Food

How a novice cook became one of India’s most popular food bloggers and a published author

Nandita Iyer’s blog, Saffron Trail, began as a place for her to document her own food journey.

Though Dr Nandita Iyer did not cook much when she was younger, she has always appreciated good food. As a 16-year-old in Mumbai, Iyer attended coaching classes for science and mathematics for which she needed to leave home at 5.15 am. As the morning wore on, she would (understandably) be famished and her attention was always drawn to another student who used to bring koki – a kind of flat spicy bread typically made in Sindhi households – for lunch. “How good it would smell in that closed classroom,” Iyer recalled in an interview last month.

Cooking is now a huge part of the 40-year-old’s life. Since 2006, she has been writing about healthy vegetarian food and crafting her own recipes on her popular blog, Saffron Trail. And next month, her first book of recipes, titled The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian will be published by Hachette India.

Delicious, and healthy

When Iyer started Saffron Trail, it was still the early days of food blogging in India and only a handful of websites existed, including Sailu’s Food and Finely Chopped, she said. But these days, it is almost impossible to scroll through Facebook without coming across a three-minute video on making a quick chicken dinner or a beginner’s guide to frosting a cupcake.

After a year of blogging – during which time Saffron Trail’s audience continued to grow – Iyer was made an offer to create a cookbook. At the time, she decided against it but, in 2015, the opportunity to write a book came up again and this time she was ready. “I thought the time is right. I’ve been a food blogger for long enough and I wanted to add something else with my bio.”

Healthy living is a huge part of Iyer’s cooking. Though studying medicine in Mumbai left time for little else – “I barely knew how to make tea” – Iyer soon turned her attention to understanding food and how it can be used to help maintain good health. She focused on creating vegetarian dishes using seasonal produce with high nutritional value.

Photo credit: Nandita Iyer.
Photo credit: Nandita Iyer.

When Iyer started working on her book, she actively avoided refined sugar, and made an effort to choose the healthiest ingredients she could find. Those ingredients are now divided into four sections of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian: Good Carbs, Eat the Rainbow, Protein Punch and Healthy Fats. Iyer also made sure to include nutritional notes in her recipes, such as the anti-oxidant properties of betel leaves or the presence of thymol, which prevents tooth decay, in tulsi. “People [can] understand why this is good for you, instead of [me] just saying, ‘yes, this is good for you,’” she said.

Recipes in Iyer’s book include a mix of familiar vegetables and others that home cooks might not use every day, like ash gourd or sweet potato. Her recipes almost always use seasonal vegetables, but she shies away from catering to holiday seasons, including Diwali or Thanksgiving for her large audience in the United States. “During Halloween, everyone’s doing pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin,” she said. “It’s just boring for me.”

One of Iyer’s favourite recipes in the book was inspired by her grandmother’s coconut-based molaga podi. Made with desiccated coconut, dried chilli, sesame seeds and various dals, each ingredient is slowly toasted to a golden brown and coarsely powdered together. Another favourite is a quick pasta sauce that uses ripe avocado, sundried tomatoes, black olives and walnuts.

“I need to inspire [readers] with some new ideas that they can interpret in their own kitchens,” she said.

Iyer’s recipes also come from her rooftop garden at her home in Bengaluru. Photo credit: Nikhita Venugopal
Iyer’s recipes also come from her rooftop garden at her home in Bengaluru. Photo credit: Nikhita Venugopal

A personal journey

A self-described impulsive cook, Saffron Trail started out as “my own diary of what I’m trying out”. The blog, she said, was a way to record her experiments in the kitchen, to note down the ingredients and quantities for spur-of-the-moment dishes, or save interesting recipes she found along the way in magazines or newspapers. “I wasn’t even checking things like Google Analytics,” she said. “I was just doing it entirely for myself.”

After moving to Bengaluru in 2011, Iyer started to pay more attention to the traffic that her site drew. Recipes with the most views tended to be simple ones that beginner cooks were eager to learn – filter coffee, phulkas and aloo parathas, for example. But for her, her blog remains first and foremost “a reflection of what I cook at home”.

Inspiration for Iyer’s recipes now also comes from her rooftop garden at her home in Bengaluru, where she grows chillis, tomatoes and a range of other vegetables. For example, one time, she had a surplus of sweet potatoes and taking advantage of her “problem of plenty”, Iyer came up with several new sweet potato recipes, from cakes and muffins to bread and stuffed paratha. And years later, inspired by the memory of her classmate’s delicious lunch, Iyer eventually made her own version of koki – “I’m so impulsive in my cooking. I rarely ever want to follow the rules.”

From The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian

Black-Eyed Pea Burgers
In Indian cuisine, black-eyed peas or lobia are usually made into a spicy curry served with parathas or rice. However, these hearty beans can be used in a lot more dishes such as soups, salads and burgers. This burger recipe makes a good meatless option for vegetarians and vegans.

THE PATTY MIX
1⁄2 cup Black-eyed peas (lobia), soaked overnight
2 small onions, finely chopped
1 tsp dried mixed herbs of choice
1⁄2 cup dry breadcrumbs (whole-wheat bread)
1⁄2 tsp salt
1⁄2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1⁄2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

METHOD
1 Drain the black-eyed peas and rinse thoroughly.
2 Place them in a pressure cooker with 2 cups of water.
3 Close the pressure cooker with the lid and the pressure weight plugged in.
4 Cook the peas for 3-4 minutes over low heat after the cooker reaches full pressure (first whistle).
5 Open the cooker after the pressure subsides.
6 Drain the cooked beans through a sieve and transfer them to a bowl.
7 Add all remaining ingredients and mix well.
8 Mash the mixture well.
9 Divide into 2 portions and shape into burgers.
10 Keep them on a plate, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.

TO COOK THE PATTIES
2 tbsp oil

METHOD
1 Heat the oil in a frying pan.
2 Remove the patties from the refrigerator and shallow-fry them on both sides for approximately 7-8 minutes on each side till golden-brown.

TO SERVE
Serve with a salad or inside a burger bun with all the other trimmings of a burger.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.