me how to make.
It was a wonderful birthday.
I’ve actually been teaching her and other children how to cook. I held a class recently teaching 6 and 7 year olds how to “make it and plate it.” I showed them how to prep, cook, and present a wonderful meal so they could for share it with their moms on Mothers Day.
Olive oil or butter?
Olive oil. Definitely.
Although, for me, it’s hard, because if possible, I would choose ghee.
Where are you on a Sunday at 4pm?
With the kids, as a family — at the park, watching a movie, or cooking together :)
Sunday is family time for us.
A recipe you’d enjoy this time of year?
Shrimp Malai Curry. Very traditional dish from where I grew up.
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Shalini fed me twice that day. First, the delicious banana bread, and then the Shrimp Malai Curry. If you’re wondering whether it was good, let’s just say I left with enough for two :)