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PROFILE OF A CHEF: AN INTERVIEW WITH POONAM CHAWLA

RED HALO is pleased to share his favorites, distinguished artists, brillant human beings or people gifted to embellish life and make the world a better place.

Through inspirational conversations and interviews with some of them who have specially opened their heart with passion, we invite you to plunge into their unique universe, explore their work and understand their creative process.

Indian cuisine is popular almost everywhere around the world and many people would love to learn how to cook a few recipes or how to use the spices. In the area of the Trocadero in Paris, an amazing lady has gained a reputation of Indian chef amongst the French and if you cross the threshold of her home you will make an unforgettable on journey of the senses and feel that you went to Delhi for an afternoon...Meet chef Poonam Chawla.

© puxanphoto.

Red Halo: You are a well-known chef among the Indian culture lovers in France, what was your path before settling in Paris?

Poonam Chawla: After completing my degrees in French Language from JNU New Delhi, and Tourism from the Department of Indian Tourism, I worked as a translator and tour guide in New Delhi, particularly focusing on francophone groups. My bond with France grew increasingly over the years and I moved to The Basque Country in the Southwest of France, where my second son was born. We later moved to the East Coast of the United States before coming back to Bayonne for a short stint and then onto Paris, the city that illuminated my work. 

I quit my job as a translator (and was ecstatic to do so!) to start Chalindia in 2006. The goal was to share Indian culture with the French. “Chal” means “walk”, “go”, or “go to” in Hindi and it made perfect sense as my projects constantly led her back to India, or to Indian culture wherever we lived. It’s as if moving away from India actually made me closer to my homeland. I started teaching Indian cuisine and organized yearly trips to India from the South West of France. 

In 2008, I was diagnosed with a neurological walking disorder, dystonia, and had to stop the tours to India and cut down on the walking tours of the Indian Quarter in Paris and spend more time at home, and in particular the kitchen.

© puxanphoto. 

 

Red Halo: How were you trained and why did you decide to become a chef and share your knowledge of Indian food? 

 Poonam Chawla: Like many other Indian women, I am a home trained cook, having learned from being in the kitchen with family since a young age. In the beginning, cooking was a necessity, everyone needs to eat. After having traveled a fair bit with my children, curiosity took over as I liked to try cuisines from around the world. When I found myself handicapped at the age of 50, just as business was picking up for me, cooking quickly became my meditation, my safe place and I started to teach more to share my culture with others. This quickly turned into creating recipes, gathering them into two cookbook collaboration with my son, Hachette Publishing, and now a brand new platform with e-cookbooks (downloadable PDFs), video recipes on our Youtube channel and photos of our new creations on our Instagram and website.

 

© puxanphoto.

Red Halo: Have your cooking recipes been passed on from generation to generation ? 

Poonam Chawla: Yes, many of my vegetarian traditional recipes have been passed on to me through my mother, grandmother and aunts. Our first cookbook was actually a mix of my mother’s and my favorite recipes. Like many other culture, Indian food is passed down from generation to generation and each family puts its own twist, or “masala”, to traditional recipes.

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: Food is a vital part of Indian culture, do you agree that it is probably the foundation stone of social life in the country?

Poonam Chawla: I think that food is a vital part of all cultures and India is no different. All our festivals, rituals and traditions follow a certain food path and we have many of them, so many opportunities to cook something up. India is a sub continent and you the see the wide array of food variety through the numerous festivals and rituals all year long.

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: Why do you think that Indian cooking is one of the most renowned cuisine in the world ? 

Poonam Chawla: Indian cuisine is very diverse. It’s not just naan and chicken tikka. 85% of the population is vegetarian. We grow varieties of wheat, rice, pulses, tea, coffee, spices, vegetables and fruits. With a population of over a billion, so many religions and cultures have given birth to innovative and fusion dishes that may even differ from family to family. I can’t say that I know Indian cuisine as I haven’t yet traveled to all corners of the Indian subcontinent, nor have I tasted all Indian food.  My older son's wife is from Nagaland in North East India, a region totally unknown to me. I visited Dimapur last year and discovered a new culture with its own new cuisine, and way of eating. So each day I learn some more and that is so wonderful isn’t it? 

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: What is your favorite cuisine to cook? 

Poonam Chawla: Well Desi food/Indian of course! But mainly I cook Punjabi, Maharashtrian, Bengali and South Indian dishes.

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: You master the secret of spices, which are the essential masalas for you? 

Poonam Chawla: Turmeric, pepper, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds….but I keep discovering new spices and herbs, and experiment with new combinations all the time. I am actually working on my own spice blends at the moment, so stay tuned for that in the new year!

 

© puxanphoto.

Red Halo: When are you happiest at work? 

Poonam Chawla: Cooking and creating in my kitchen for family and friends. At the end of the day, cooking is about sharing your food and energy with people and enjoying each other’s company.

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: Cooking means working in a field that is evolving all the time, making something new out of something traditional, in your successful recipes books you often suggest a second version to reduce fat and sodium while maintaining flavor in the quality of the dish, but apart from all that do you stay current on other new trends? 

Poonam Chawla: I am a foodie and have traveled a lot. Over the years, I’ve eaten different cuisines in different cities from street food to Michelin star chefs. When I go back to India, I try to follow the food trends and get recommendations well in advance especially from the younger generations in the family to keep up with the changing tastes and trends. Just like you need to keep up with current events, it’s essential to keep up with the current food trends without forgetting the traditional daily dal chawal and roti sabji.

 

© puxanphoto.

Red Halo: Until not too long-ago wine was not typically seen on Indian tables in spite of having a long history in the Indus Valley civilization, however since two decades the market in growing and many local vineyards match the French quality. Tell us about which wine would you suggest to pair some of your recipes. 

Poonam Chawla: The climate in India is not very suitable for wine making but since the past few years Nasik and Bangalore climates have been found suitable for wine making and we do have some good wines now. In India, I like to drink the Sula wines and in France I recommend red Burgundy wines (Alox Corton being my favorite) with Indian food provided it’s not too spicy.

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: You live in France; how did it influence your work?

Poonam Chawla: My work began in France as I had to cook for my children, their friends, their parents and my friends. Initially, I would do very traditional and elaborate meals with dahi bhallas, onion salad and achaars but quickly noted that the French didn’t, or couldn’t, appreciate the spices right away and I had to slowly initiate them into our cuisine by toning down the spices, tweaking some recipes as I couldn’t find all the ingredients in the South of France. I learned the French way of eating at home and in restaurants, and slowly mixed in those codes to my cuisine so they wouldn’t feel too far out of their comfort zone.

© puxanphoto.

Red Halo: You often share on your social media pages some pictures and stories regarding exhibitions and museums where you go during your spare time. What is the importance of art in your life? 

Poonam Chawla: I worked as a tourist guide in India and beautifully carved Hindu Temples, palaces and Mughal architecture were a part of my daily life, something I rediscovered in Paris. Initially I visited Paris as a tourist and since I’ve been living here now for over 17 years I didn’t get much time to visit the museums. But now I have I decided to make time for museums and art and when I started posting my pictures I found my family, friends and fans appreciating them as for many living in Paris is a dream and they love to be able to visit and revisit Paris through my eyes. It’s a great way to soak in the culture and stay connected with friends and family around the world, especially in these tough times. 

© puxanphoto. 

Red Halo: Your Parisian home makes a perfect bridge between the Indian and the French culture making of you a real ambassador of the Indo-Western style. Do you think that cooking has been an important key in this? 

Poonam Chawla: Oui bien sûr!  Cooking is my oxygen, my meditation, my communication, my strength, my serenity, my passion which I need to share. And teaching to roll out chapatis, sizzlinge tadka , spicing curries and sprinkling masala to the chai  is my way of bridging the two cultures.

 © puxanphoto.

Red Halo: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

Poonam Chawla: My son and I published a digital photo e-cookbook with about 200 pictures during the first lockdown. The book has been translated into Italian and will soon be available on line while the French version is scheduled for 2021. And during the second lockdown we worked together to build our brand Chalindia under which we will be sharing some interesting food products made in Paris. Presently, we have our own blend of chai masala, chai masala peanut butter, tamarind sauce available in Paris but we hope to reach more foodies and add more products to our line.

 

All photographs by © puxanphoto https://puxanphoto.com/ 

LINK FOR E-Cookbook: 

https://sellfy.com/puxanphoto/p/taste-of-chalindia-healthy-indian-vegetarian-paris-lockdown-cookbook-project/ 

https://sellfy.com/puxanphoto

https://www.amazon.fr/Inde-Pushan-Chawla-Bhowmick/dp/2017020176/ref=sr_1_3?__mk_fr_FR=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&keywords=fait+maison+inde&qid=1555011863&s=gateway&sr=8-3

Poonam Chawla pages:

www.youtube.com/c/tasteofchalindia

 https://www.instagram.com/tasteofchalindia 

https://chalindia.blogspot.com/

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqv9-E_ioKLbXsVkO8YhqdQ?view_as=subscriber

Poonam Chawla contact: poonamji@gmail.com

 

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1 comment

  • Wonderful interview ! Everything has been said ! Indian cooking is Fantastic and with Poonam and Pushan, this the best way to discover it !! I have the chance to cook twice with Poonam : when I cook indian dishes, I take her Book :)) and her recipes. Thanks Pushan, for your Wonderful pictures !! I am ok to taste each dishes of this report. Many thanks Poonam for your advices. 🙏 All the best !

    Magalie

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