In Focus is a series of food conversations from Indian Influence that focus on fascinating people who love exploring global food through an Indian lens.
I’ve been reminded repeatedly about the power of connections, especially digital ones. Sometimes meeting someone helps to expand your horizons and modifies your perspective. This is exactly my sentiments about Aimee Hamilton, who shares my enthusiasm about anything South Asian.
Aimee is a scholar of South Asian religions with training in historical and comparative religion, and cultural anthropology in Northwest, Washington. Her research examines how South Asian religions, especially Hinduism manifest a digital presence in visual and material culture. Her latest project explores how Hindu women situate and explain the ritual transition of their weddings through bodily expression.
During our food conversation, she revealed being from Montana originally and that her passion for anything South Asian-related is a bit of a mystery. A voracious reader, especially of mythology and folklore, Aimee is also a Bollywood cinephile and avid qawwali listener. Aimee has a free spirited approach in the kitchen and declares Pani Puri to be a religious experience.
To accompany her answers, Aimee hand selected six ‘kitchen jams’ she’s been listening to while eating, cooking, or lounging.
Here’s our conversation…
Q: In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job?
A: I spend my days talking with undergraduates at Pacific Lutheran University (an awesome liberal arts university in Tacoma, Washington) about South Asian religions and Islamic traditions.
Q: Who taught you to cook? Who inspired you to be in the kitchen?
A: Basically, I taught myself to cook. I enjoy putting elements together, assembling ingredients into a harmonious and delicious whole. I’m inspired to use fresh and local ingredients, to try and use seasonal produce, and to follow my cravings. My husband has a very healthy metabolism and seeing him well fed and enjoying what I cook definitely inspires me to be in the kitchen.
Q: What is your cooking style?
A: My cooking style is fairly freestyle. I’ll follow a recipe the first time or two to get the feel for it. If the recipe is a keeper, I’ll rarely follow it the exact same way again and often tweak many aspects – basic ingredients, ratios, spices. I also don’t care much for exact measurements. I’ll suss out what feels right and throw that in the pot. My taste buds usually win out over the written recipe.
Q: Do you have any vivid or memorable food experiences that have impacted you?
A: I remember being very small, standing on a chair in the kitchen and dredging fresh clams in flour. I also remember “helping” my paternal grandmother make bread, pie, and chocolate pudding. I was a terrible pest and would pull little bits of bread dough off the rising mound, hoping no one would see me. No such luck. In the kitchen with grandma was always such a good place to be.
Q: What South Asian food is like a religious experience for you?
A: Pani puri is absolutely a religious experience. Oh, glory be, it has everything your mouth could want – potato-y carbs, sweet cilantro, spicy, tangy pani, crunchy puri. Divine.
Q: What is your favorite South Asian cooking ingredient, and why?
A: Cumin is my favorite South Asian cooking ingredient because it just has the sexiest fragrance. It also has that wonderful pique on your tongue, but it’s what it does to my nose that makes me put it in everything.
Q: What would you say is your favorite meal to cook?
A: Dinner, especially if I can start late in the afternoon and take my time. I’ll listen to music or catch up on podcasts, sing to the cats, mess around with recipes, have a drink.
Q: Be honest, do you clean up and do the dishes after cooking?
A: Define “after”. Oh, yes, of course. Someone will do clean up. A dirty kitchen does not stand in our house.
Q: Worst kitchen injury?
A: The worst kitchen injury occurred when I roasted cumin seeds in the toaster oven and then set the oven mitts on fire. Not really, a kitchen injury exactly, but it was funny. I have a terrible time finding that sweet spot of perfectly roasted cumin seeds.
Q: Can you share with us your favorite cookbook?
A: Madhu Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian is, hands down, the very, very, very best cookbook. There is not a single bad recipe in the entire tome. To say that I cook from it constantly is an understatement.
Q: What’s your drink?
A: Black tea with lots of honey and teeny shot of half and half. If I don’t have to get up early and/or speak in public, a gin and tonic.
Q:If you could eat a meal with one person, dead or alive, real or imagined, who would it be?
A: I’m going to say alive and real persons are those I’d like to share a meal with. I would love to eat a meal with Eddie Izzard, though I’d probably be laughing too hard to eat a bite. So let’s say the two Nick Caves – the singer Nick Cave and the performance artist Nick Cave. The two Nick Caves and Tilda Swinton. They would be my dream dinner dates.
Q:You’ve got friends visiting – what are you making or eating?
A: Squash, cooked Bengali style with lots of black peppercorns and a few dried red chiles; sautéed fresh green beans with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic; a mild shrimp curry; a fragrant rice flavored with a cinnamon stick, turmeric, and cardamom pods; coffee ice cream and a bit of cake for dessert.
Q: Is there an ingredient you think is overused?
A: Stop. The. Bacon. Please, leave the little pigs alone. Cumin and cardamom need more love.
Q: Is there a particular dish you crave?
A: Idlis with not-too-terribly-spicy sambar; dosas; pista kulfi with a wee bit of rosewater. Add a mango lassi and there’s the perfect meal.
Q: What dish are you obsessed with mastering that you just can’t get quite right?
A: I’ve found it pretty darned hard to match the blend of flavors in pad thai, though there is a lovely place just down the street that’s got it completely under control and I’m happy to obsessively eat their pad thai. I’d like to be obsessed with perfecting uttapam, but I’m just unable to muster the attention. If only I were more obsessive.
Q:What’s one secret talent outside of the kitchen nobody knows about you?
A: Well now…
Q: Late at night, your craving something, what are you going to eat?
A: If I’m craving something late at night, I might have some lightly toasted Dave’s Killer Bread, maybe with a little Beecher’s No Woman cheese. Comfort food.
Q: What is the one kitchen tool you could never give up?
A: Saying kitchen knives would be too easy, so I’ll say the Nutri-bullet. It’s brilliant. We made the craziest smoothies with our summer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) veggies.
Q: Before I die, I want to eat:
A: Food is most often tied to location for me, so I have to link dishes I want to eat with places I want to explore. Before I die, I want to eat spicy potato cakes (makouda batata) in Fez while attending the World Festival of Sacred Music, and eat kachori chaat in Udaipur.
Aimee’s kitchen jams are impromptu. Sometimes it’s the Curry Smugglers podcasts if she’s feeling a bit feisty. There is always some Nick Cave (who I looked up on YouTube) on her playlist, since to Aimee – “that man does no wrong.” Here’s what’s on her current kitchen playlist:
Lucius – Turn It Around
Ali Zafar – Dastaan-e-Ishq
Aretha Franklin – Share Your Love With Me
The Shouting Matches – Gallup, NM
The Preatures – Is This How You Feel
Heer – Jab Tak Hai Jaan