From clueless in the kitchen to Asian Food Channel (AFC) host and cookbook writer extraordinaire – that is how one would describe Sapna Anand’s amazing culinary journey. While before she would have to call home frequently to ask her mum for cooking tips, today Sapna is the one dishing them out in her upcoming cooking show, Fast Indian Cooking With Sapna, and in cookbooks.
It all began when she moved from India to San Francisco with her husband. “Cooking was not something I mastered or knew anything about. My mother is a wonderful cook, so there was never a need to enter the kitchen let alone try a hand at it. It was only when I got married and moved that I started to explore cooking. With multiple failed attempts and the constant craving for my mother’s home-cooked food, I was determined to get it right,” says Sapna.
Her determination turned into passion as Sapna slowly began to enjoy cooking. As she puts it, it was a process of trial and error as well as discovering new ingredients. “It led me to appreciate what I had and my beautiful childhood memories. Today, what I have created is based on those memories – the story of tradition and culture, a bit of old and new,” she says.
It was only when the couple moved to Malaysia in late 1999 that her culinary adventure took on a professional turn. Though it didn’t take off immediately as Sapna was heavily pregnant with her first child and later, a second kid. “Embroiled in the daily life chores with two little kids and discovering a new place, there was no time to fuel my passion,” shares Sapna. “I told myself I had to do something – to enjoy my time in Malaysia and make the best of it.”
In 2009, Sapna enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu Bangkok’s Intensive Pastry Programme, and five years later, she was approached by MPH Publishing to write a cookbook. “The rest is history,” says Sapna, whose first book, New Indian Kitchen, has been reprinted, with three more launching soon (one based on her TV show and two from an MPH recipe book series called Everything Curries and Everything Vegetarian). “I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of writing a cookbook though it involves a lot of work, effort, discipline and takes a year or more. The most creative yet difficult part is taking readers through a journey with the help of my stories and recipes, making sure they experience a little bit of what I have through food,” says Sapna.
As if she’s not busy enough, Sapna also has her own line of premium spices. “The idea of a spice range came along when I was working on spice research with the Spice Board of India. During one of the visits to an estate, we noticed that the farmers who practised sustainable farming were struggling to get the right value to buyers. There was a large gap between farmers and consumers. That was when I teamed up with Hexa Foods to launch our premium range that supports these farmers,” she says. Aside from helping farmers, Sapna’s spice range – available online at hexafood.com – also supports a small organisation of 120 kids in Kolkata, India, where parts of the sales help fund their education and keep the kids away from the streets and human trafficking.
Naturally, Indian cuisine is Sapna’s go-to for the simple fact that she grew up on Indian cooking. “I prefer to keep it simple and always strive to infuse an element of surprise. For example, I would cook a simple curry chicken and smoke it later to add that extra flavour. When one understands the basic and respects the originality, it is easier to add creativity and come up with your own style of cooking. It is also important to enjoy the process and you will discover that it is not hard at all,” says the chef, who grew up in Goa, India.
As for what influences her, Sapna says it is through her travels. “Meeting chefs, restaurateurs, locals and kitchen helpers has contributed to developing ideas and creating recipes. Malaysia too has given me the most wonderful experience. After 17 years here, I am still discovering something new every day. Sometimes, just trying a new dish at a local stall gives me new ideas. Malaysia is a confluence of diverse food and culture. It is very hard to find the best of everything in one place; Malaysia has it – the perfect blend of West and East. The people make it even more colourful. I owe my success to the people of Malaysia as they are more than willing to try something new and explore. Things just fell into place for me when the time was right, and I am now happy that I have come a long way.”
Fast Indian Cooking With Sapna will premiere this month on the Asian Food Channel.