Sarina Kamini: Spirits in a Spice Jar

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For Sarina Kamini’s Kashmiri family, food is love, love is faith, and faith is family. At her lowest ebb, Sarina’s deceased Ammi’s typed-up cooking notes become a recipe for healing, her progress in the kitchen marked by her movement through bitterness, grief and loneliness—the daal that is too fiery and lumpen; her play with salt that pricks and burns. In her quest to teach herself how to personalise tradition and spirituality through spice, Sarina creates space to reconsider her relationship with Hinduism and God in a way that allows room for questions. Here in conversation between The Lifestyle Journalist and the spice mistress Sarina Kamini.

What inspires you to pursue cooking professionally?
Well, I am not a professional cook! I am a professional writer, and had worked as a food-writer and a food critic for several years before transforming into an author. As chance would have it, writing my memoir- Spirits In A Spice Jar, has opened up a world of cooking to me. While I am not a chef, I do run spice courses, teaching everyone from children to grown men and women the secrets to spice – their personalities and peccadilloes. The sweet and cheeky characteristics of each spice that make them so fun to use and so compelling to cook with. I am the Spice Mistress! The joy I find in not only pursuing my love for spice but also being able to share that with others is incomparable. Passing on my love for Kashmiri cooking and for the spices themselves feels as natural to me as breathing.

What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
Bitter aromatics. Turmeric, is my favourite. But also to some extent Methi (which has a very sweet kind of bitterness), and cardamom and bay leaf also fall into this category. Bitterness is a really important flavour profile and it accentuates all of other categories – earth, sweet, smoke and heat. Without bitter, everything one cooks falls short of its potential. Bitter aromatics are also great for digestion. We no longer have naturally introduced bitterness in our diet (coffee being an exception), but use of bitter aromatics and spices in all meals helps to not only balance flavour, but also to balance us as humans. Life cannot be all joy and all sweet all of the time. It is not natural!

How did your family and others react to your interest in food?
With varying degrees of interest and disinterest! I think those closest to me have really shared in my journey. Ploughing deeper into what spices mean to me has been responsible for all sorts of personal growth. I have become more open, emotionally strong and spiritually centred woman chiefly because I have chosen to use spice as a way of examining myself. I cook consciously and with great curiosity and attach myself deeply to the flavours and to the outcome. It is quite involved and makes for an intense daily process. Putting this much daily focus on myself and how I engage with the world is revelatory, but it can also be hard work for me and for those around me who love me and are sort of carried on the journey with me, whether they want to come along or not! Luckily I have a very patient husband. While he has sometimes been challenged by the way I have pushed my own emotional boundaries (for instance giving too much of myself to others outside family or re-engineering aspects of my personality), he is ultimately inspired by my efforts and admires the love I have for our children and for myself. His love and admiration for me is matched by mine for him.

When did you start experimenting with Indian spices?
I was around thirty-four or thirty-five. I’m forty-one now. Of course Kashmiri food had always been part of my life. I grew up eating it. Firstly cooked by my mother and then, when she became too ill to cook, by my father. My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was 11 or 12. That diagnosis and her ensuing progressive ill health impacted me enormously. I was so angry at God for making her ill that I stopped cooking and eating for years. The story of how I came back to cooking is my memoir, Spirits In A Spice Jar. I returned to spices because I had run out of ways to fix myself. I was compelled (against my own desire) to use spices as a form of healing. For 12 months I used my Ammi’s recipes, my Kashmiri grandmother’s recipes, to haul myself back onto metaphorical dry land. My spices and my own tenacious love for myself – saved me.

How did your mother inspire you in this journey? How did she lead you to the knowledge of Indian spices and food?
Mother is such a naturally inclusive, beautiful and giving woman. When I was a girl, she was such a beacon of love and light for me. Just so staggeringly beautiful. And generous with that beauty. She drew people in with her light, and then kept them there with her laughter and her loving and her food: Mum is Australian but Ammi taught her to cook when she married my Kashmiri Dad. Because my mother got introduced to Indian spices from outside, she developed this very unique and individual relationship to the flavours. While she cooked based on tradition, her hand was very light. It was like her ‘little bit of distance’ (since she wasn’t an Indian) gave her space to really place herself in her food. And that’s what tastes good – when a chef places themselves in their food. This is what I learned both from her and from my Ammi. And this is what I hold close.

What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Love comes first always. Love for the produce you are using, the spices you are adding and the body that you are cooking for. I presume health. This means, I begin from a basic understanding that I am feeding myself for pleasure, for nourishment and for sustenance. Pleasure is a hugely important part of health – the stress created by highly orchestrated diets is completely counter-intuitive. If you have to think about every little thing that goes into your mouth, it is too much thought and too much anxiety. Also, if you keep portions modest (and keep moving your body) then you can eat almost anything, provided the food is alive! Anything you can pay in a pack of twelve that comes wrapped in shiny plastic is pretty much guaranteed to empty of goodness.
For me, food has to have meaning. When food has meaning- either emotionally or spiritually or physically – your body knows what to do with it. Eat for love. And love what you eat.

Creating a dish is more about inventiveness, ingredients or right knowledge?
Inventiveness isn’t always required. Great ingredients matter a lot. Vegetables should be fresh. Spices should be pungent. Fat should be in plentitude. And meats should be well raised. Attention is almost more important than knowledge: knowledge can be gained so long as you are paying attention – even a knowledgeable chef can mess up if cooking without being present. Knowledge is something we all gain over time, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel like you know enough about flavour when you first start. That’s why it’s called a beginning! As for inventiveness, creativity is part of the pleasure that comes when you have committed time to the art of cooking, but it’s not always essential and it depends on the dish. For example, I am never inventive with my yellow daal. It is the same daal I ate as a girl in New Delhi – chana dal, turmeric, salt, sugar, cumin seed, fresh ginger and a little bit of chilli and loads of ghee, of course! It would be criminal to complicate it.

What trends do you see emerging in this field?
Infact I would like to put is as the trends I would like to see. I would like to see a return to intuitive eating. Not following diets. Not following trends. No names for how you eat. No paleo or vegan or whatever. Just the food that nourishes you and tells the story of where you come from and where you are going and keeps you healthy and curious about flavour and about life. I am not sure if this will happen anytime soon, but I think it’s a great mental model to aspire to.

What is the toughest thing you had to do in your job till date and why?
As an author, the toughest thing was having the confidence and the bravery to sit down at my desk every day for a year (around work, family and kid) and write the 80,000+ words that make up my memoir. As a Spice Mistress, the toughest thing was having the courage to completely own my eccentric approach that marries spices with storytelling and spirit. For me, whimsy is serious business, and it has taken me time to be really comfortable in that space.

If not this, what was your alternate career choice?
I have never had an alternate career choice. Always a writer. Always a cook.

Your ties with Kashmiri food are unbroken after so many centuries. How and when did this relation begin?
It commenced because I had to find a way back to myself once I hit my mid-thirties and understood that the emotional difficulties I had suffered in the years following my mother’s Parkinson ’s disease diagnosis, which had left me feeling completely disconnected. I was unmoored. My mooring was my family’s story. And my family’s story was always told to me through the thaalis I was served. As an adult, I had to recreate that storytelling for myself and spices were the only way I knew how to do that. Food can mean so much. In my family, our recipes have always signified a belonging to each other and to a shared history. To this day it is incredibly important to me that I am a part of that story.

Tell us about your memoir ‘Spirits in a Spice Jar’.
‘Spirits In A Spice Jar’ is my journey back to myself. As a Hindu girl raised between two countries – Australia and India – the philosophy behind who we were as a family and what we believed in was what gave me a permanent sense of place. When you don’t feel that you have a stable geographical home, suddenly ‘belief’ becomes very important. Also I was a born reader and writer from a family of born storytellers- stories have always defined me. As a child this is beautiful. But as an adult woman, I began to feel constrained. I wanted to find the freedom of my own tales, of my own beliefs. This was a terrifying process chiefly because redefining the way we think personally has repercussions for how we fit within our families. I was scared to change. Spirits tells the tale of how I used spices to keep me buoyant and nurtured even as I moved away from some of the stories that had connected me to my family and to my past. And to find a new way of being in the world that kept me m true to my roots. The memoir weaves memory, grief, recipes and redemption into a single narrative.

What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started in this field?
Know that knowledge takes time and that wisdom takes even longer! It is considerable hard work to be a professional chef. Maybe almost as much as being a professional writer! For both fields it is deeply important that you spend the early years learning technique and learning the conventional methods. Once skilled, then begins the journey for personal expression and voice. I have been a professional writer for 20 years and I still learn something every day. I think any chef would tell you the same thing.

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