For chef and author Natasha Celmi, the eventful journey towards realizing her passion took her around the world
“Growing up, I never set foot in the kitchen. I was not the kind who can say I had passion for food from a very young age, or watched my mother and grandmother cook. I am not one of those,” says Natasha Celmi.
Nothing very eyebrow-raising about that, except that Celmi is now a chef, and the author of a recently released cookbook: Fast. Fresh. Flavourful – Everyday Meals Made Easy.
Celmi grew up in Kolkata, where the thought of cooking was anathema to her. She was the “kid who rebelled against any cooking-related conversations or chores.” But travel has a way of piquing interest and instilling passion. Just over a decade ago, her work took her to Italy, into an environment where food is religion and permeates every discourse, every social interaction. That’s where things changed irrevocably for Celmi, sending her spiraling into the world of cooking.
“Back then, food blogs were not yet born,” she said. “Meal planning apps were still a dream, and YouTube channels were not as many. This was when cooking shows like MasterChef Australia and Nigella Bites took India by storm. I was smitten. I watched these shows religiously and even took notes. Cooking seemed much more exciting than it did earlier,” she says.
But it was Italy that sent her over the edge as it introduced her to a whole new world of flavors, ones quite different to those she had grown up with.
“My palate came alive, and I wanted to know more about food and understand how it is made,” Celmi said. But it did not go well the first time. In fact, it was a disaster: she had no clue about the basics of cooking. That was when she rued the fact that she had ignored her mother’s invitations to the kitchen.
Nevertheless, Celmi took back exotic ingredients from her travels and tried to recreate those dishes back home. An expanded palate and exposure to the cuisines of the world meant that she craved more than traditional Indian flavors.
Then Julia Roberts came along. Or rather, her famous movie Eat Pray Love. Released in 2010, it dealt with the theme of finding oneself. Inspired by the protagonist, Celmi enrolled in a cooking school in Florence and learned to cook authentic Italian food. She explored local markets and dove into restaurant kitchens to understand Italian ingredients and the traditional ways of using htem. She trained as a gelato chef, opened a chain of gelato shops called Mamma Mia, and then sold it four years ago.
Italy was also where Celmi met her husband. A Southern Italian and a great cook, it was he who taught her many other nuances about Italian and Mediterranean cooking. She later moved to Singapore and added Asian cooking to her repertoire.
“With children and busy lives, food sometimes takes a backseat,” Celmi said. “But my passion has never wavered. However, I have learned to rustle up quick and easy dishes without compromising on taste or nutrition. So I thought of using all the things I have learned in a cookbook that provides an easy answer to that dreaded question that goes through everyone’s mind at least once a day: What should I cook today?”
Celmi said that once the idea crystallized in her head, it took a few months of putting the recipes together and testing them before the book was ready.
“But then the pandemic struck and I was in doubt about what to do,” she said. “However, with so many people at home … I felt it was right time, so I released the book in the middle of it. And it has done surprisingly well.”
So what’s next? For the moment she is reveling in the success of the book, in between conducting Zoom workshops and leading cook-along sessions. She feels an easy answer will coming along, much like how her book answers the question ‘What should I cook today?’
Spanning the Global Gamut: A Review of Fast. Fresh. Flavourful – Everyday meals made easy by Chef Natasha Celmi
Just rifling through the pages will immediately endear the book to anyone with a smidgen of interest in cooking. Colorful, easy to use and navigate, stacked with helpful tips and suggestions, this is a cookbook that is going to sit on the kitchen platform much more than on the bookshelf.
Natasha has seamlessly integrated her love for global flavors and Indian roots with passion for food and cooking but made it accessible to everyone.
“I am not advocating for vegetarianism, but I find that vegetarian dishes can easily be repurposed with meat,” she said. “So everywhere it is possible, I make suggestions for recipes that can be made into non-vegetarian dishes.”
Her recipes are wholesome and healthy, and span the whole global gamut – Mediterranean delicacies, Asian dishes like pad thai and laksa, Middle Eastern mezze platters, Mexican favorites, salads, desserts and much more. More importantly, the book is generously peppered with food hacks, such as meal plans, the use of leftovers, make-ahead tips, substitutions, diversifying flavors or dumbing them down for kids, etc. There’s even a helpful shopping list.
Some of her recipes are both unusual and delectable, such as loaded nachos, zoodles (zucchini noodles) crostini, lettuce wraps, mango salsa and black rice salad, Mexican burrito bowl with millets, modern Indian lentil and barley bowl, barley risotto, Mexican bean burger, no-churn ice creams and oaty banana pancakes. At the same time, indulgent pesto pasta, cheesy fusilli and chocolate lava pudding satisfied the decadent urge to indulge.
The book celebrates the “vibrancy and versatility” of not just vegetarian cooking but is a guide and companion in the kitchen. Ultimately, isn’t that the fundamental duty of a cookbook?