Indian Home Cooking With Bhavna Kalra


culturallyours podcast indian home cooking with bhavna kalra the modern desi co

CulturallyOurs Podcast Cover Karthika Gupta Oct 2018
Season 06
Indian Home Cooking With Bhavna Kalra
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Show Details

In this episode Karthika chats with Bhavna Kalra, a fellow Bombay girl and an Australian Indian living in Sydney. Bhavna is also the founder of The Modern Desi Co where she aims to connect cultures through food. Bhavna chats about all things Indian food and more specifically home cooked Indian food – ghar ka khanna – as she called it. She shared her food journey and all the various Indian cuisines that have been a part of her childhood and life.

Show Notes

Karthika chats with Bhavna Kalra, a fellow Bombay girl and an Australian Indian to the CulturallyOurs podcast. Bhavna runs a company called The Modern Desi Co where she aims to connect cultures through food. She talks about her food journey and all the various Indian cuisines that have been a part of her childhood and life. Indian cuisine is so much more than just curry and butter chicken and we get deep into some of her favorites.


The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Bhavna. Thank you so very much for joining me on CulturallyOurs, I’m super excited to have you on the podcast and I cannot wait to chat with you. Get to know you a little bit better and sort of get to know your food journey a little bit better.

Bhavna: Thank you. Karthika for having me over. I’m really excited to talk to you as well.

Karthika: Excellent. So before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just to sort of help set the stage for our chat?

Bhavna: All right. So I’m Bhavna. I have a Instagram account called The Modern Desi Co. I’m based in Australia, actually, I’m based in Sydney, Australia, but I’m originally from India, from Mumbai, specially. And I love sharing memories, recipes, and stories about Indian food and educating people that Indian food is obviously more than what they see,  in restaurants abroad, and you know, how diverse Indian cuisine really is.  I’m also huge poetry buff and love sky gazing. So I love sharing pictures and poetry as well, quite a lot. So that’s who I am. That’s what I do when I’m not working full-time so I have a full-time job. I work in the it industry and yeah, I look after major clients who, who use the product that my company sells. So that’s what I do on a nine to five basis. And the rest of the time, I’m everything I told you I do

Karthika: A woman of many talents, and I have to say anybody who says Mumbai is instantly a friend, cause that’s sort of where I’m from as well. So tell me a little bit about your food journey. You talked about it in food and what your sort of mission is with the Modern Desi Co. But tell me how does came about how does food sort of fit into your life lifestyle I’ll have you always loved to cook or is that something sort of, you’ve picked up somewhere along the line.

Bhavna: So I think when you live in India, you get spoiled because you have so much help as far as cooking food or even getting food from outside is concerned like our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have that privilege. But I think when I started living on my own or when I got married, I had the option of just getting takeaways. I had actually a cook who used to come home and cook meals for me.  so cooking was not really in the big scheme of things. As far as living in India was concerned. Obviously I enjoyed eating, I loved eating who doesn’t, but, but I didn’t cook a lot of food. Also because I was working full-time and in India you spend half of your life in traffic. So by the time I left home and came back home, I would be too tired to cook.

Bhavna: So I had a cook who used to come home and make simple food. However, once I moved to Australia, it’s then reality really bit me hard because I realized the food that you get in Australia is not really good Indian food, like at I’m talking 12, 13 years ago when the Indian food scene was not very defined, I mean, now you can get some decent Indian restaurants, but these are, again, restaurants, you can buy food from that every day you would go there as a trade. So I just realized that I had to cook to survive, right. And, and like most people who move abroad you don’t just get your physical baggage. You also carry your emotional baggage. And I think one of the ways to connect with home is with food.

Bhavna: So food suddenly became a huge part of my identity, a part of who I was it became a reason to dealing with my homesickness and it also became a reason to stay healthy and not eat a lot of stuff that was not really good for my health, because I started having a lot of health issues as well. And I realized when I was eating home cooked food or [inaudible] as we call it, I just suddenly I started feeling better, not just physically, but also emotionally. So since then food has become this huge part of not just my day-to-day life, but also defines who I am. I’m very proud to be in an Indian Australian. And I’m very proud that I still connect to my roots with food and stories. So that’s how Indian cuisine has become a huge part of my identity today.

Karthika: Right. I love what you said on how food is sort of a way to connect back home, wherever home is it’s just like, it’s not just the actual physical dish or the ingredients, it’s the emotions and the memories that it evokes. Right. It just, it just makes you, it’s like a pick me up without any like bad side effects.

Bhavna: Even if you’re eating something that’s not good for you, but like Maggie like you do just, it just picks you up.

Karthika: Yes, absolutely. Now tell me a little bit about your sort of cooking style. Since you’ve admitted that it it’s something you’ve kind of developed over the years, do you refer to cookbooks or family recipes or do you just make things up and they turn out to be super delicious and yummy.

Bhavna: I’ll be very honest with you. I’m not going to say I’m the best cook in the world. Um however, I will definitely say that I am a passionate cook.  a lot of times things that I make are not really good and my husband will tell you that.  but, but I, I do enjoy the act of cooking, right? It’s very therapeutic for me.  so my style is basic home cooking style. I am not someone who makes elaborate dishes. I can’t be good chocolate cake with this mind blowing frosting on it.  I just can’t do that to save my life. What I can do is I can make a decent meal like something that you will eat. That’s not going to kill you but that’ll make you happy.

Bhavna: So that’s my style. Growing up, my mother did not enjoy cooking a lot. So, for the longest time she just cooked to feed us.  I had some really pleasant memories of my grandfather and my father cooking some food for us. But again, what they cooked was once in a blue moon, my father would make a chicken curry on a Sunday, or my grandfather would make a dessert for us once in a while in winters. So it was my mother who cooked and she didn’t really enjoy cooking. So there were a few dishes that I grew up with that for special, but not a lot. So however, I grew up in an environment that was conducive to a lot of cultural amalgamation. All the refugees from Sindh came after the partition. So I grew up eating Sindhi food, even though I am a Punjabi from north India and then our neighbors next door neighbors for Bengali. So I grew up loving Bengali cuisine and I got married to a Maharashtrian. And I’ve been married for over 15 years now. So I have my cooking style is a bit of everything. Like I will sometimes make a nice Cindy Cody, which I love eating with rice. It’s just such a wholesome, delicious dish. I love making Rajma, which is very Punjab, even I’m homesick and missing home.  Bengali food is my go to cuisine. Like I absolutely love Bengali food.

Bhavna: You know, I always joke that I was supposed to be born in a Bengali home, but I was such a chubby little baby that the store dropped me in up in Punjabi house. I don’t think a lot of people even understand how the yummy Maharashtrian food can be. And again, that’s such a big state. There’s so many different cuisines and sub cuisines. I honestly cannot tell you that I have a particular style. I just like to say, it’s home cooking. It’s simple, it’s easy. Even a monkey can make what I make, because it’s just basic food.

Karthika: I love it. I think that is absolutely a style of home cook because you know, some people just enjoy the act of creating not just the presentation. Yeah. It’s just, but then it’s people like you, and I would say people like me who basic is good, it’s healthy. It’s good. And my mom was the same. She hated cooking. She cooked because she had to feed us and sometimes she would cook and then she would just not like it, like, it would not look appetizing for her as well. And she’s like, you know what, let’s just go out and eat something. And we’re like, yeah, sure. So I’m, I’m kind of the same way. Although I don’t enjoy the act of cooking. So for me, it’s just basic. Let’s do this in and out and you’re done, but I totally get it. Now you’ve named several different cuisines that sort of have influenced you over the years. Is there like a dish, or a couple of dishes that are your favorite to make and to eat if they’re not the same, then maybe two different dishes.

Bhavna: I mean, as I said, look Sindhi kadhi something, I really love. It’s a dish that is made in India by Sindhis, but it doesn’t have any yogurt, which is quite different than most kadhis that are made in India because all the calories in every other state has made with yogurt this is very different. They use ground you know, chick, pea flour, and, and just tomato. So that’s something I absolutely love because it’s got all the vegetables it’s comforting. It reminds me of childhood memories all the time.

Karthika: Awesome. Sounds delicious. I haven’t had too much exposure to Bengali cuisine. I haven’t made it to the east part of the country and I guess when I was growing up, I just didn’t have that influence, but sounds super delicious. Now, is there a dish that you are like dying to, I’m dying to learn how to cook to master or just something you you’re like on your radar that you really want to experiment with?

Bhavna: So, you know Indian cuisine is so amazing that I don’t think any of us have eaten everything from India, right? I’ve traveled a bit in India. I think I’m very adventurous, but I still haven’t tried so many other cuisines that are there. So for example, I’ve never eaten a Kashmiri meal. You read about it, you listen other people talking about how elaborate the Kashmiri meals can be, but I’ve never eaten it.

Bhavna: So I would definitely love to explore those cuisines and learn them. And then I say, learn, I don’t mean the, subdued version that sometimes people offer, right. I want to learn the real version. I want to actually taste them and see, this is what it is. And I think that will only happen if someone from that culture makes it for me or teaches me or I visit whenever that will happen. And I actually eat those meals. I also definitely want to taste a Ghadwali meal.  They have different ways of cooking. They cook a lot with yogurt and apparently the way they cook with yogurt is so beautiful that the food is just completely different than anything else a north Indian would make. I definitely want to try it. It’s on my radar. I don’t know when I get to try it. I hope after this podcast goes out, some ghadwali in Sydney or a Kashmiri in Sydney will call me home and they feed me because one thing people don’t do enough for me is cook for me.

Karthika: Well.  I hope that happens too. I have had ghadwali meals and they are delicious. My sister-in-law actually has a home in Uttarakhand in the mountains. And so whenever we go there, we get to sample  the cuisine. Now we talked about this a little bit briefly, and you mentioned how food for you is that a way to connect to home comfort and all of that? And definitely, I know Sindhi Kadhi is one of your comfort foods. Do you have others, maybe Indian or even non-Indian that sort of, kind of connect you to these special moments in your life?

Bhavna: I also love, and you’re going to laugh. I love having bread butter with sugar. No one wants to talk about that. They eat wheat bread or. That’s gluten-free, but no one is talking about this poor white bread that’s been thrown away like this ignored child in the corner. I absolutely love white bread. I also do enjoy Italian food quite a lot when I’m not eating Indian cuisine, I’m eating Italian food. My dream is to go to Italy and actually really travel around Italy and sample the delicious food. So Italian food, definitely. I love making my own tomato sauce. I wouldn’t say it’s authentic, but I do love it. And we do have lots of Italian restaurants in Sydney and some really good ones. So on the days that I’m not eating Indian food, it has to be Italian food. It would either be a nice pasta or it would be a sourdough pizza.

Bhavna: I absolutely love sourdough pizza. I think major pizza chains have really spoiled what a good pizza should. So that’s another favorite. I crave for good pizza. I also love you know, a good idli and sambar. Dosas are good too. I used to travel to Bangalore quite a bit then till 2019, I’ve been to Bangalore quite a bit. And I discovered what a good idli should taste like.

Karthika: Now you’ve mentioned Italian food. You’ve mentioned all these different variations of quote-unquote Indian food. Would you say your sort of kitchen and dining table is pretty diverse,  or kind of stick to these things that you love?

Bhavna: Look, I would like to say that my bank table is very diverse, I would be lying because I have a full-time job. I have a business that I run on the weekends. So it gets very hard for me to experiment in the kitchen because I I’m so busy all day, every day, even on weekends, I’m showing other people how to cook. And when I’m doing my cooking classes, I stick to things that I know will work, right? Because I’m teaching this food to non-Indians or, or Indians who don’t know how to cook. So usually it’s the same recipes. So my table, unfortunately, is not very diverse.  even though I would eat everything that is on my table. So if I go to someone’s house and they’ve made something, I’ll eat it. I’m always grateful for food. But my own table, I just stick to what I know, what is easy, what is quick, what I can make either between zoom calls during a busy work day or what I make during my cooking classes, recipes that I know work, and then we will eat them as leftovers for the next few days.

Karthika: Fair enough. Sometimes, like you said, you would love to do all these things, but we only have so many hours in the day and we have so many other responsibilities, so I totally get it. Now you mentioned you will try everything on the flip side of that. Is there anything that you would never eat?

Bhavna: To be honest, I’ve been a bit put off lately with meats or we don’t eat a lot of non-vegetarian food not because of religious reasons, but more because of the way it’s processed, the way it’s handled. Also in Australia there are a lot of different kind of meats like crocodile, kangaroo and others. Even though I’m adventurous, I just can’t get myself to try those things.

Karthika: Yeah, I remember when we were in Australia we saw these at the specialty markets. And it did cause me to do a double take. But it is a cultural thing I guess so to each their own.

Bhavna: Yeah, no judgment. One thing with us is because we grew up in India, at least for me, because I grew up there and then moved here. I grew up on a healthy diets of vegetables. My mother is a vegetarian, so vegetables have always been a part of my diet. So it’s easy for me to move to vegetables because, and then dose, because that’s what I know comes naturally to me. If I had to make a meat dish, now I would get stressed out because strangely saying that I still teach in my one of my cooking classes. I teach how to make chicken, but I no longer taste it because I have a recipe that works and the people who are making it actually tasted and see how that works for them.

Karthika: Now this is kind of an impossible question because I know a few other guests have said so but I still love to kind of hear the responses. What is your fav restaurant and sort of why, I mean, is it even possible to narrow it down to one favorite?

Bhavna: Oh, do you mean in Australia, India, anywhere.

Karthika: Anywhere even somewhere you’ve traveled.

Bhavna: Last year for my husband’s birthday we went to a vegan restaurant here in Sydney. It was just glorious. Like the things you know, expert chefs can do with vegetables just blew my mind. In India there is a small restaurant in Bombay, near Marine drive. It’s this rundown restaurant next to Xavier’s college, where you would get the best kheer, which is rice pudding in the world.

Karthika: No, I completely relate with that concept of that small neighborhood restaurant, because like you’ve said earlier, these are where memories are made and you know, they stay with you. Now this is sort of a fun question. And you’ve kind of alluded to this, that you teach people how to cook and you have people come to your home and you teach them home food. So let’s say you can invite some people you admire the most to a dinner party at home and they don’t have to be a popular or like a well-known. They can be just people that you’ve you admire. Who are they, if you don’t mind sharing and what would you cook? What would you serve?

Bhavna: Maybe a vegetation thali with lots of different things that they would enjoy. Obviously I would be conscious about the diet and make sure that if anyone has any allergies and cater to all of that, so a little bit mindful cooking. I would definitely not serve rotis, because I suck at making rotis. But there will be a little bit of every cuisine that I have grown to love and admire.

Karthika: Well, it sounds like an amazing dinner, not just for the food, but also the people at a very diverse set of people. So I love it. Now, talk to me a little bit and we’ll wrap up on, the Modern Desi Co. Can you talk to us about sort of what it is, how did you come up with it and what do you do with it?

Bhavna: So I used to actually have a blog called just a girl from, Mumbai, which is a girl from Bombay. And I used to write recipe, share recipes and badly edited photos on the blog. But over a period of time that grew. And as I said, somehow, the food became my identity as well.  it also shaped me in a lot of ways because I got to meet a lot of people. I got to become more. I got an opportunity to be more confident in my speech, the way I wrote, I realized that I really enjoyed writing. So that just to go from Mumbai, became something else. And I realized that that I’m no longer just from Mumbai. I am much more than that.  but I was still very Indian. I’m also Australian. Now I respect Australia.

Bhavna: I love that I’m here to have such wonderful opportunities here. So we, me and my husband, we started talking about what can we do with it? Because we started getting a lot of offers to cook for people, do some catering. And we decided to come up with this brand called the modern desi company, because I would like to think I’m modern. Yes, I have my culture and I have my deep rooted you know, deep roots in India, but I’m also, I think a woman of the world, I am walking with the times and you know, going ahead in life so modern. Desi because I’m Indian. I am very desi. I carry my desi like a badge of honor you know, not just what I eat, but also what I wear. I wear Indian clothes everywhere. I love being Indian.

Bhavna: You know, my house is filled with Indian knickknacks. So that’s why modern desi co just became a brand. And we started actually doing some dinner pop-ups so we would actually host private dinners for people, created a menu, an eclectic eight course menu from the length and breadth of India. And we presented a different piece of my husband’s a sous chef, and he’s just for someone who doesn’t cook at all, he is amazing at making the food look beautiful. He has this gift of making food look pretty. So he would plate everything. We actually would decide everything we were going to do in putting the flowers and how everything’s going to look the menu, what’s going to be on it and so on. So we started with that and then COVID hit. And then we thought, okay, what are we going to do now? We had already started the train so we decided, okay, we’re going to do cooking classes as well. And because I really enjoy, as you probably have realized, enjoyed talking and sharing history. I love talking about history, especially food history and breaking myths, you know? So we started doing cooking classes, then we thought, okay, what else can we do? So we came out with this line of chutney and condiments. And we also do a little bit of catering on the side. We get small orders from friends and strangers for small intimate gatherings where we skate for them. So that’s what the modern desi co does.

Bhavna: I like to say that we connect cultures with food. We are very evolved. We are eclectic.  we love to take people on a journey. Like I tell people when they come for my cooking class, that I’m going to take you through history and geography of a little bit of India, because let’s admit no one is an expert on India. You know, there’s I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, but I came to be passionate about everything. So, so I think that’s what the modern disease, it’s a passionate Indian Australian brand, which talks about Indian food, shares the love of Indian food through cooking through different products and through stories. So that’s what we do.

Karthika: Excellent. I love it. Well, this has been amazing, Bhavna. Thank you so very much. I hope at some point I make it back to Australia and come and eat with you.

Bhavna: Definitely. The next time you need to let me know so I can invite you home.

Karthika: Absolutely.

Bhavna: Well, thank you so much. Have a wonderful evening. Thank you so much for having me.

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