The Spice Goddess: Bal Arneson on demystifying Indian cooking

Balarneson_Quick-and-Healthy.jpg First aired on North by Northwest (03/13/11)

Bal Arneson has lived the kind of life few of us can imagine. The cookbook author and star of the Food Network's Spice Goddess immigrated to Canada from her small village in Punjab, India, 18 years ago. At the time, the 20-year-old spoke no English and had no education.

"I still, after 18 years, I turn the tap on and hot water comes in, and sometimes I have to pinch myself," she told North by Northwest guest host Margaret Gallagher.

Arneson got her first job cleaning houses and attended ESL classes at night. Eventually, she made her way to the University of British Columbia where she graduated with a Master's in education.

Along the way, she discovered that the cooking she took for granted as a part of her everyday routine was quite a hit with her fellow students. She started selling small lunches and handing out recipes. And then one day, they started asking if she had a book.

For Arneson, the idea of having her own cookbook was a dream comparable to walking on the moon -- until she came across the books of chef Michael Smith. When she realized they were published by Whitecap Books in Vancouver, she decided to head to their offices, knock on the door and tell them she wanted to write a cookbook of her own.

Of course, the first question they asked was whether she was a professional chef.

"I said: 'Listen, I've been cooking since I was five years old, by the barbecue pit, with no electronic appliances, with cow dung patties we used for fuel. And every time I made a mistake in making the perfect lamb roti, I got slapped on the hand,'" she said. "'If you don't call that chef's training, I have no clue what you guys call chefs here.'"

She gave them a couple of recipes, which impressed them enough to offer her a book deal. The rest, as they say, was history. In six months, her first cookbook, Everyday Indian, was published, in 10 weeks it became a national bestseller and in 13 weeks it went into a second printing.

"It was a spiritual and emotional journey," Arneson said. "Always thinking that the woman's job was to be in the kitchen and to never ever dream of being a business woman [...] And beginning to realize: 'Now, hold on. I've got more than that. I've got a brain. I have an identity.'"

Arneson's second cookbook, Bal's Quick and Healthy Indian, aims to further demystify Indian cooking and to put a new spin on some classic dishes. But according to Arneson, it's really all about bringing families together. If you ask her, the one message she wants people to take away from the book would be to spend more time with family.

"You don't need to spend hours and hours to make amazing curry."

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