SAAFBA sat down with Chef Meghna Agarwal of Crimson Kitchen to discuss the evolution of Indian cuisine in America, her own cooking journey, and the wisdom we learn from our grandmothers' kitchens.
When Meghna arrived in San Francisco in 2000, she had no idea she would be teaching Indian cooking classes. In fact, she didn’t even know how to cook.
“It’s not rocket science, we’ll figure it out,” she remembers telling her husband.
Meghna was used to the bustling, metropolitan cities of India — Delhi, Mumbai. She went to fashion school and worked for GAP. Her busy professional life meant she didn’t have the time (or the need) to cook. Her start in America, however, was less glamorous. Like many spouses of Indian tech workers, Meghna found herself in H4 purgatory. Under this dependent visa, you are not allowed to work in the U.S.
“It was extremely frustrating,” she says, especially of the social isolation.
Seven years later, Meghna finally had a work permit, but she had been out of the job market for too long. She had also become a mother in that time, to two boys. Her priorities had changed.
She was now an expert cook. When she travelled back home, she watched and learned from her grandmothers. In her San Francisco kitchen, she refined her techniques. She drew upon the Lucknowi culture she shared with her husband — a culture steeped in art, poetry, and royal cuisine — for inspiration.
In 2010, with both her kids in school, Meghna was once again in the midst of the kind of social activity that she thrived in. Cooking for school fundraisers was a confidence booster — everyone loved whatever she made.
“My way of connecting with people was through food,” she says. Later the same year, Crimson Kitchen was incorporated.
Crimson Kitchen is a “gentle introduction to Indian food, set in a cozy home environment.” Yelp reviews rave about Meghna’s knowledge and hospitality. With wine, beer, and plenty of socializing, an evening in Meghna’s kitchen is a “fun, delicious and intellectually stimulating” evening.
When you sign up for a class, you can expect to spend three to four hours with Meghna. Group classes are typically four to six people. You are welcomed with a traditional snack, an introduction to a variety of spices and an overview of regional Indian cuisine. Classes appeal to novice cooks, but also offer information, history and techniques to cooks with more experience.
“When you are in my home, I keep it casual,” says Meghna. “We do everything from scratch, from cutting the vegetables, to preparing the dish. Then we sit down and share the meal — it’s not like your dish is just yours.”
Though running her own business has been an uphill battle, Crimson Kitchen has grown significantly since its early days. “I’ve taught everyone from millennials to 70-year-olds,” she says. “The common ground is the food — they love the food, they love learning about the culture, and they love the hospitality.”
Meghna shares our excitement about South Asian cuisine coming into its own. “Indian food had always been associated with something that’s cheap. People would go for takeout, or for the buffets,” she recalls. “That’s definitely changing. There’s a lot more awareness, now. The Bay Area in particular is a place where there is demand for different kinds of cultural cuisine. People are interested, and they are willing to pay the money for a richer experience.”
Indeed, there’s been an upsurge in South Asian fine dining options in the Bay Area. The trend-setting Dosa brought South Indian food into the spotlight almost a decade ago. Taj Campton Place, also in San Francisco, is Michelin-starred; Babu Ji gives street food basics the high-end treatment; August 1 Five takes Indian cuisine to new heights with its California-inspired menu. Head towards the South Bay and the selection gets even more diverse. Rasa and Aappakadai have become mainstays, while newer, region-specific establishments pop up every month.
Meghna also credits the rise of Ayurveda. “There is a medicinal, nutritional aspect to the spices. That’s something we grew up with, and we take it for granted. The turmeric milk that our grandmothers used to give us when we were sick, and countless other homemade remedies that we might have brushed off as old wives’ tales — they really do work,” says Meghna. “People want to learn more about that.”
In addition to her intimate cooking classes, Meghna also teaches at The San Francisco Cooking School, The Civic Kitchen, and Kitchen on Fire. It was in one of these classes that Meghna realized teaching others about Indian food was, in fact, a passion for her.
“Sometimes, I get people who have never cooked before,” she says. “They come in nervous. And then, the joy I see in their faces when they feel like, ‘I really made this!’ It’s amazing. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”