The Genius Recipe Tapes

Lessons from a Legend | Julie Sahni

Episode Summary

Julie Sahni helped shape New York as a city planner, but after a cooking class, she decided to take on something much more ambitious and ended up defining authentic and classic Indian cooking in America. In this episode, Julie sits with Kristen to talk about her early life, the magic of ghee and how she became a true legend in world of culinary arts.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, a lifelong genius hunter. For a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. Now on The Genius Recipe Tapes, we go behind the scenes with the geniuses themselves. This week, I enjoyed sitting down with Julie Sahni, an iconic and trailblazing cooking teacher and the author behind several cookbooks on Indian cuisine. We wanted to try something a little different for this episode because we spoke for around three hours when Julie and I had our interview. And as much as I loved every minute of our conversation, we just couldn't put it all in this episode. So instead of playing selected clips from that conversation, we're going to try to craft a story together, a story of Julie's life. Relating to the food she has created, the food she has eaten, and the food she inspired those around her to make themselves. And for a story like this, it makes sense to start where many food stories start: in the kitchen.

Julie Sahni: The most sacred place in an Indian home, a traditional Indian home, is not the bedroom. It's the kitchen. It's the kitchen that they won't let you enter. They will get, let you, come into your bedroom, and that's where everybody would congregate and talk. So the kitchen is not just a special place where you cook, but it's almost sacred. And therefore, every family has away, particularly in particular castes. So in our caste, Brahmin, you put a stamp on the stove so that nobody would cook on it after you have left. So to do that, you first have to build a stove.

Kristen: What Julie explained to me was that when a family would first move into a new kitchen, it would be empty, and they would use clay to build the stove on the ground of the room. And then, once the family created the furnace, they would continue the ritual by marking it as theirs.

Julie: What they do is they put a little bit of decoration on it with the rice flour so that it looks pretty. And also, it's almost like worshipping it. And then they will take a pot with water in it. And then they put either rice or lentils because they create a foam and froth up when they cook. And once it foams, and it froths up, and that broth comes over and touches the side of the pot, and it'll come down on the stove itself. That stove now becomes that family's stove. And therefore, nobody else in that except that family would be allowed to come into that kitchen. These rules are the way they kept the food clean. When we left the place and went to another one, the family would clear the last room. And they will go and break that stool. So that nobody else can use it. And nobody who was not part of the family could enter the kitchen. Nobody. not even their first cousin or second cousin. No one. It was just strictly for that family. It's a beautiful ritual in a way because it shows the kind of link between the cooking, the kitchen, and the family,

Kristen: Even as Julie has traveled the world and moved into different kitchens, she's kept up this ritual, not to the extent of building a new stove every time she moves into a new building. But she carries on the practice in her way.

Julie: I do rituals, cook something, then offer it to my home, go from room to room, and say, this is my home. And because it's more than just a house and to make a house into a home, you go through this ritual. And then that home and you become a one in one it's a bond that people have. We don't even call it a ritual. It's just a, just a habit.

Kristen: Whether you call it a habit or a ritual, as Julie tells me, there's nowhere that it's more on display than at a wedding.

Julie: Wedding feasts are something where you get a sample of the traditional cooking in India because these rituals and those dishes and the way they've presented date back centuries. In my caste, people claim this as at least 2,900 years old—this ritual of cooking that way. South Indian weddings start with a bare empty kitchen with just a stove. Which again, go through this process of blessing. And after the prayer is what the part is putting on. And even though you are cooking for 400 to 600 people, it still goes through the same processes. And all those are the rituals of that time, and they're still practicing it.

Kristen: The idea that the same dish has been prepared in the same way for the same festivities for almost 3,000 years is incredibly humbling. And then Julie dropped what I would consider a pretty big bombshell.

Julie: India in those days had hardly any spices. Did you know that India only had three spices? That's all. And it still India is called the land of spices and always have my students guess which those three spices are. And the funny thing is they can name the difficult ones, and the easiest one is the most difficult to guess. So the three spices are cardamom, turmeric, and the third one, the most obvious one, which everybody misses is the black pepper. These are the only three spices that are called indigenous to India. Most of the curry powder spices are not Indian. They came from the Eastern Mediterranean region and Africa and all that. So, for example, everybody associates cumin with India. And cumin is from Egypt. They associate fenugreek with India, and fenugreek is from Ethiopia. Mustard seeds, coriander seeds, chiles, all of them come from the New World. We have all these spices from all over the world, which came to India. And India has a great talent for absorbing everything and calling it theirs. And the world says, okay, we give you credit.

Kristen: I had only been speaking to Julie for a little while at this point and already learned tons. So it had me wanting to dig deeper about her career and some of the most significant early learning moments for her.

Julie: I think it happened when I started taking cooking classes because I had only learned Indian cooking in India. Mainly North Indian cooking and Madhya cuisine at home. I learned Northern Indian cooking and South Indian cooking because of my parents' heritage, and I grew up in the north, but I have a parent heritage of the south. Those things only taught me the Indian know-how, techniques, and skills. I went to Chinese cooking classes, French cooking classes, and Italian cooking classes. I learned how to speak in what is called a common food language. Because in India, everything cooks until done. But there's nothing like that in our vocabulary here because you need to explain what done is. Because you need to see whether the food looks seared, whether it seems caramelized or soft so that it's creamy enough so that when you touch it with a thumb, it feels silky. So we talk about textural quality. We talk about the softness. We talk about the level of cooking itself. So Indian cooking usually doesn't have that vocabulary. I don't think they were cooking schools or established books in older times. People learned it by just observing. And there was a lot of secrecy. When I wrote Classic Indian Cooking, I was the first to write about it, and I worried I would get into trouble.

Kristen: Despite some concern over revealing these secrets. Julie began putting some of her new culinary vocabularies to use.

Julie: I started describing in a more specific manner as to what they should watch out for when they're cooking. So I explained in stages what happens, not just in the end. And I think one of the best examples is how you make ghee, which is clarified butter. And I remember writing about it when I when the book was being in the formative stages. And my editor looked at what I had written and said, "Julie, that won't do. People love ghee. And we love ghee. And you need to explain in detail what happens when you melt the butter until the point where you get ghee as a product. Just saying cook until the foam subsides and you have a brownish liquid that's not good enough. And that's almost like saying cook until done." So that took me about 35 batches of cooking during close to five to six months. And I kept cooking, and this was no exaggeration. I probably did more than that. And I kept cooking, and I kept cooking the same ghee, the same one pound of butter until I could see it in my dream. It's almost like the milky way on top and how it cooks down. And then slowly, the foam forms on it. And in the beginning, before the foam forms are like thick bubbles, the thick bubbles become a kind of foam, and then the final bubbles form. And it's almost that last bubbles are almost like a mixed foam. And then the sound from crackling sound to how the bubbling sounds subside to nothing. And that's when you know it's ready, but this whole process is so beautiful. It is so luscious when you listen to it. So that's what I think you learn when you're going through this whole process of observing in detail.

Kristen: So hearing Julie talk about her process and the fact that she walked through the steps of making 35 times over several months, and even just listening to her now, the way she describes what you're looking for, when you make it yourself, you would think that she's been practicing since the moment she could. But she found her way into food in a somewhat roundabout way. Before college, Julie was a professional dancer and traveled around India, Europe, and the Middle East. She even tried keeping it up after leaving home and moving to New York City for graduate school and work as a city planner; Julie continued to dance. Still, after a year, issues with her visa meant that she couldn't continue to do it in a professional capacity.

Julie: So that's where the food came into my picture because I had this art in me and needed some outlet.

Kristen: While searching for ways to scratch her creative itch, Julie found a cooking class, and then another, and another. All the while, she talked to her classmates about food from her culture, shared ideas, and traded that culinary language that she was developing. Eventually, one of her classmates asked if Julie would ever teach a class herself. She did them one better and started her cooking school. It didn't take long before journalists caught wind of Julie's course. And the incredible meals that she was helping people cook at home. From word of mouth came articles featuring Julie's cooking, and from those articles came more classes. And for more classes came an opportunity to write a book. And though there would be money involved, that's not what got Julie to say yes.

Julie: For me, it has always been to reach people who want something you have that will enhance their life or their kitchen or their family. If I can do something to better it, then for me, it is mission accomplished.

Kristen: Julie Sahni's book, Classic Indian Cooking was published in 1980 and brought the practices and recipes that people have been coming to her to learn to the masses. When we come back, we will dive deep into one particular recipe of Julie's for Sarson Ka Saag, this week's Genius recipe on Food52. Meet you back here for that.

But now I want to bring us back toward the.Kristen: Before the break, we went through the beginnings of Julie's story, talking about some of the traditional Indian rituals that shaped her culinary background as she made her way through careers as a dancer and an architect. And how through all of that, she found herself opening a cooking school in New York City. So talk about this week's genius recipe on food, 52 from Julie's cookbook, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking.

**Julie:**This recipe we are talking about is called saag, which means greens. And it comes from the Northwestern region of Punjab. Sikh people love this recipe. Sikhs are a separate religion in India; Sikh people make this particular dish in a very distinct style, which is quite different than all other regions; the different regions cook greens. It's not like this region cooks, but they have a particular combination of certain greens and how they presented this meal that is loved by Sikh, Punjabi, and other people of the country. This saag, or pureed greens served with melted butter on top, is that recipe.

You put a tadka on top. Tadka is a spice-infused butter, but it turns into ghee. So it is a clarified Indian style clarified butter. You cook ginger and garlic till they get slightly caramelized. And then you pour this over the puree, which is spread like how we spread hummus on a plate. And it just is terrific. And this particular dish presented this way is eaten with cornbread. And this cornbread is made with yellow cornmeal made almost like a tortilla acceptance. It was slightly thicker. This dish is called makki ki roti, a tortilla-like bread called roti. That's the way to enjoy sarsoon ka saag. The preparation of greens is not just one green; it's a combination of several. At least three of them combine in this dish. The first is mustard greens. And then the second one is called bathua, but it is lambs quarters and is like a French marsh, used in salads. You can, of course, substitute spinach if you don't have these particular greens. And then the third one is fenugreek greens. So mustard and fenugreek greens are both considered warm greens. They're usually eaten in winter, particularly fenugreek greens. They create inner heat. It's like having a Brandy in wintertime.

Kristen: As you're simmering the greens, what are your tips to look for to get the right amount of liquid? Does it depend on what kind of greens you're using?

Julie: The most important thing is that you want the puree that looks like a puree of greens and not a soup in the end. You don't want it to look like a sauce. To have that texture, you have to be careful not to just dump a whole lot of water in it. If you're going to substitute instead of fenugreek greens, if you're going to add dried fenugreek, you have to watch out for how much liquid you add. And also, if you add spinach, which variety of spinach you add will affect the water. So instead of dumping a whole lot of water, you can count because it's prolonged cooking. So you can hold some of the water and add, as you go along in the end, you have just enough water so that the vegetables are just covered in it so that when you puree it, it is like a thick bean soup, very thick bean soup. It has to behave that consistency. It's not as thick as hummus because hummus is more like a paste; this one would be slightly thinner than that. And when you add the cornstarch at the end and the cornflour, it binds it together.

Kristen: About the ginger and garlic sizzled in the ghee. It seems like this foundational Indian technique of a chhonk or a tadka. Could you just describe how that works in this recipe?

Julie: This particular technique is called tadka. The literal translation is spice-infused butter. It could be a spice-infused oil, but traditionally it's spice-infused clarified butter. It is ghee. So in this technique, you hit the geek or the clarified butter, and then you put some ingredients, it's a spice or seasoning, and you let it cook well until it browns. If it is whole spices, you cook it thoroughly until it browns. You wait until it caramelizes if you're adding seasonings like ginger and garlic. And then you pour this over the finished dish. So adding a tadka is almost like adding a garnish to a recipe. However, in Indian-style cooking, often the garnish is folded in. So it isn't left-right on top. So sometimes, they fold entirely it into it. That's perfectly okay. Or it is left on top so that it looks beautiful for presentation, or it could be slightly just blended in. So you could do it either way.

Kristen: When it comes to blending the greens, what would you advise in terms of equipment for people to use to get the texture that they're looking for?

Julie: Remember, we are talking about recipes from India, which are centuries old. And they didn't have any appliances and all those. And now we have blenders and food processors and all that. So they used simple gadgets made with wood or metal to blend ingredients. So they would use an apparatus called mutley. And mutley is a wooden appliance, which basically what it does is it simultaneously crushes and blends the food, but it does it so gently. So it doesn't entirely make it like a smooth puree, like a pasty texture. So it still leaves little lumps. You can still see a slight surface of a stem of mustard green, soft silky pieces because Indians eat with fingers and hands. So the texture is crucial when you're eating with fingers. So anything which is kind of a gooey, pasty texture, they would leave a little lumpy.

Kristen: Julie picked up a tool called a mutley. It's a long wooden rod with a star shape at the top. And it almost looks like a stubby umbrella. You can see Julie showing it off herself in the video that we made to go along with this recipe; we will include a link to it in our show notes, looking at it. It's easy to see how this is the kind of tool that would be passed down from generation to generation because it's always these simple tools, the ones without bells and whistles, that seem to stand the test. When Julie wrote the recipe for Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking in 1985, she called for a blender or food processor. So I wanted to hear how blending might be different from a mutley.

Julie: I always have this question in the classes. What if I don't have a blender? Because a lot of people only have food processors nowadays. When these recipes were created, they didn't have these gadgets. So this is what they used. If they had an immersion blender, they would use it because it's much faster and easier. And I don't think I don't see there's any problem with it. Just be careful not to keep pureeing it until you start foaming it. After some time, the air gets built-in. So it starts to foam. So you don't want that to happen. And when the foam settles, it'll become liquid, and then that'll separate from the solids. So you want to know when to stop it. If nothing else, if you're stuck and don't have any appliances or any gadgets or anything. And somebody has frozen greens, and you make this dish, and you need to mix it, put your hands in and mush it up. It works just beautifully. Indian women, this is how they did it first, with their hands.

Kristen: So comforting to know that even if we don't have the tools, we always have these.

Julie: Many people don't realize food and cooking are very forgiving. You don't need to get uptight about everything being so precise, and everything has to be precisely the same way. There's nothing like, oh, it's a classic, it's a hundred-year-old, 200-year-old food has evolved, and if you don't have some ingredients substitute, it becomes yours.

Kristen (voiceover): Thanks for listening, and thanks so much to Julie Sahni, legendary author, and owner of Julie's Home Cooking School. One more timely, surprising part of our conversation is that we couldn't fit into this episode. So we will be releasing it as a bonus episode next week. Stay tuned. I also wanted to mention special thanks to Mayukh Sen, a recent guest on this podcast and whose new book, Tastemakers, profiles Julie and six other immigrant women who shaped American cooking over the past century. And it was invaluable reading and getting ready for this episode. This week's show is composed by Harry Sultan, Amy Shuster, and Emily Hanhan. If you have a favorite Julie Sahni recipe, I would love to hear about it at, or you can tag me at @miglorious on Instagram. And if you The Genius Recipe Tapes and the Food52 podcast network, the very best thing that you can do to support us and to help other people find the show is to take a moment to leave us a five-star rating or review. Or just on this episode to someone who would appreciate knowing where to find the world's most thorough explanation on how to make ghee from a very dedicated and generous teacher. Thanks so much. Talk to you next week.