Ever since she was little, content creator and home cook Anisha Chandra wanted to experiment with food. She would eat anything off her father’s plate — even bitter gourd! — and beg to help her mother in the kitchen. Today, she shares simple, plant-based recipes on her Instagram @upbeetanisha, where she celebrates her Indian American heritage and the cultural cuisine that her parents always kept alive.
How does your heritage or culture influence your home cooking?
My parents immigrated to California from India near the turn of the century. While they were forced to adapt to some aspects of U.S. culture, keeping the flavors they grew up with alive in our household was never a question. As soon as I could eat, I would grab karela (bitter gourd — not the most desirable vegetable for children) off of my dad’s plate, supposedly because I placed everything he liked on a pedestal. For most of my life, I relied on my mother to nurture my taste buds and expose me to food from our culture. I relied on my dad to initiate conversations about what he ate growing up and argue with me about my food opinions. I’m grateful that my parents kept our culture alive through our food, but I also grew up in a place with diverse people and restaurants. My own cooking is a fusion of everything my mom raised me on and what I learned from other cultures.
Does the dish you’re sharing today have a story behind it?
For some reason, my parents tend to like their baingan bharta cold with fewer spices and tomatoes. Obviously, I was not a fan of this. I think they just wanted a simple vegetable to pair with dal and rice, but I grew up thinking that their version was baingan bharta. I was quite pleased to learn that baingan bharta can be a cozy dish with a whole lot more flavor. My mother started making it for me when she realized I had a penchant for the spicier, more aromatic version, but I think I’ve actually made baingan bharta for myself more than my mom made it for me, which is surprising because I rely on her for most Indian dishes.
How would you describe your relationship to home cooking?
For the longest time, my mom wouldn’t let me help her in the kitchen. She’d tell me that I’d have plenty of time to cook in my life, but over quarantine, she embraced my desire to learn from her. It opened up a world of possibilities, both inside and outside the kitchen. Transitioning to plant-based cooking further inspired me to connect with my culture through food and explore bold flavors.
My relationship to home cooking changes with the days, the weeks, and the months. Sometimes I crave familiarity and simplicity, which may result in reaching for one of the frozen meals that my mom graciously sent me off to college with. Other days may result in a strong desire to make myself something new, possibly while exploring a cuisine I have little experience with.
What do you like about cooking with cast iron?
I like that it tolerates so much heat! Roasting the eggplant and then using the same pan to cook baingan bharta adds an extra layer of smokiness to this dish.
I also hear that cooking on a cast iron makes iron in the food more accessible, which is great for getting some more iron in (which can be tough)!
Tell us about a spice that made you feel connected to your heritage.
I think all Indians can vouch for garam masala. It’s a spice blend made of whole spices like cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander, cumin seeds, and cardamom pods, among others. It’s special to me because my mother sent me off to college with a container of her homemade garam masala. It feels like I’m adding a pinch of home whenever I use it.
If you could only cook (and then eat!) one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Chole, otherwise known as chana masala! I love chickpeas and how versatile they are. Pressure cooking dry chickpeas makes them so tender. There are also so many ways to prepare chole, simply by altering ratios of aromatics used. My favorite chole recipe is made with ginger as the sole aromatic (no onions or garlic!) and black tea to add complexity and a dark, rich color.
What was the first thing you learned to cook?
Pancakes. (But if microwave recipes count, Doritos with a slice of Kraft cheese.)
Anisha's Baingan Bharta
YOU NEED1 large eggplant
1 medium red bell pepper
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 tbsp. avocado oil, divided
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, minced
1 serrano chili, minced
3 medium tomatoes, chopped (~1 cup tomatoes)
1/2 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. garam masala
Cilantro to finish
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Cut eggplant in half. Cut a couple of 2-inch slits on the purple side of each half. Stuff each of the slits with garlic cloves. Cut bell pepper in half.
Add a light drizzle of oil to your cast iron Always Pan. Place eggplants and bell peppers in the pan with the skin side down. Add the rest of the oil to the eggplant and bell pepper.
Roast for 25 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft. Let it cool before peeling and mashing with a fork. The red bell pepper may not mash all the way, so you can just chop it into smaller pieces. Eat the eggplant skins if you’d like, or add them to the dish if you don’t mind extra texture or fiber.
Add 1/2 tbsp. oil to the cast iron Always Pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add ginger and serrano chilis. Stir for 2 minutes. Add coriander and turmeric. Stir for 1 minute.
Add tomatoes and salt. Cook for 5 minutes or until the volume reduces as the tomato juices evaporate and coalesce with the rest of the ingredients.
Add the eggplant and red bell pepper. Stir for a few minutes. Add a little water (1/4 – 1/2 cup), reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 10 – 15 minutes or until it looks done to you.
Adjust for salt. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with roti, paratha, rice, or even toasted bread!