How Gwyneth Paltrow inspired me to write a cookbook
November 25th, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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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.

Spices are everything in South Asian cooking. It's rare that my mom cooks anything without dhaniya, zeera, lal mirch or haldi. Cumin, coriander, red chili and turmeric (the English names, respectively) run in my veins.

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:

daal

Daal
This is a spicy Pakistani lentil recipe

Ingredients
1 cup masoor daal (whole orange lentils)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander powder
pinch of turmeric
1/2 yellow onion, minced
1 tomato, diced
1 1/2 serrano pepper, minced
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp whole cumin
1 medium garlic clove, sliced
cilantro for garnish

Cooking Directions
1. Place the daal, salt, red chili powder, coriander, turmeric, onion, tomato and serrano pepper in a pot with about 2 cups of water on high flame. Once the mixture has come to a boil, lower the flame and cover the pot with a lid.
2. The daal will be cooked and the water will be absorbed in 15-20 minutes. Thoroughly mash the daal mixture or blend using a hand blender
3. Heat oil in a separate small fry pan. When the pan is hot, add whole cumin and garlic. As the garlic starts getting golden brown, pour the cumin and garlic mixture (with the oil) into the pot with the daal
4. Cover the pot again and let it sit off the stove for a few minutes to cool before serving
5. Stir the mixture; plate and add cilantro for garnish

aloo

Aloo
Means potato in Urdu. The way South Asians cook aloo is typically very flavorful and spicy.

Ingredients
1/4 cup oil
3 medium-large potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 stems of curry leaves (Available at Indian store. Not mandatory, but it will add to the taste)
2 garlic cloves, minced or blended
2 serrano peppers, thinly sliced or blended
1 tsp whole cumin (seeds, not powder)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/8 (a pinch) of turmeric powder
1 tomato, diced
cilantro for garnish

Cooking Directions
1. Cover the surface of a large pan with a thin layer of canola oil (about 1/4 cup oil) and place it over a stove on medium flame
2. Saute in the curry leaves, garlic and cumin until the garlic turns light golden (this should just take a few minutes)
3. Stir in the green chilis, salt, red chili, coriander, turmeric so they are well-mixed (about a minute)
4. Stir in the potatoes and occasionally flip them so both sides of slices start cooking
5. Once the potatoes start turning golden, stir in the tomato
6. If the potatoes are sticking to pan, stir in a quarter cup of water
7. Then cover the pan with a lid and place the stove on low flame for 10 minutes
8. Plate and add cilantro for garnish

karahi chicken

Karahi Chicken
A karahi is a wok-like pot that many South Asians use to cook. My mother doesn't use one to cook this, but the name stuck and we always refer to it as this in my family)

Ingredients
1/4 cup oil
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2.5 serrano pepper, minced or blended
2 garlic cloves, minced or blended
1/2 tbsp ginger, minced or blended
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/8 (or a pinch) of turmeric
1 tomato, diced
cilantro for garnish
dash of lemon juice for taste

Cooking Directions
1. Defrost the chicken and cut into squares or strips
2. Cover the surface of a large pan with a thin layer of canola oil (about 1/4 cup of oil) and place it over a stove on medium flame
3. Stir in the serrano pepper, garlic, ginger for about a minute until you can smell the aroma (about a minute)
4. Saute in the cumin, coriander, red chili, salt and turmeric for about a minute
5. Mix in the chicken and stir it until it’s almost cooked (this will take a few minutes until the surface area of the chicken appears cooked)
6. Stir in the tomato for about 2-3 minutes
7. Put the lid on, turn on low flame, and allow it to cook for another 10 minutes
8. Double check that the chicken is fully cooked by cutting through a few. If still needed, cook the mixture on high flame for another few minutes
9. Plate and add cilantro for garnish

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Filed under: Bite • Cultural Identity • Culture


soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Amayda

    Why is there no information on where to view/purchase this book? Has it not been printed yet?

    December 7, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  2. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociationsInc,Int'l Intst'r

    Great recipe picture for your book. something your mother vomited after surgery. her favorite recipe.
    It does look like that to me. then i read what it is. it is one of the lentil dishes india and i guess pakistani restaurants serve at a buffet and such and it makes you vomit it out on to the plate. but notice the name Masoor Daal. others visiting and eating out in india vomit a lot too. but i can't pinpoint what the ingredient is that makes people hurly sick.
    very funny i had a good laugh. it is either the turmeric or curry or the blend of both in one dish serving. i have never tried turmeric at home though some lebanese cooks use it in some dishes. i bought it once but threw it out deciding i didn't want to try it even in anything. i have had some curry food though there are different kinds of curry so i read. i beleive it is turmeric that makes you vomit. i was guessing that it is a poison they slip into the food on purpose while pretending that they are just spicing the food for their family (?) to share. it is that i am sure a poison that your own relatives as well use against you with conspiracy orders of a mafia group. or maybe some don't know what they got sick from when they used turmeric. actually a relative as well vomited when i did so they don't know in some cases that turmeric is a toxic substance and not a spice. it is used for a test in paper or something plus for boric acid. it isn't a condiment or spice as the misleading other definitiion describes. plant root source it is poison but i don't know if you die. maybe if you ate enough of it you would die. or you repeat ate it at another meal and on and on.
    it is used as one of a number of products to induce vomiting for emergency patients who overdose or are poisoned or poison themselves by accident such as in drinking bleach somehow by mistake or taking too many sleeping pills or some other similar trouble maybe someone slips you cyanide. but it isn't for regular food spicing use. other part of treatment involve voiding the bowels through the rectum as well but i am not sure if that is something other than a strong laxative also or probably it is just an anema of a stronger kind. they do have different ways of doing that.
    it is part of first aid security medicine cabinet stuff.
    you should kind of stay with the meat loaf and stew and roasts.

    November 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  3. Cella

    I could've sworn the original was Madhur Jaffrey. Not sure how this differs from her recipes.

    November 27, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  4. MS GWENYTH EXCELS

    YOU HAVE AND ALWAYS WILL HAVE AN EXTRORDINARY PALATE THAT CAN BE RELYED ON

    November 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  5. JRD

    @Sarah You should know that if you do not have anything go to say/write about someone, you are better off remaining silent. This is the problem with freedom of speech it is been use it to be mean. @ People: do not hate the player hate the game.
    Paltrow is no perfect but again no one is.

    November 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Really?

      What are you, JRD? The Golden Rule Police? Get a grip.

      "This is the problem with freedom of speech it is been use it to be mean."
      The good thing about freedom of speech is that you get to spout your illiterate drivel.

      November 27, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  6. hmbsandman

    Awesome recipes!

    Zohreen: Gwenyneth is like a pen-knife next to your culinary machete!

    November 27, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  7. Rod C. Venger

    Bah. Paltrow is so skinny, I don't see how she could inspire anyone to write a cookbook.

    November 27, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • another cook

      Skinny people inspire me to cook. Fat people make never want to eat again.

      November 28, 2011 at 11:53 am |
      • Amayda@another cook

        Well said!

        December 7, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  8. Iris

    I have tried Daal and made once...I am making it again ....Waiting to get your book...sound yummy!

    November 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  9. Mrs.57

    Wise sage say, when actor/author/cook/singer excels in making 1 soup, no need to philander (!) into other cooking pots. That said, KWDragon hit nail on head. Ms. Lakshmi would do well to pay attention as she drifts in similar direction w/even less "cooking" talent.

    November 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. victor

    Great story! I will enjoy the recipes since I love to cook. Thanks

    November 26, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  11. libby

    HI ! would love to see the final product of your cookbook using the Adoramapix book. Do you have pictures of your final photo book?

    November 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. KWDragon

    Is Ms. Adamjee going to make her cookbook available on Amazon? I would get in line to buy one (although I don't think I could force myself to buy Paltrow's work–too pretentious). Does she have a link to a Pakistan food blog or something? I am intrigued.

    November 25, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  13. duh

    One sure fire way to doom your cookbook, liknk yourself with Paltrow.

    November 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • You're an idiot

      Yeah, that has worked so poorly for Chris Martin, hasn't it?

      November 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • sixin

      How dare you. Paltrow is an award winning actress and a pretty darn good singer too. She's an elegant woman and mother. One should be proud to link their self with an amazing person.

      November 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
      • KWDragon

        Really, Gwen? Now you've resorted to trolling comment board to promote yourself?

        November 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
      • Sarah Michele

        Really, Sixin… Paltrow is a pretentious Hollywood brat who was handed stuff because of her parent’s connections. She is a fine actress, but there were many fine young people who were as talented as her (acting wise) when she started, and if you don’t think she got the roles because of her connections, you’re delusional. There are many of us who could have done a more historically interesting and foodie-related tour with Batali, but again, she got to do it because she was connected, not because she’s known for her cooking (except maybe in her family/friend circles)

        And good luck on the above cookbook. It sounds inspirational and delicious. I have had Daal, but never made it and plan to do so in the next week with your recipe. Thanks again.

        November 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
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