Nandini Sharma actually doesn’t believe in “family secrets.”
“I want to share my recipes with the whole wide world,” said the apron-bedecked Sharma, with a robust, Brit-infused Indian accent. “To me, things that bring happiness—like a good recipe—need to be shared to spread the happiness far and wide.”
It was a Sunday afternoon and we were at Eddie Stern’s new digs in Clinton Hill—the soon-to-open Brooklyn Yoga Club. The space is totally gosh-wow—but more about that later. Today we came to the new cooking club in the soon-to-be café on the second floor.
On the menu: pepper rasam, which is like an Indian-style tomato soup; sautéed green beans with coconut; spicy Sambhar lentil stew; fritters with chutneys; and white rice.
“Food follows the people,” Sharma said, when asked about the influence that India’s post-partition diaspora has had on global cuisine. “That’s why chicken tikka masala is probably the most popular bar food in London today!”
She told us that there’s a “Holy Trinity” to Indian cooking, which is comprised of ginger, green chilies, and cilantro. This trinity usually goes into the starting sauté, or “magic,” of a dish and is its base flavor. The Italians have garlic, basil, and olive oil; the Chinese, ginger, garlic, and scallions.
Sharma suggested that the Indian trinity could be a great starting sauté for any lentil soup or bean dish. “I’m thinking French lentil soup,” she said, while crushing black peppercorns with a mortar and pestle for the rasam soup, which makes the pepper a bit stronger and sharper. “It would give it an interesting new twist!”
The spice platter used in Indian kitchens has always piqued my interest. Sharma told us—while pouring boiling water into the bowl of inch-length-chopped green beans—that the platter changes depending upon where you are in India. But spices like turmeric, chili powder, and cumin seed are common across all parts.
In North India, you’d likely find whole coriander and crushed cumin; in the South, mustard seeds, urad dall (lentils), and whole dried red pepper. And in the East, you’d find something called panch phoron, or “five spices”—usually a blend of cumin, fennel, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, and brown mustard—that balances flavors like pungent, bitter, and astringent.
Ayurveda identifies six major taste categories into which all foods can be placed: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. “Indian food satisfies all six, which is why I think it’s so satisfying,” Sharma said.
The meal was surprisingly simple to make, and mostly required you to chop, cut, sauté, and mix—and to beware of overcooking. The real trick is to use the right ingredients, which can be found in most grocery stores these days.
“When I first came to the States, you couldn’t find ginger anywhere,” she recalled, noting how it’s now everywhere. But still, her favorite places to buy Indian produce and spices are Subzi-Mandi and Patel Brothers, in Jackson Heights, and Kalustyan’s, in Kipp’s Bay.
Something eye-opening for me: Sharma had us wash the lentils and rice—she likes to cook with Tildabrand—before we cooked them. Apparently, the individual grains rub against each other when they lie stagnant and create a powder, which makes the cooking water murky.
When we sat down to eat, Sharma told us that she wants all of her meals to have at least four colors. “We start eating our food first with our eyes, then we inhale its fragrance with our nose, and finally we taste with our tongue and mouth,” she said. “The colors are to satisfy our eyes, so the more vibrant and various colors we have, the more satisfying the meal will be.”
Sharma also believes that the colors reflect the right amount of cooking as “overcooking the food typically destroys most nutrients and also destroys the vivid colors of the vegetables, which should be retained as much as possible,” she said. For this reason, she rarely eats at Indian restaurants, finding the food to be overcooked. But for some “real” Indian food, she recommends Saravana Bhavan, on 26th and Lex, and The LeWala, on McDougal St.
Sharma and her friend Linda Lauretta just published a book of recipes, Sakahari: The Plant Eater’s Cookbook($12.95), which is an herbal guide that contains the recipes for everything we cooked, and much more. Did you know that saffron is neither an herb or a spice, but a flower? Or that red chillies originated in the Americas? Got questions about the benefits of ghee or turmeric? It’s all in the book.
But before there was a book, there was a story.
Born to a Brahmin family, Sharma grew up in Calcutta. She worked in banking and financial services for twelve years before coming to the States, in 2000, with her six-year-old daughter.
After witnessing many of her friends tumble into the “pink slip pile” during the 2008 financial crisis, Sharma “resorted to a traditional Indian system to manage my stress through the illusions of worldly success, and failure.” This system included yoga and cooking, which she’d done since her teens.
Stern first met Sharma back at the Broome Street Temple and he invited her to teach cooking classes at his new place. Today was her inaugural class. Moving forward, she’ll offer weekend cooking classes at least once a month.
She also opened Nandini’s Kitchen—a virtual kitchen that follows her wherever she goes—and hopes to expand her presence to be Indian chef-of-choice to the NYC yoga community.
“I believe that with cooking I may have discovered the meaning of my life,” Sharma said. “And, in writing this book and offering the recipes to the world, I may be pursuing the purpose of my life.”
—Illustration: Sharon Watts
This coming Sunday, December 12, learn how to make a vegan, gluten-free Indian-style breakfast at Sharma’s second cooking class at the Brooklyn Yoga Club. For more info, click here.