Local cook curries favor with blog
Rashmi Rustagi finds shortcuts to make traditional Indian fare easier for home cooks
When Rashmi Rustagi cooked for Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, it took nearly six weeks of full-time kitchen work to prepare 56 dishes: pickles, curries, dahls and sweets.
"I invited everyone," she said. "The whole idea of Diwali is to bring everyone into your kitchen."
Rustagi, understandably exhausted by the event, hasn't cooked for Diwali recently, but the Mountain View resident still invites the public into her kitchen to learn to create traditional Indian fare using her blog, www.rashmisrecipes.com.
She said she started the blog to share with her grown children the traditional recipes they had loved growing up. "Some of these foods aren't available at Indian restaurants," she said. "They're the homey dishes that are lost if your mother doesn't cook it for you."
But Rustagi said her kids don't have the patience to cook dishes like jagrey-coated sev, sugar-covered noodles made from chickpea flour, or sweet gujhia dumplings, which she painstakingly closes and decorates by pressing the dough with her fingernail.
She said she adapted the recipes on her blog to respond to the issues of complexity and kitchen time. They aren't that different from the dishes she learned growing up in her mother's kitchen in Lucknow, India. She tries to find ways to cut corners and shorten time in the kitchen by using slightly different ingredients or newer technology, like pressure cookers and hand blenders, that weren't available in Lucknow.
Rustagi said adaptation has been a key ingredient to her success as a cook. After she married and moved to the United States, she had to get creative with ingredients, many of which were difficult to find in Birmingham, Ala. She grew hard-to-find herbs in her garden or substituted ingredients, such as using ricotta cheese instead of khoa.
The ingredient drought eased when she moved to Palo Alto 15 years ago, but she still uses mostly local produce and has found other reasons to update her recipes. Both she and her son are lactose-intolerant, so Rustagi found a way to make paneer cheese using Lactaid lactose-reduced milk.
Even with Rustagi's simplified recipes, Indian dishes aren't the easiest to make. Rustagi's recipe for butter chicken, murg makhani, calls for 28 ingredients. To help show the technique for making some of the more difficult dishes, Rustagi began to include video tutorials on her blog.
Including video was a natural transition for Rustagi, who likes being in front of the camera. She said she's been on stage or on radio programs since she was 9 years old. Most recently, she appeared in a minor role in the superhero blockbuster "The Avengers," and has also appeared in numerous Bollywood pictures and television roles, she said. In 2005, she was in TheatreWorks' premiere of the Tanya Shaffer culture-clash drama "Baby Taj."
Rustagi says the ultimate goal would be to have her own cooking show, an idea both she and her producer are excited about.
Rustagi tries to include mostly vegetarian dishes in her blog, but she's found that dishes with meat in them like chicken biryani get more web traffic than vegetarian dishes like palak paneer. Her favorite — and she thinks most underrated — is dahl, a thick stew made from beans or lentils.
"There's a whole world of legumes to be used in cooking, even to make desserts," she said. "I want people to open up to cooking them a lot more for their health benefits."
Although she enjoys keeping her blog up to date, writing down recipes isn't as much fun as cooking, she said.
"You have to pay attention to time and portions rather than when you're just free-cooking," she said. "It gives me a lot of pleasure to get into the zone and do something I love."