Priya Krishna, Author of Indian-ish, Has Some Things to Say About Curry

published Jun 25, 2019
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Credit: Photo: Edlyn D'Souza

Make fun of me all you want for being a basic millennial, but I usually decide what to cook based on the delicious things I see scrolling through Instagram. My feed literally feeds me.

In the fall, I felt the pull to make these overflowing stuffed sweet potatoes. In the winter, I couldn’t stop making Alison Roman’s cozy golden chickpea stew. In the spring, I tackled nearly every recipe that Kitchn’s Senior Food Editor, Grace Elkus, cooked up for her series #TonightWeVeg. And now that it’s summer, there’s a new recipe all over Instagram singing its siren song: Priya Krishna’s saag feta.

The viral dish is a green bowl of comforting spinach-y, cheese-y, chhonk-y goodness meant to be served alongside rice or roti — a playful take on a more traditional saag paneer. It hails from Priya’s latest cookbook Indian-ish, which she co-wrote with her mom, Ritu, and just so happens to be one of the most popular cookbooks of the year.

We caught up with Priya (a former Lucky Peach staffer, turned Bon Appétit and New York Times contributor, turned best-selling cookbook author) post-Indian-ish book tour to talk about what it was like to write a cookbook with her mom, her cultish obsession with yogurt, and why we collectively need to stop using the word “curry” as a crutch to describe Indian cuisine.

Congrats on Indian-ish! Has writing this cookbook always been a goal of yours?

It definitely wasn’t something on my bucket list at all. It wasn’t even on my radar until my editor basically brought the idea to me. She edited the cookbooks for Lucky Peach, which I used to work for, and she loved the idea of having a mother-daughter cookbook that upended the traditional mother-daughter narrative.

This book comes from the perspective of having an immigrant mother, addresses first-generation and second-generation tensions, and speaks to someone who’s a working mom who doesn’t have time to spend all day standing over a stove. It has this nice blend of relatability and accessibility and introduces people to simple Indian home cooking at the same time.

I love the mother-daughter dynamic of how your cookbook came together.

It was overall amazing. My mom’s full-time job is essentially to project manage a team of engineers, so in this case, she just project managed me. I feel like for my mom it was just a fun project. So she was always the person calming me down when I was stressed out, preventing me from getting overly emotional. She was such a stable, solid presence during the photoshoot when tensions were running high.

My mom is a very talented, competent recipe writer, so she just really crushed it — in terms of writing 100 recipes — and for the most part, they all worked the first time around.

I’m obsessed with your saag feta. Did you expect that recipe to be such a huge success?

Not at all. It is shocking to me. I remember we had such a hard time photographing that dish, because it’s not like the prettiest dish in the world. I didn’t think it would be that popular, but seeing the number of people who are Instagramming a dish that is not inherently photogenic is so surprising and delightful. I feel like it has to taste extra good for people to Instagram it knowing that it’s not the prettiest. I’m so excited with how that recipe has blown up. I get like 20 messages a day from people who’ve made it.

Okay, so after saag feta, what’s the next recipe that people should add to their repertoire?

I feel like the chile peanut rice is a really good one. You dress up rice with a lot of ghee and some spices, onions, chiles, and it’s so good. We made it at the Bon Appétit test kitchen for our cookbook club and it was by far the greatest hit of all the dishes. One of my coworkers said it tasted like freshly buttered popcorn.

You’re not only sharing recipes in this cookbook — you’re also familiarizing people with techniques. What’s really resonating with readers?

Definitely the chhonk, which is learning to temper your spices in oil. Now everyone knows what a chhonk is! It’s this ingenious technique. You can put a chhonk on anything from nachos to noodles and it’ll add texture, flavor, and aromatics. It’s cool to see that that word is entering the vernacular — that people understand it as a solid technique that Indian cuisine has to offer.

What tools do you need to make a chhonk?

Just a small pan or a butter warmer! I did it in a teeny-tiny saucepan, but I recently got a butter warmer and it works best in that.

Your book directly addresses the fact that “curry” isn’t an actual thing that exists. Can you talk a little more about that?

Yes, a major frustration that I have is that people need to shop using “curry” in the context of Indian cuisine. Curry was a word that was popularized as a way to make blanket assumptions about a cuisine that’s actually really diverse. There are actual names for those dishes. I would love for us to never use it in the context of Indian cooking.

You have a lot of documented feelings about yogurt. What’s the best way to DIY? Is it the Instant Pot?

I’ve tried homemade yogurt in the IP, and I think it’s good; I think it does a fine job. But I really like the oven-light method that my dad uses. I think it’s better. You basically bring milk to a gentle boil, let it cool down a little bit, then you mix in culture or a spoonful of yogurt from a previous batch, let it sit in the oven with the oven light on, and then you let it chill. But at the same time, yogurt is so temperamental and dependent on so many outside conditions, so I don’t want to completely poo-poo the Instant Pot method, which helps control for some of that.

As a food writer, what kinds of stories are you excited about telling next?

I want to find more food stories in corners of the country that haven’t been explored. I want to go to Middle America and find the food traditions. I feel like food media has a tendency to be very coastal. I love finding food stories in unexpected places, so I hope to do more of that.

I must know: Where were you when Mindy Kaling Instagrammed this amazing photo of you on her feed?

I was sitting in my apartment alone and I saw that post and I started screaming. I didn’t know who I could share it with! I wished that I was in an office. I just sat on the couch and was quietly freaking out.

Priya’s Greatest Hits: Lightning Round

Five ingredients you always have?

Garlic, chaat masala, yogurt, jam, and a block of Parmesan cheese.

Best grocery store

#1 on-the-go snack?

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I would just go to a convenience store and buy full-fat plain yogurt — a whole thing of it. I just eat it straight up.

Recipes you’re dying to make this summer?

I’m gonna do more larb; I love larb. There’s also this corn pasta on the New York Times that I’ve been eyeing. And I want to figure out how to do rhubarb in a savory way — maybe pickle it!

Other cookbooks on rotation these days?

I’m excited about the Sister Pie cookbook.

Best Instagram follow?

Oh, it’s a Bollywood dance account, @bollyshake!

Best recipe you’ve made recently?

I ran a half marathon and after had this killer bucatini with tomato sauce. I’m now convinced that bucatini is the best pasta shape, and the sauce was one of those things where I just let it stew for 45 minutes. It was so simple and so good.

Favorite food city?

San Antonio. The Mexican food is out of this world, and the outdoor places to drink and have fun are amazing.

What’s your favorite cooking playlist right now?

I am really into the Bollywood Wedding playlist on Spotify right now.

Funkiest food quirk?

I eat strawberry Smuckers and peanut butter out of the jar.

Follow Priya on Instagram and check out her latest cookbook here.