Masala Mama came into this world drooling—no doubt at the thought of all the delicious food she was going to eat in this life—in a nursing home in Kolkata, India. The nurse who delivered her rubbed her mother’s stomach and exclaimed, “Masala, Mama!”. The nurse was merely reminding her mother to eat spicy food to get her strength back after childbirth. But the nickname stuck, as did Masala Mama’s passion for food that was to be the overarching theme of her life.
Born into a family of strict vegetarians who eschewed garlic and onions and frowned upon any kind of spice as ungodly, she chafed under the culinary regime imposed by her elders. A rebellious child, she would elude the imperious cook’s eagle eye and sneak into the kitchen to share the spicy meals that the housekeepers ate.
Her journey of culinary experimentation continued in the kitchens of her friends’ homes, where she would spend hours talking to their mothers and cooks, learning their recipes and India’s many regional culinary traditions. Along the way she developed a career as a ceramic artist, and as she travelled across India to study ceramics and show her work she began systematically exploring these cuisines, befriending cooks and scouring obscure cookbooks for gems.
She moved to New York to study art, but soon realized that what she really wanted was to make food her art. One evening at a dinner party the host complained to her about how long it took to prepare Indian food. “If only it wasn’t so hard to find the spices, and then roast and grind them and get exactly the right balance, I would make it more often,” she said.
That night young Masala Mama went home with a gleam in her eye and a dream in her head.