Bowls of spices

My Culinary Voice: Chef Palak Patel

Chef Palak shares the influences in her bold, flavorful cooking.

I was born and raised in India and grew up in a vegetarian household with 15 members of my extended family under one roof. Cooking daily meals for so many was a way of life; it was the DNA of my family. 

Every meal was a well thought out and choreographed production. The aromatic spices were neatly organized in round metal containers, glass jars filled with red, yellow, green and black lentils and bowls overflowing with chopped vegetables. As a child, the names of spices were my alphabet: A for anise, B for bay leaves, C for cardamom and so on. Spices and herbs have been the fundamental ingredients in my family’s home cooking for generations, and every recipe I make today pays homage to the aromas and colors of my childhood.

Indian market scene

When I was younger, each meal my mother prepared started with a trip to the local market. I have vivid memories of the crowded alleyways lined with stalls of fresh vegetables, leafy herbs and succulent fruits. Like watching a scene from a movie in front of my eyes: women selling hot chai, the aromas of freshly cooked food, groups of people carrying huge baskets on their heads, tuk-tuk drivers and large trucks buzzing by. Grasping my mom’s hand tightly, I could sense we were right in the middle of the action. I would follow my mom’s feet through the noisy bazaar as she navigated her way through the stall owners’ cries looking for the best deals of the day. Every vegetable was picked over, bargained for and weighed before being placed in the bag she let me carry. At the end of the day, we would race home to prepare our treasures.

This weekly ritual cemented my love of fresh, local produce. I watched my mother chop and dice the vegetables. I still remember needing my mom’s help and a chair to reach the kitchen counter. My mom, aunts and grandmother made fresh meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire family every single day – partly because we didn’t have a refrigerator. Before long, the oil was sputtering in the pan as she threw in a pinch of this and a dash of that. Soon the room was perfumed with the smell of cumin, coriander and saffron. My childhood is a beautiful collage of memories in the kitchen: washing lentils for daal, stirring pots of curries, dicing potatoes for biryani, mixing the dough for rotis. My most vivid memory is watching my grandmother's delicate fingers pinch the edges of a stuffed roti. Watching her fingers dance was art.

When everything was ready, my family feasted on a thali, a round steel plate, brimming with my mother’s labor of love. This round steel plate with its small bowls of food overflowed with different flavors and textures. She served us freshly made bread hot off the stove. The vegetables and fiery lentil daal accompanied a mound of basmati rice at the center of the plate. Next to it, raw cucumber slices and fresh green chilies flanked a tangy lemon pickle. And when it all became too spicy to bear, the creamy raita with homemade yogurt was there to cool us down. Each day, my mother created a variation of this thali and wanted me to learn the same recipes she had perfected over time.

These small tasks sparked a thousand conversations, laughter and sometimes fights over whose turn it was to do the dishes after dinner. While they were cooking in the kitchen, I witnessed the women in my family come together and be there for each other. They debated, gossiped and solved problems. When we finally sat down for mealtime, it gave us all a chance to talk, connect and make memories together. As a child, this is when I learned life’s most meaningful and important lessons of community and cooking.

Chef Palak Patel. Photo by Shay Paresh.
Chef Palak Patel. Photo by Shay Paresh.

As a chef now, I can tell you with certainty that most of my clients are seeking meals that taste good and are good for them, but associate eating well with blandness and flavorlessness. To create balanced meals, I incorporate various spices and herbs into my mostly vegetarian or plant-based recipes inspired by my culture, sparingly using meat and seafood to create boldness and flavor. I learned early on about the benefits of herbs and spices in everyday cooking not just for flavor, but for the many health benefits, too.

Traveling to more than 50 countries has opened my eyes and taste buds to different cultures and cuisines. My adventures cooking around the world have taught me how to use new combinations of the spices I grew up with. Even more exciting is when I get to experience an ingredient and learn a new technique from a local chef for the first time. By incorporating these learnings into cooking, I can create boldly delicious dishes.

Like my childhood, I still spend my weeks strolling through the farmers market selecting what’s in season ⎯ ripe tomatoes, vibrant greens, juicy peaches and sustainably sourced meat. I love cooking in season with what’s available at the farmers market and learning how delicious produce is grown. It’s inspiring to me as a chef and as a member of the community to shop locally at the greenmarkets. In-season produce is super fresh, sustainable and more nutritious.

I combine the herbs and spices of my childhood, experiences from my travels and seasonal inspiration from farmers markets to share my culinary voice.

Find your culinary voice at the Institute of Culinary Education.

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