Anita Jaisinghani releases “Masala” on Aug. 30, 2022.
Set to release on Aug. 30, Anita Jaisinghani’s first cookbook, “Masala,” has been 15 years in the making. The Indian-born, self-taught chef operated Indika in Houston for almost 20 years before it closed, and recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Pondicheri in the Upper Kirby-River Oaks area. Through both restaurants, she put a modern, imaginative spin on traditional Indian cuisine, earning her five James Beard Award nominations throughout her career.
Her decision to release a recipe book was one she fought with for years. “I didn’t think there was anything I had to say that was more unique than what others have already said,” she admits, citing all of the Indian cookbooks already in publication. “I didn’t want to write something that would become a dust collector. If I wrote a book, I wanted it to be in people’s kitchens for years.”
As she opened Indika in Memorial, then moved it to Montrose while operating Pondicheri at the same time, Jaisinghani kept the idea of a book on ice, despite repeated requests from friends and colleagues. She was put in contact with a literary agent, but made no major decisions until later.
Jaisinghani has never been one to keep mum about her recipes, even launching India1948.com as a sort of free recipe diary, accessible to all. In 2008, she began offering live cooking classes at Indika. “Everyone came in gung-ho to learn,” she recalls, ready to teach what she considered to be simple recipes. “I was so clueless about how little people knew—they couldn’t tell coriander from fennel.” So she went back to the basics. “The simpler I went with recipes, the more people responded,” she says.
The cooking classes were a hit. Within an hour of releasing news of the next available class, seats would get booked. In her lessons, she observed the challenges her students faced. “I realized what comes inherently to me was complicated to them,” she says. “Indian cooking is like music to my ears, but to them it was like a bunch of clanking pots!”
The chef used the classes to share helpful techniques, like knowing when to add turmeric to a dish. “People would add turmeric at the end, but you should incorporate it at the beginning, because this spice mellows as the dish cooks,” she says.
By 2018, Jaisinghani had had a few challenging years in her personal life. After she lost her husband to cancer, she searched for an outlet to get her mind off of her sorrows. “When I was teaching classes, I could see that people wanted to learn more,” she says. “So, I reached out to the Houston Chronicle and asked to do a column.” She put pen to paper, supplying Houstonians with recipes more regularly, and began to notice she was getting better and better at writing.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, she was ready to take the plunge. She struck a book deal with Ten Speed Press, and “Masala” was born.
She says the book appeals to both Indian-cuisine beginners and masters. “There are a lot of things that I do that aren’t common in how Indians cook. I cook everything differently,” she says. “I’m very intentional with every spice.”
Beyond the many recipes, which reflect India’s different regions, personal stories of Jaisinghani’s life relating to food are weaved through the chapters. Charts serve as useful cooking tools, such as a spice chart neatly organizing different aromatics, describing their flavor profile, how they are best incorporated, and what they pair well with; while a curry chart highlights the basic method of preparing a homemade curry before moving on to expanding on limitless variations.
Jaisinghani’s favorite section of the book is the portion that discusses the ayurvedic perspective and food as medicine. “If there is anything I can point you to, it’s this chapter,” she says. “I have gone into great detail, which I really hope people read, on why we should all learn to cook, how important it is to nourish ourselves, and not rely on others.”
As far as what to cook, there is much to consider, from recipes for well-known street eats and dosas, to three different kinds of daal, spicy proteins, and plant-based plates. Jaisinghani’s favorite of the bunch, and the very last recipe in the book, is for the Indika cookies, which may seem familiar to some Houstonians.
“I tweaked this recipe for five years, until I finally got it right,” she shares of the complimentary offering at Indika, adding that she even turned the New York Times down when they inquired for it. “I have never kept any recipes secret, except for this one.” Until now: The recipe is found in “Masala” and is accessible to Chron readers here.
It appears this won’t be the last of what the lauded chef shares of her recipes. Now, she is motivated to write more books in the future. “I want to make a book focused entirely on dosas, because I am that obsessed with dosas,” she teases.
With striking, full-page photography and thoughtful illustrations littered throughout, there is lots to explore within the 295 pages of “Masala.” Should you want to partake in a real-life lesson, Jaisinghani continues to offer classes at Pondicheri’s Bake Lab, and all these years later, they continue to sell out in minutes.
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Megha McSwain is a food writer for Chron.
Prior to joining the Chron team in May 2022, Megha worked as a freelance journalist, contributing to Eater Houston, Houstonia Magazine, CultureMap and The Daily Meal. She previously served as the food editor for luxury lifestyle magazine Houston CityBook for three years, and hosted the food and drink podcast Sip & Savor.
Megha is an Indian-born American who migrated with her parents to Houston in the late ’80s and has lived here ever since. She currently lives in Garden Oaks with her husband and rescue pup, and in addition to her work at Chron, she contributes nationally to foodnetwork.com.
Anita Jaisinghani releases “Masala” on Aug. 30, 2022.