Aarti Sequeira won this season’s “The Next Food Network Star” on Sunday night. A lot of us at CNN were rooting for her — she worked as a producer in the Los Angeles bureau for a while. And, we felt, she was the most talented cook among the finalists.
But I wanted her to win for another reason.
I loved the way she infused the spices of my homeland into her cooking. I watched her week after week as she turned out dishes with roasted cumin, garam masala, cardomom. Those were the smells of my childhood, the aromas wafting out of the kitchen and into my bedroom on a warm, muggy Kolkata morning.
Aarti makes things like South of the Border Shrimp Masala. On her new hard-won show, she says, you might expect something like a Sloppy Bombay Joe made with a chicken tikka masala sauce. YUM! (as Rachael Ray would say)
Every Sunday night, I salivated. And from the very first episode, I wished for her to perform well. Her cooking reminded me of my mother’s.
I admired my ma’s improvisational skills. Leftover McDonald’s fries would show up the next day in a chicken curry. Vegetables on their way to being thrown out would star in a Bengali-style mixture of five spice — nigella, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard. Pure heaven.
In a way, I thought of my mother as the first Indian fusion cook. We lived in a small town in Florida. She could not always obtain the spices or ingredients she needed. So she substituted whatever she could find at the Northwood Mall Publix in Tallahassee.
Arrti had that same spirit of infusion and innovation. I wanted to taste whatever she served up. I loved her style, especially that big smile and even bigger flower tucked in her mess of black curls.
I enjoy watching cooking shows but have always lamented the lack of South Asians on the network. Finally, we have Aarti. You go girl!
I’ll be watching.