Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and these next two weeks, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. Catch up on past coverage and read the live blog from our Secret Supper in Chicago.
It was, of all people, Gwyneth Paltrow who inspired - and agitated - me to write a cookbook.
There it was online: Paltrow and her new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter.
Heck, if she could do it, so could I.
So began my three-month journey to put together a cookbook dedicated to a way of cooking that many Americans consider exotic or foreign. For me, though, these recipes have been a way of life: they are the traditional foods of my family from Pakistan.
But my quest to find out how much of these spices to use and how to incorporate other foods with them was a small mountain of a problem: most South Asians don’t keep precise written recipes of the foods they regularly make.
The secrets (as they may as well be) are passed down by word of mouth from family members or friends. Even after recipes are received, the mind's eye leads them and people cook by "andaaza" or by estimated measurement.
If I wanted to put together a cookbook as a gift to my mother for her recent birthday, I was going to have to deploy the skills of an investigative reporter.
I tried cooking with her, which helped...some. She'd say things like, "use about a handful of fried onions," until she saw what my massive fried onion fist looked like and corrected the original instruction accordingly.
I drilled her nearly every evening for specific recipes and pressured her to give me concrete measurements. I even called my aunt to resurface recipes my mom made when I was a child that she has since stopped making.
Paltrow's book included a foreword by Mario Batali, which inspired me to get someone to write one for my book too. I recruited my Nani (my mother's mom) who still lives in Karachi, Pakistan, for the task.
A few weeks later, I received a completed foreword from her and the first line read, "Ever noticed a mother bird feeding her nestlings?" It was immediately clear her foreword was going to be a little different from Batali's, but it had the exact personal touch and the heart that I wanted from a family member.
Her last line even mentioned how she was so happy I had learned to cook because it would ultimately lead to a happy marriage (her way of nudging me in that direction).
I went through stacks of old family photo albums, and found one picture for the introduction - it was of the day my family received our American citizenship. We posed with a cake my mother had made with white frosting, sliced strawberries and blueberries arranged to look like the American flag.
At the time, I remember thinking how silly it was my mother made a cake just because we were changing our passport color from green to blue. Looking back, and even thinking about how I've "Americanized" many of her dishes over the years, I realize just the enormity of what that moment represents in my cooking - and beyond.
Despite the fact that many South Asian women don't use formal cookbooks for South Asian food, compiling family recipes is something that many South Asian women commonly do - even my mother had partially started a hand-written journal filled with cooking instructions.
I wanted mine to look professional though and so I used a company called AdoramaPix to lay out my photos and text. I had already written up the recipes, so I was certain this step would just take a weekend; how hard could it be to copy and paste?
Working with an online template was a painful Tetris game though; it required maneuvering recipes to a different section of a chapter based on their length, or tweaking some recipes to get them to fit on a given page.
Because so many of my mom's recipes were given to her or emailed to her by different friends and family, many of them had different abbreviations and styles. I had to compose a stylebook for myself, and decided that there would be many words I'd abbreviate: like teaspoon and tablespoon.
I also had to choose a font size and type for the picture captions that I could keep consistent throughout the book, in addition to dozens of other minuscule decisions. None of them were hard to make, but keeping what I wanted consistent in my 78-page book was a tedious and eyeball-aching copy-editing project.
Finally, when most of my own book had been put together, I bought Paltrow's book. I didn't look at many cookbooks while doing my project because I wanted my own ideas to shine through.
After looking through her book, I surprisingly found I had an incredible admiration for what she did and the fact that it seemed she was really hands-on in making the book.
Still, judging Paltrow's book solely by its cover was a great thing for me: it set me off on a three-month cooking, photography and book-making journey and it gave me the spark I needed to make my very own cookbook.
Here are a few recipes from my mother: