We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bal Arneson, host of the show, Spice Goddess, currently airing on Food Network Canada show and CookingChannel TV. She was in Toronto to promote her new cookbook Bal’s Quick & Healthy Indian, in which she promotes healthy Indian food that can be prepared in under 25 minutes.
An hour passed by quickly with Bal’s stories of growing up in a Punjab village, starting from scratch in Canada, her entrepreneurship spirit to get herself through school, her perseverance to get her first book published, her experience as an Iron Chef judge and more. We’re excited to share our conversation with you.
What do you want to share through your cookbook?
I wanted to share recipes that were similar to what I ate in my village. We didn’t eat rich foods because cream and butter were saved for only very special occasions…like the birth of a boy! We stuck with natural spices and vegetables. People had also told me that their other Indian cookbooks had long recipes that took forever to cook. In India, cooking was so quick because we had to do so many chores, we didn’t have the privilege to be cooking for hours and hours.
Which recipe would you recommend we try? Do you have a favourite recipe?
They’re all good! The chickpea and avocado salad. Such a beautiful, healthy, amazing, quick lunch. Start with that. I recently made the spiced honey chicken on garlic asparagus – that’s great too.
How did your upbringing in India influence your cooking?
I was 4 or 5 years old and remember my mom cooking by the bbq pit. We had no phones, no fridges, no TV’s, and I remember my mom getting up early at 4:30 and milking the cows and bison. We would bring the milk back to the kitchen and churn it.
She would take coriander or cardamom, cloves and put it in a tray out in the sun because we didn’t have an oven and they would get toasted beautifully under the sun. It was our job to put it in a huge mortar and we would crush it for hours, with our faces covered because the peppercorns were so strong. We would do this for hours and it was very sensory-orienting and meditating. Lo and behold, I realized this was gonna be my job for the rest of my life.
How did that lead to your success in Canada?
Seventeen years ago when I left my first husband I was disowned by my family, I had no money and I had no English. As a single mom, I started cleaning people’s homes to make money and at night I was taking ESL classes so I could learn to communicate with people. I remember going to people’s houses and offering to make them some food! And they were like ‘No, just stick to cleaning’.
I started taking classes at UBC and because the cafeteria was so far from our classroom, expensive and you had to wait in lineups, I brought my own food. People would say “Oh, what are you eating?” and I would be like “I’m eating my chick peas!” and so they asked if I could make some for them. I started offering it to them and, you know, after a while I started selling them for $2 or $3. I started coming to school with a backpack and a big icebag full of containers with people’s names on it. One thing led to another and soon they were asking me to teach them how to cook dishes and to cater their mom’s birthdays.
What was your biggest challenge getting to where you are now?
Growing up in a village where you have no identity and then being here with this freedom, I didn’t find English or men were a challenge. My only challenge was to find my own identity. Coming to Canada and going through a divorce, I was like “what do I do now?”. I needed to make big decisions without any father figure or brother figure. It was to overcome the thousands of years of teaching I grew up with where women were the property of men and meant to serve them. My audience is still 80% women so my vision and desire is to show them how to cook amazing meals and then get out of the kitchen as well as empower women by sharing my story.
What do you tell women who want to succeed in the culinary world?
You’ve got to have a plan A that’s gonna pay your bills. Teaching was my plan A that paid my bills. Have a plan A that is in your control and plan B, which is out of your control; this can be your passion. If you have your food and shelter covered, you’ll have time to discover your passion. Whatever fears you have, stop, embrace them, and face them.
But absolutely, follow your dreams.
What tips do you have for beginner home cooks?
Just start with two spices: Turmeric powder and garam masala. That’s all we had and we would make the most amazing meals ever. Add whatever flavours you like in the masala mix… cumin, coriander, bay leaves… Turmeric has tremendous health benefits and adds a nice colour. Garam masala is based on coriander and cumin, but whatever you could afford or whatever spices you prefer to have could be added. Kind of like spaghetti sauce, everybody makes it a little different. The key is to heat up the spices to release the wonderful flavours. Start with a little garlic, ginger, and oil, and then add the spices. You don’t need any fat because of the spices, which are great for medicinal purposes. After that, follow your own palate.
Is it possible for beginner cooks to stick to your 25 minute cooking philosophy?
Absolutely, it’s possible. Nobody should be in the kitchen for more than 25 minutes. You should cook and then get out of there so you have more time to do meditation, or yoga, or dancing with your friends. The great thing about Indian spices is that you don’t need to marinate for too long. If it’s done right, freshly toasted and ground, you don’t need to marinate for hours and hours, just mix it in.
Do you have a favourite tool in the kitchen?
If I can cook with a clay pot, a dug up pit with cowdung patties – any tool is a blessing! You don’t need to buy fancy knives or fancy pots. You just need your hands.
How was your experience as a judge on Iron Chef America?
Jose Garces was the Iron Chef and Michael Solomonov was the challenger. The secret ingredient was passion fruit. Before the judging, they tell you that you can’t say all good things. I’m eating it though and keep thinking ‘This is really good!’ and at one point, I said to Michael, ‘This food is so good, I want to take you home with me.’ Then I thought ‘What did I just say?’ because my daughter was in the audience! I have been a judge twice and it’s so fun, I would do it again.
If you could have the luxury to go spend a year abroad learning another cuisine what would it be?
Everyone raves about French cooking so if there’s any cuisine I had to choose, that’s what it would be. I’m actually headed to France this week!
It was such a pleasure to meet with Bal Arneson! She is a strong, independent woman who showed us perseverance and passion in both her professional and personal life. With Quick and Healthy, she continues to change people’s perception of Indian food as being unhealthy and showcase the beautiful aromas of fresh spices to create quick and delicious meals.
After the interview, she had a cooking demo of honey chicken and asparagus for a crowd of women at First Canadian Place. We agreed that people come into our lives for a reason, season or lifetime and it was truly a priceless experience for YouCook to meet the Spice Goddess.
Stay tuned as YouCook tries out some recipes from Bal’s new book in our test kitchen.