Anita, let’s start with your personal and professional journey. You were born and raised in India before moving to Canada and then to Houston. You were a stay-at-home mother and then you began developing your love of cooking into a career through catering and as a pastry chef before opening your restaurants. How did your love of food begin and where did you learn to cook?
I developed a love for food from my teenage years -- cooking just came easy to me. My brain seems to be wired to do new things all the time or find new ways to do old things and I’ve always had a spirit of fearlessness in the kitchen. Memories of my mother or an aunt cooking for me evokes all kinds of emotions, and sometimes I try to recreate those feelings of joy through food. What makes this fun is that we all eat 2-3 meals a day, so there is lots of opportunity for experimentation. I also come from a family of very accomplished cooks and food connoisseurs. Living in Canada and the US, as well as traveling quite a bit throughout Europe, have all given me different perspectives on food from my culture of being born and raised in India.
Your menu at Pondicheri is inspired by multiple regions of India “curating ancient Vedic secrets, recipes and techniques.” Can you tell us about your mission for the restaurant and how it is unique?
Food is the best kind of nourishment and eating right can make for a better quality of life, so why would we not use it to our advantage? What we put in our bodies today is an investment into our own future. Ayurveda, the ancient holistic science of self-healing is a wonderful guide in determining how we can live in tune with our bodies, the environment and our planet. At Pondicheri we carefully source all of our ingredients and use only fresh, organic and local. I also believe that the climate crisis is the biggest threat to humanity, and as a race, we need to eat less meat. I have found many creative ways to reduce the meat on our menu and make it more vegetable centric, and we will continue to do so.
It has been devastating to see the effects that the pandemic has had on the restaurant industry. We're happy to hear that Pondicheri in Houston has started picking up again, and we love your virtual cooking classes. How else have you adapted your business model and what keeps you optimistic during this challenging time?
The pandemic has definitely affected our business, like most others, but we are fortunate that we have a loyal following and slowly but surely folks have started coming out again. It’s been exciting to see people explore cooking in their own homes, and seeing them incorporate spices and herbs to embellish food rather than using cream and butter. We have and will continue to develop products like masalas and food kits that will be available for retail.
Ajna, what was your childhood like with your mom as a chef and how has that influenced you and your own love of food? Do you have any favorite memories of the two of you cooking together growing up?
Growing up with my mom as a chef has been a huge gift! We seldom ate out since my mom made every meal in house and my mother was very adventurous with her ideas so we got to be the first experimenters of her cooking. She would even bring me hot lunches to school on certain days.
Ajna, tell us about the beautiful cocktail you made -- the recipe and inspiration.
The Crimson is a cocktail inspired by hibiscus. I love floral notes in drinks! By infusing rum with hibiscus and then putting a few drops of black peppercorn bitters, some lemon juice and a touch of sugar – we are able to create a well-balanced drink that can be enjoyed any time of the year. Here's the recipe for 1 serving:
2 oz hibiscus infused rum*
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
1 drop black peppercorn bitters (optional)
Shake and strain into cup of your choice. Garnish with lemon wheel & edible flowers.
*Make at home by soaking dried hibiscus flowers in rum for 24-48 hours or order online here.
Now that you two are living together in Houston, what does a typical evening meal look like?
Well, I have challenged my mom to cook only plant-based meals at home and it’s been fun seeing her come up with new ideas every day. I think at first she really struggled with not being able to use ghee or yogurt but she has found great substitutes, like sesame, almonds and coconut. We usually drink chai in the morning together as we plan our day. My mom cooks each evening and we usually eat together – lately it’s been a different meal each day, and I just get to eat and enjoy☺.
Anita, tell us about the chocolate dessert -- the inspiration and recipe.
The chocolate almond bark is the kind of dessert I like to make at home and that can be enjoyed in small portions. Here's how I make it:
6 oz dark chocolate chunks
2 tbsp heavy cream
2 tbsp butter
A few drops of vetiver oil
3/4 cup almonds
Pinch of salt
1. Toast the almonds until they are medium brown in color inside.
2. Over a double boiler, heat the chocolate, heavy cream, butter and vetiver in a large bowl. Whisk together until smooth – be very careful not to overheat or burn the chocolate.
3. Chop about half of the almonds and leave the other half whole.
4. Toss the chopped almonds with the melted chocolate mixture and spread onto a piece of parchment paper to approximately 6 inches round. Top with the remaining whole almonds and sprinkle salt. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours. Cut into wedges and serve.
Notes and variations:
- Vetiver is an earthy woody essence native to India – replace with vanilla, almond or orange extract.
- Replace almonds with toasted cashews or pecans.
- To make almond clusters, using a tablespoon, drop 2 inch portions of the chocolate almond mixture.
During the holiday season, do you have any family festivities or rituals that you look forward to each year?
This is the first year in over 5 years that I will have both my kids with me for the holidays so I am very excited to have them both in town. We are not a ritual kind of a family except that my son must have his pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving…
A few fun questions (either one of you feel free to answer!)
Always in your fridge: Sparkling water, garlic, ginger, minced onions, lots of vegetables and yogurt. Maggi Hot and Sweet ketchup and some kind of chili crisp.
Favorite local take-out meal:
Mapo Tofu at Mala Sichaun
On your holiday wish list:
Travel to India!
Next place you want to travel once the pandemic is over:
Favorite Rigby piece: