Get Creative With Recipes to Make Cooking Enjoyable: Chef Natasha Celmi
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Reshmi AR
Natasha Celmi is a chef, food stylist and the author of cookbooks My Mediterranean Table and Fast Fresh Flavourful!
Natasha began her career as a gelato chef in Italy and returned to Kolkata,India to establish Mama Mia! Gelato. She went on to scale the venture across India and sold it in 2013. She is currently settled in Hamburg, Europe. Her latest book "Mediterranean Table" takes classic European recipes and makes them simpler, adjusting the flavors to fit Indian tastes and kitchen ingredients.
In an interview with Deccan Chronicle, Natasha Celmi talks about why Mediterranean cuisine is a perfect fit for the Indian taste and diet.
Why did you choose the Mediterranean for the book?
While traveling through the beautiful countries of Southern Europe, I fell in love with their fresh and healthy food and their lively culture. This book is my way of sharing the delicious flavors of Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and more with people in India and around the world. It's like taking an imaginary vacation to these sunny lands through pictures and descriptions. You can experience their amazing food and soak in the wonderful atmosphere without leaving your home.
How much time went into putting together this book?
For the past 5 years, I've been working on this book, gradually adding content whenever I discover something new. It could be a recipe inspired by a dish I tried or pictures from my recent vacations. It was a huge challenge to cook and capture stylish pictures of so many dishes. I even bought special crockery to match the country's vibe where the dish originated. I designed every page myself, aiming to create a sense of wanderlust, not just a regular cookbook.
Even though there are multi-cuisine restaurants in India, do you think we have a palate for Mediterranean food?
Absolutely! Mediterranean cuisine is a perfect fit for the Indian taste and diet. It includes lots of veggies, fruits, cheeses, nuts, and other tasty vegetarian ingredients, like Spanish tapas, Italian pasta, French gratins, and Lebanese and Greek dips and salads. Since the region is warm and coastal, seafood is a big part of the cuisine, which suits us Indians who enjoy fish and prawns. And if we want to add some spiciness to the dishes, we can simply sprinkle some chili to amp up the heat!
Talking about recipes. When you cook, do you stick to the rule book or experiment with your style?
As a chef, I enjoy getting creative with my cooking. I like giving a unique twist to traditional dishes, using local ingredients, and finding faster ways to cook them. That's exactly what "My Mediterranean Table" does—it takes classic European recipes and makes them simpler, adjusting the flavors to fit Indian tastes and kitchen ingredients.
Name one magic ingredient in your cooking that makes your recipes stand out?
My magic ingredient is salt. The essence of salt in your food, right from the beginning, is very important. It is a very underestimated ingredient.
Tell us about your signature dish and share the recipe.
It would be the Greek white bean dip. It is made from an Indian bean called Avlokia. Again, it’s a very humble ingredient. So, yes that would be my signature dish since it’s a hit at all my parties.
The recipes in your book look exotic, yet simple. Is it possible to make simple dishes exotic?
Yes, simple dishes can be made exotic by using fresh and good quality ingredients. Following the right techniques of cooking is equally important. In European and western cooking, slow-cooking really makes a difference to adding the flavor. So, with the right ingredients and techniques, anything can be made exotic.
Not everyone can get seafood right. Is there a hack you would like to share?
When preparing seafood dishes, marinating them is crucial. One secret ingredient that often goes unnoticed is salt; adding it from the start enhances the depth of flavor. Keep tasting your dish as you cook, and don't hesitate to adjust the flavors to your liking. Recipes are just guidelines, and you can add your personal touch. In Western cooking, fresh ingredients like vegetables, fish, and chicken are the stars, unlike Eastern cuisine, which relies heavily on spices and sauces for flavor. Using fresh, seasonal produce will make a difference in your dishes.
It's hard to maintain your diet when you have to taste all that you cook. How do you control your cravings?
My food is all very healthy. That’s what my book "My Mediterranean Table" is all about. The Mediterranean diet is very healthy. I actually don't cook deep fried stuff or stuff with too much sugar or oil; that’s what people love about food as well. So, I’m just tasting healthy food and I do stay fit. I work out as well, it’s very essential for a healthy lifestyle. So, a balance of everything keeps me fit.
My Mediterranean Table and Fast Fresh Flavourful!
What are your favorite culinary shows?
Fav culinary show- Master Chef Australia- I learnt to cook from there when the show started way back
Which Indian chef do you follow?
Indian chef- too many to name. Each one has their signature dishes
People's lifestyles and food habits changed, thanks to the pandemic. How about you? Did it have any bearing on your cooking style?
People ate more at home and that’s where my work came in—making home food exciting and exotic with both my cookbooks. My first book—Fast Fresh Flavourful came out right in the midst of the pandemic and saved many marriages
What should an ideal lunch meal comprise in terms of wholesome nutrition?
An ideal lunch meal, according to the principles of "My Mediterranean Table," should be packed with wholesome nutrition. Start with a vibrant salad filled with fresh vegetables, leafy greens, and juicy tomatoes. Add a protein source like grilled fish or chicken, along with some healthy fats from olives or avocado. Whole grains like quinoa or brown rice can provide sustained energy. Don't forget to include a variety of herbs and spices for added flavor and health benefits. And of course, a glass of refreshing water or a light fruit-infused drink to stay hydrated. This balanced meal will nourish your body and keep you energized throughout the day.
What's your comfort food on a bad day?
Comfort food - Asian . A bowl of hot noodles or fried rice fixes everything for me.
Name one dish which you never go wrong with?
Italian cuisine - sauces, pizza and my signature tiramisu
There's a lot of variety in Indian food. Which one do you like the most and why?
North Indian tandoori cuisine
Cooking gets boring after a while, but we can't do without it. How to make it an enjoyable experience?
As a chef and author of "My Mediterranean Table," I understand that cooking can become mundane. To make it enjoyable, get creative with recipes, involve friends and family, and listen to music or podcasts while cooking. Embrace the joy of experimenting and adding your personal touch to dishes, bringing excitement back to the kitchen.