is a chef, cooking teacher, prolific food writer and essayist. She writes a food column for the Washington Post
, and her recipes and work also appear at NPR.org. She also has two masters degrees—in engineering. Seven years ago she switched from that left-brain world to create and write full time about things she loves. Monica is the author of The Spice Is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today
(Callawind Publications, 2001) and The Everything Indian Cookbook: 300 Tantalizing Recipes–From Sizzling Tandoori Chicken to Fiery Lamb Vindaloo
(Everything Series). Her latest cookbook is Modern Spice.
Her most recent release, the ebook, In Conversation with Exceptional Women
, is available for purchase.
MEREDITH: As a food writer and chef, where and when does creation really start? The kitchen, the page…at 3 am when you wake up starving or after a meal when your belly is full? Do words come first, or ingredients?
Monica: Early in my career, I talked to a chef who said his recipes came to him in his dreams! I wish I were so lucky. When I have to create a new recipe, I go to the grocery stores – I go to Giant, to the local Indian market, to the Asian stores – and pick up ingredients that I like and then I come home and play. It is such fun to see what works well with what. Almost always, memory sparks a creation – the memory of a perfectly cooked lamb perfumed with rosemary, a chilled lemonade under a hot sun, the nutty smell of my mother’s brightly white basmati rice.
MEREDITH: How do you know when enough is enough—an ingredient in a dish, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book? I’m wondering if cooking, not just in a metaphorical sense but in real, tangible life, is anything like writing? Are there pieces that translate for you?
Monica: When the reader reading my essay or my chapter leaves it with a sense that they want to return for more…that is when enough is enough. It is hard to translate into words but I know it when I see it – when I make a recipe that tastes delicious, [excellent-reminder alert:] I try to hold myself back from adding just another garnish, or tweaking another ingredient, why mess with something that tastes good without all the fuss?
MEREDITH: When you cook does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning? Now answer this question again, but rather than about creating a dish, tell us about creating work on the page.
Monica: Actually the answer to both is the same for me – whether I am cooking or writing essays, I try to stay true to what I love and what I want to focus [on], what I want to talk about and I think it shows. I do develop custom recipes for large corporations and national magazines and while those are created based on what the company wants, I try to stay true to the ingredients I am fond of and think other people will enjoy as well. Let me give you another example – I don’t eat oysters and so I don’t create recipes with them. If I don’t enjoy them, how can I cook them well so that others will?
MEREDITH: Edgar Degas, the painter, said, “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” Do you have a personal take on this as a creator whose art (your food, your words) is in many ways, eclectic?
Monica: In my essays for sure. I see this all the time. I start writing and I have no idea where the piece will go or what I am going to say and it is this sense of uncertainty, this sense of adventure that has led me into doing some of my best pieces. It is hard for some people to let go and let the creative process take over. People write outlines, focus on endings – I think that it is perfect for works of how-to-do-xyz-type nonfiction and for services related stories to do that but for nonfiction essays, for short stories, for fiction, [love-this-out-loud alert:] I feel a writer has to let go of control and not worry about the direction things are going. If you trust the process, it rewards you well.
In cooking, not so much! I think if you know and understand your ingredients, you will be well rewarded but standing in front of a stove and trying to cook up salmon without a clue as to what to do is not smart! Pick up a basic recipe and then play!
MEREDITH: When writing, do you wait for the muse, or do you see creating as a job to be done whether the muse is there or not? And by the way, what is your muse?
Monica: I write every day, muse or no muse. Some days are better than others. There are times when I feel compelled to write and those days, I do my best work. My muse is a man who writes as a woman! Yasmina Khadra is one of the best writers I have ever read. I keep his books by my bedside and always read a few lines from them. His words always inspire me and compel me to write.
When I asked Monica
to tell me a few things that are quirky and unique about herself, something she didn’t often get to squeeze into conversations: (for example, if she likes to eat—gasp—ketchup on her pasta) she told me: “I love to eat hotdogs from my local 7-11, I love deep-fried foods and I think Nutella should be declared sacred.” Monica lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and sons. She also owns a cooking school there. See what she’s cooking at her website by clicking HERE.