Women in food: An interview with Monica Bhide

She left her job as an engineer in corporate America to pursue her love of writing and culinary adventure. A storyteller at heart, Monica Bhide’s mantra is to eat locally but cook globally.

Lucy Schaeffer/Courtesy of Pickles and Tea
Monica Bhide is a Washington D.C.-based food writer and novelist and the author of "A Life of Spice"

This Saturday, March 12, 2016, the Smithsonian Institution celebrates its annual Museum Day Live! event and many museums across the country will be free to the public. In recognition of Women’s History Month, the event has a special focus on reaching women and girls of color in underserved communities. Over the next few days on my blog Pickles and Tea, I’ll be featuring inspiring Asian Pacific American (APA) women for whom food is a very important component in their lives.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Monica Bhide, a food writer and novelist based in Washington, D.C. An engineer by training, Monica worked in corporate America for 10 years before she quit her job to pursue her love of writing. Since then, her bylines have appeared in top-tier magazines such as Saveur, Food & Wine, and The New York Times. Plus, she’s published three cookbooks and three books. A storyteller at heart, Monica’s mantra is to eat locally but cook globally. Enjoy tradition but search out change. Respect technique while adding a playful twist. And enjoy every opportunity to connect with family and friends through good food.

I interviewed Monica about her latest book "A Life of Spice," a collection of essays that reflect her love of family, friends, and food – along with personal anecdotes highlighted by her Indian heritage.

Q. In "A Life of Spice," there are chapters titled “Food and Culture” and “Food and Identity.” You were born in India and raised in Bahrain, and now live in the United States. I’m sure your culture, childhood environment, and where you live now have played a huge part in influencing your writing. Has this multicultural background shaped you into the writer and person you are today? What’s your response when people ask you, “Where are you from?”

I like to consider myself a global citizen – India is my soul, Bahrain is my heart and my spirit is the US!

Every place I have lived in or visited has shaped my words and my worldview. I have always felt that if I had not traveled, had not lived in all these different places, my worldview would be very limited. It is like the very famous traveler Ibn Battuta once said: “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

My response to where I am from: India is my home of birth, Bahrain raised me and the US nurtured me. (Writers rarely give straight-forward answers!)

Q. You learned to cook from both your parents. How has each of their cooking styles influenced you in the kitchen and in life? Your dad seems to be quite precise (he’s an engineer right?) and your mom cooks with her senses. 

Yes, they are both every different cooks. I cook more like my mother than I do my dad (even though I am an engineer). I prefer cooking through my senses with smells being my guide.

That said, the one thing that I learned from my father, and that still guides me well, is to never be afraid of new flavors and to play around in the kitchen and combine different flavors to see what alchemy they produce. While this has led to some good dishes, you can imagine that it has led to some disasters as well! 

Q. You have an essay entitled “Why I don’t Cook for my Parents” that so resonates for me. When I see my mom, I want her to cook for me because her cooking is comfort and loaded with so many happy memories. This essay plus “Save Your Recipes Before It’s Too Late” discusses family, memories and remembering. Why do you think these three aspects are so closely tied and why is it important to you and why should it be to everyone?

We all tend to live in the kitchen of our memories, I think. That is why a certain smell, a certain taste always evokes a “I remember when …” response.

As I grow older, I realize that we have the ability to deliberately create these moments with those we love – sharing a meal with friends, gossiping over coffee with a girlfriend, bringing soup to a sick buddy – all these moments are what caring is all about.

Of course, the most memorable moments may come out of the blue – a dropped ice-cream cone causing a massive toddler tantrum; a tired mom offering her 5-year-old a sip of cola on an 18-hour flight to bribe him to calm down; a tired new mom sipping champagne with a friend when she told her family she is out exercising, etc. All these moments do happen and create the best memories.

We all define family differently. To me family (related or not) are the people who add good energy to your life and what better way to celebrate that family than by breaking bread together – store-bought or otherwise!

Q. Many of your stories are connected to your family – your parents, your husband, your sons. Can you describe how important they are to you, your writing, and the food you cook? How do they inspire you? Is it important to pass down recipes and a love for cooking to your sons as your parents did?

It is funny. It wasn’t until the entire book was put together that I realized what the theme was! It is as I said earlier, “We all define family differently.” To me, family (related or not) are the people who add good energy to your life and what better way to celebrate that family than by breaking bread together, store-bought or otherwise!!

My older son loves to bake, the little one loves to cook and my husband prefers to be the one to clean after all the cooking is done!  I hope that someday the kids will want to cook what mom used to cook for them!

I have to share this: I can tell the mood of the boys (sons) by what they request for dinner. Egg curry translates to comfort food; sandwiches translates to movie night; stuff-your-pita translates to “we want to talk about our day;” rice and yogurt translates to “tummy woes.” I think every house has a version of these!

Q. In your essay “Does Ethnicity Matter?” you touch a little on the authenticity of food. I believe that cuisine (like culture) is evolving with the times and a dish is authentic regardless of the chef’s ethnicity or training just as long as it is prepared in the true spirit of the cuisine, and with the respect it deserves. What is your definition of an authentic dish or restaurant? Does it matter if a restaurant is authentic? Who’s to say that a sushi burrito isn’t authentic for someone who is half-Japanese and half-Mexican?

As I state in my essay, I think authenticity is a moving and sometimes dangerous target! What is authentic to me may not be authentic to an Indian culinary historian. My point in the story you mention is, of course, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we respect the food that we are being given. As my dad often says, “Enjoy the mango, don’t worry about which tree it comes from!” (Of course, if someone is working on the history of a dish, they may feel differently!) 

Thank you, Monica for such wonderful insight!

Related post on Pickles and Tea: Grandma in Living Color

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