New Indian Basics: A mother-daughter lesson in the beauty of cooking with spices

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Arvinda Chauhan and Preena Chauhan channelled 30 years of teaching into their cookbook debut

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Our cookbook of the week is New Indian Basics: 100 Traditional and Modern Recipes from Arvinda’s Family Kitchen by Preena Chauhan and Arvinda Chauhan. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Onion kale bhajias, pav bhaji and aloo methi.

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The deftness and speed at which Arvinda Chauhan makes chapatis stays with you. Alongside her daughter, Preena Chauhan, Arvinda has been teaching Indian cooking classes in the Greater Toronto Area since 1993. The course I attended, on lentils and beans, concluded with flatbreads. After what must have been at least a decade, I continue to strive towards Arvinda’s perfectly symmetrical example.

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Growing up in a Kenyan village, chapatis were the first food Arvinda made, helping her grandmother roll the dough into circles before she cooked them on a chulha (clay stove). Arvinda’s mother died when she was seven, and she helped her grandparents care for her four siblings while their father studied in Europe.

Then, cooking was a necessity. Once Arvinda moved to Oakville, Ont. in the early 1970s, it grew into a passion and career.

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The seed was planted at a 1993 Canada Day fundraiser in Hamilton, where the Chauhans volunteered to sell snacks such as samosas, pakoras and dal wadas. Customers asked again and again how to make them, and Arvinda was more than happy to explain.

“It was at that very moment that my mother discovered how much she loved to teach people how to cook Indian food, so she began setting up a business to start teaching Indian cooking classes that coming fall,” Preena writes in New Indian Basics (Appetite by Random House, 2022).

The mother-daughter duo channelled nearly 30 years of teaching into their cookbook debut. As they transitioned from in-person to virtual classes during the pandemic, they had time to reflect, Preena says. To consider how their methods had evolved, and the questions students had asked, time and time again.

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New Indian Basics by Preena Chauhan and Arvinda Chauhan
For their cookbook debut, Preena Chauhan, left, and her mother, Arvinda Chauhan drew on nearly 30 years of teaching Indian cuisine. Photo by Reena Newman

Ranging from more involved recipes, such as gulab jamun, to easy weeknight dinners and foods hailing from different regions of India, they included dishes that would appeal to both beginners and more experienced Indian cooks.

Preena, too, has been cooking since she was a child. Though, as she writes in the book, her circumstances were worlds apart from her mother’s. She loved to bake, especially cakes, and spent time in the kitchen at Arvinda’s side.

“I have learned so much from my mom’s history and from her experience of cooking her whole life. I want to share that knowledge with as many people as possible so that they can create these amazing foods at home,” says Preena, adding that she feels fortunate to have been teaching with Arvinda since she started her business.

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“If I didn’t have that close connection to teaching with her, I wouldn’t have picked up all of that information, and all of that tradition as well. And it certainly is a combination of the Canadian tradition as well as the tradition of the everyday, homestyle Indian cooking that she grew up with.”

New Indian Basics is loosely based on Arvinda’s eight-week beginner’s class, which she developed when she started her cooking school. Every week, they focused on a different element of an Indian meal: flatbreads, rice, lentils and beans, chutneys, pickles and raita, and so on.

“The inspiration for the book was really to spend that time on all of those components,” says Preena. ”So that the reader can walk away and create this full Indian feast, if that’s what they wanted to make.”

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New Indian Basics by Preena Chauhan and Arvinda Chauhan
New Indian Basics is Preena Chauhan and her mother Arvinda Chauhan’s first cookbook. Photo by Appetite by Random House

After nearly three decades of teaching Indian cooking, Arvinda and Preena had a vast repertoire to draw from. Many of the 100 recipes in New Indian Basics are favourites from their classes, but they created new dishes, too.

For her Onion Kale Bhajias, for example, Preena merged Arvinda’s bhajia recipe with the onion bhajis she enjoyed as a child visiting extended family in England. Where cooks in India might use fresh methi (fenugreek) leaves or spinach in the fried snack, she adds local kale.

Others are new interpretations of classics, such as the Chocolate Orange & Vanilla Cardamom Barfi Preena created for her chocolate-loving brother, Paresh Chauhan. Maple syrup is Arvinda and Preena’s sweetener of choice in Mapled Tandoori Salmon with Mint, and Chai-Spiced Apple Buckwheat Pancakes with Maple Cream.

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“(We’re) trying to capture the tradition of Indian cooking. So, we’re not straying from that, but maybe some of the dishes that we have in here are a little bit different for somebody who’s just starting out. Or an Indian family who’s trying to incorporate some different slants,” says Preena.

Their teaching methods may have changed over the years, but Arvinda’s goal remains the same, she adds. To help people integrate Indian foods into their everyday cooking by sharing tips to save time and simplify the process — but not compromise flavour.

Through her original eight-week course, Arvinda upended misconceptions about Indian cuisine tasting one particular way. She reinforced the idea that depth of flavour and balance of spices — the proportions, how they’re layered, tempered or dry-roasted — are all in the cook’s hands.

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“When she first started her cooking classes in the early ’90s, she really wanted to empower the cook. To put them in charge of their Indian cuisine — to cater to their family, to their friends, to their own palates. And she always started out that course with a foundation on spices,” says Preena.

From the beginning, Arvinda instilled the importance of sourcing fresh, high-quality spices, and taking the time to find the correct spices required for a given dish. In the ‘90s, this took some doing.

Students increasingly asked for Arvinda’s masalas, and she started giving out spice blends in classes. Preena and Paresh soon realized there was an appetite for more. And, after securing some funding to start a small business in 2005, launched Arvinda’s Indian spice blends.

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At the same time, Preena was completing her master’s degree in environmental studies at York University. She did part of her studies in South India, where she learned about farming methods, crop varieties, sustainability practices and regional foods.

Supporting farmers by using as many local ingredients as possible was a priority from the beginning, Preena says: combining inherently Indian flavours with locally grown Canadian ingredients such as mustard seeds, garlic and coriander seeds.

Whether their masalas, classes or cookbook, “it’s all about flavour,” she highlights.

Arvinda considers cooking an art and likens it to painting — another of her passions. She sees the contents of her masala dabbas (one for ground and pungent spices, another for whole spices, and a third for salts and other pantry staples) as being similar to the colours on her palette.

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Adopting this mindset offers an abundance of opportunities, Preena emphasizes. She recalls one of the last in-person classes they taught before the pandemic: chicken tikka masala.

As the sauce simmered, they instructed the students to taste — the key to developing an intuitive understanding of what a dish needs. One of the students wanted to make it more and more bold, adding layer upon layer of spices.

“We just kept tweaking and tweaking and tweaking it, and it was so flavourful. It was just such a memorable dish for us even to teach. And that’s the wonderful thing about cooking with spices and Indian cuisine, is that you can create it just how you like it,” says Preena.

“We want people to be able to experience really flavourful spices so that they can make these traditional dishes very well balanced, but they can tailor it to how they like. The beauty of cooking with spices is you have that control.”

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