Nandita Godbole was raised in Mumbai in the west of India, and grew up watching Indian cooking shows, along with American stars such as Julia Child, Martin Yan, and Graham Kerr. When she came to the United States in 1995 to get a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indian ingredients were hard to come by. But she figured out how to create Indo-American dishes and find substitutes for what she needed, using her cooking show knowledge and a stint working at the university cafeteria.
One item she couldn’t locate, she says, was high-quality flour to make Indian breads. At home her mother had a flour mill. Also not readily available were some varieties of dal made with lentils, which are a staple in Indian food, and traditional vegetables such as gourds, okra, and fenugreek leaves.
One of Godbole’s first fusion recipes used pizza dough to make batura, a fluffy, deep-fried Indian bread. “I was over the moon when I discovered this,” she says from her home in Atlanta. Godbole met her husband, Umashankar Ramasubramanian, in graduate school (he was in her program), and after college they moved to Ann Arbor, Mich.
After 9/11, there were racist incidents all around her and Godbole realized that she was looked on with suspicion. She thought people should know more about her culture so she began teaching Indian cooking at the local community center. “I thought it would make us Indians more approachable. Food is a great way to build community.”
For her first class, Godbole wore a salwar kameez, the traditional Indian slacks and tunic. She saw that the students looked nervous, but they left the class happy and seemed excited that they had learned something new.
Since then, she says, her mantra is to make sure people are not intimidated by Indian cooking. “I don’t expect perfection and I go with whatever ingredients are available,” she says. “People are often fearful of Indian stores, so I give them options in regular grocery stores.”
In 2005 Godbole and her husband moved to Atlanta. She quit working as an architect and started a catering business, built a website, Curry Cravings, and hosted pop-up dinners. Within a year she crowd-funded her first cookbook, “A Dozen Ways To Celebrate: Twelve Decadent Feasts For The Culinary Indulgent.”
Since then, she has written five more cookbooks with traditional Indian recipes such as puran poli, a sweet flatbread found on few restaurant menus in India, and fusion dishes like chicken meatballs with the spice blend garam masala.
One of her favorite dishes, Makhani Dal, is made with black lentils soaked for 24 hours. She simmers them with ginger, garam masala, cayenne, and fire-roasted tomatoes, and adds kasuri methi (a powder made from fenugreek), and heavy cream.
Godbole says that Indian food, unlike other cuisines, isn’t something people make at home and she thinks it’s because they’re not familiar with the cooking. “We don’t share it enough,” she says. “Indian food is not naan and butter chicken, Starbucks chai latte or curry powder. It is very diverse.”