It isn't every day I get to eat a Gujarati-style homemade Indian breakfast.
So I was counting my lucky stars when Bhavisha Bhalsod invited me to her East Anchorage home on a snowy Saturday morning to teach me how to make poori, a deep-fried Indian bread.
But first we made masala tea the British way, with PG Tips tea and a mix from JB Spices. Unable to find loose-leaf tea, Bhalsod cut the tea bags open and dumped the contents into a pot of water. Later, she strained the leaves and served the tea with plenty of sugar and milk.
As we waited for the water to boil, we made the dough: a combination of wheat flour, turmeric, chili powder and oil. After kneading it with our hands for a few minutes, we sectioned it into one-inch balls, then rolled them out into small pancakes. Then it was frying time. The oil had been heating up on the stove, and it seemed to crackle with excitement as we placed the first piece of raw dough in. Immediately, it puffed up into an edible balloon. We deep-fried 20 more poori, then Bhalsod covered them with foil and placed them in the oven to keep them warm.
Of Indian descent, Bhalsod was born in England and moved to a suburb of Detroit when she was 9 years old. Her favorite memories are of making food with her family, she said. She learned how to cook from her mom, who "wanted me to know how to cook so I could get married to a nice Indian boy!"
Bhalsod moved to Alaska after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in zoology and a concentration in marine biology. After working as a researcher on a fishing boat out of Kodiak that reported to NOAA, she started substitute teaching science with the Anchorage School District at Clark Middle School. She's an avid baker and among friends is famous for constantly trying to feed everyone.
Next was the potato curry. I will remember this smell forever -- fried in hot oil, the cumin and mustard seeds released their comforting fragrance. The sliced potatoes sizzled in the pan, and Bhalsod covered them generously with ground cumin, tumeric and chili powder. Lots of chili powder. "This is pretty much the base of every single curry," Bhalsod said as she poured the spices in.
Bhalsod's aunt made her mango athanu (also called Indian pickle) for Christmas this year. This was served as a condiment for the potatoes, along with a fiery chili pepper chutney and plain yogurt.
The meal is one she ate with her family every Sunday growing up, Bhalsod said. "I learned this from my mom, but my version tastes a little different."
In contrast to the Western cooking tradition of using exact measurements, Indian cooking is an oral tradition based on taste more than recipes. "We don't have recipes, I wasn't taught with measurements. I think it's cool, but you can lose knowledge over generations that way if you don't 'teach it.'"
She showed me a video she made of her uncle making lamb curry. "This is my version of a family recipe book."
I asked her what her family thought about her moving to Alaska.
Bhalsod laughed. "They thought I was crazy! And then it was showing me how to grind my own spices with a rolling pin and crush my own tomatoes because I might not have power in Alaska."
Her strongest friendships, Bhalsod said, are based around food and cooking.
"It's what I love to do."
-- Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage and writes about food and culture.
Bhavisha Bhalsod's 5 must-have spices
- Cumin seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Turmeric powder
- Chili powder
- A ground coriander-cumin blend
- 1 can mango puree
- 2 cups Greek plain yogurt (not sweetened or flavored)
- 1 cup milk (2% or less)
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
- Combine all ingredients into blender.
- Process until smooth and creamy.