Cooking with Shanti Bhakoo. A Hindu Punjabi Menu with Recipes.

Take Note BBC. Make Room Nigella. There's a New Star in the Kitchen.

To visit the kitchen of Shanti Bhakoo, is to enter into a graciously serene and ordered realm. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Shanti, who was visiting from England, and her daughter, Bhavni, recently. Shanti shared some of her family recipes from an area of India known as Rajasthan which is her ancestral home, and a roti bread recipe which is her original creation. 

Born in Nairobi at a time when Kenya was still a British colony, Shanti had few options other than work or arranged marriage. She learned to cook at home with her mother and seven sisters and at school with British teachers and traditional anglo recipes.

Shanti shared with me her desire to be a professional chef and a wistfulness that the opportunities for the modern young woman were not available to her.


Glorious Garam Masala: The Magic Spice
Garam masala means hot spice and there are as many recipes for it as there are families in India. Here is a basic recipe to get you started:

4 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds 
1 t black peppercorns 
1 1⁄2 t black cumin seeds (shahjeera) 
1 1⁄2 t dry ginger 
3⁄4 t black cardamom (3-4 large pods) 
3⁄4 t cloves 
3⁄4 t whole cinnamon (2- 1” pieces) 
3/4 t crushed bay leaves

Heat a heavy skillet on a medium flame and gently roast all ingredients (leave cardamom in its pods till later) except the dry ginger, till they turn a few shades darker. Stir occasionally. Do not be tempted to speed up the process by turning up the heat as the spices will burn on the outside and remain raw on the inside.

When the spices are roasted turn off the heat and allow them to cool. 
Once cooled, remove the cardamom seeds from their skins and mix them back with all the other roasted spices. Grind them all together, to a fine powder in a clean, dry coffee grinder. Store in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place.

How to make your own Indian Spice Masala Dabba (Traditional Indian Spice Box) 

Garam Masala
Red chillies
Cumin seeds
Curry leaves
Black mustard seeds
Cardamom Pods
Coriander Seeds
Cloves, whole
Fennel Seeds
Ginger, ground
Star Anise
Bay Leaf

Your masala dabba can also contain all of the spices that you use on a consistent basis. Make Spice Kits for Fast, Creative Cooking Serious Eats

I noticed Shanti's method of adding the ingredients in double measure. The volume of minced onions combined with the garlic, ginger and chili determined the amount of crushed tomatoes and they in turn  directed the quantity of peas and cheese.  The last addition of boiled water is again twice the volume of all the preceding ingredients. 

Mater Paneer
Peas with Homemade Indian Cheese
2 T oil
1 large red onion, minced
1/2 t ginger, finely grated
1 long green chili, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t garam masala
1/2 t tumeric powder
1/2 t red chili powder 
4 T crushed tomatoes
1 400 gram package fried paneer
2 c frozen peas
5 c + 2 T boiled water 
salt to taste 
fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat oil at high heat in a non-stick skillet. Sauté minced onions until transparent. Add garlic, ginger and long green chili. When all is golden brown, add 2 tablespoons boiled water. After 2 minutes, mix in the crushed tomatoes and lower the heat to medium. Now is the time to add the dry spices. This combination of ingredients creates the Masala which is the base for all Hindu Punjabi dishes. Add the peas, paneer and 1 cup of boiled water. 

Simmer. Finish with 3-4 cups of boiled water. 

Continue to cook for 10 minutes on low heat, covered. Adjust seasoning. 

Cover again and simmer until the oil separates which lets you know the dish is complete. When serving, garnish with chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of garam masala.  

Khumbé Palak
Mushrooms with Spinach

I also  noticed that Shanti was attentive to the dish being prepared which developed quickly and requires stirring as it simmers and moves along from stage to stage as the successive ingredients are added.

2 T oil 
1 medium purple onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 t ginger, grated
1 long green chili, chopped
400 grams mushrooms, quartered
1 roma tomato
1/2 t red chili powder
1/2 t tumeric powder
1/2 t garam masala
salt to taste
garnish: fresh cilantro, chopped

Lightly steam the spinach. Heat oil on medium high. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Add garlic, ginger and chili.  Next add the mushrooms and sauté for a couple of minutes.  Add the tomato.  After another couple of minutes add the dry spices. Add the spinach with the steaming liquid. At this point you have the option of adding cream which you must stir constantly to prevent curdling. Let the mixture cook for a few minutes, uncovered. Adjust to taste with salt. When serving, garnish with fresh chopped cilantro.

fresh fenugreek

Maki Methi Roti
Cornflour and Fenugreek Bread

Bhavni stated that Hindu people respect butter. When I asked her to explain this statement she told me that it is because the cow gives so much and that is why it and its gifts are greatly respected and in her family home. Butter was never wasted and always greatly appreciated. 

1 long green chili, chopped 
1 c cornflour
1 c fresh fenugreek, chopped
1/2 c boiled water
Yield: 4 Roti

Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Add 1/2 cup of boiled water and blend with a fork to form a doughy consistency.

On a dry surface sprinkled with cornflour divide the dough into 4 equal parts and form into small patties.  

Heat an un-oiled nonstick skillet, high heat.
Using your hands, shape the dough patties into a round, flat shape about 6 inches in diameter, passing the dough back and forth from hand to hand.

Roast the bread on both sides in the dry skillet until lightly browned, dabbing with a piece of paper towel to absorb excess moisture.

Garnish with butter and serve hot. 

Spiced Yogurt
Plain Yogurt
red chili powder
garam masala
fresh cilantro, chopped
tomato, chopped
salt to taste

Garnish the yogurt with the ingredients.

By the time the food is ready to eat, like me, you will have been tantalized by the divine smells as it is prepared. I loved the way the dishes were presented in their own little bowls on a platter and served with the buttered roti and the spiced yogurt. Bhavni neatly ripped the bread into pieces and piled all three on top and before I knew it had fed it to me directly. Oh! heavenly tastes and delectable textures.

An inpromptu visit by family friend Annabelle led to her being fed as well.

The ingredients for these dishes are readily available at most grocery stores but I would recommend Bhavni's favourite: Dino's Grocery Mart at 460 Notre Dame Ave. where all of the ingredients are available along with fresh fenugreek as well as SHANA frozen fenugreek which is frozen in cubes (use one cube for the roti recipe). Dino's also has the stainless steel spice containers which are customary in an Indian kitchen, called a masala dabba

Many thanks to you, Shanti, 
for sharing your experience, passion and healthy family recipes. It was very enjoyable and invaluable to begin to learn the art of  Hindu Punjabi cooking. You are a guiding star in the kitchen. 



  1. fantastic to have a recipe for Garam masala!! I am book marking immediately! (now I only wish that I could get paneer in Marrakesh) Many thanks to Shanti Bhakoo, and to you dear Valerie for introducing us to her!

  2. Valerie you are awesome! I want to thank Maryam for her sincere comment on my mother's cooking. I can't believe that what my mother had given up 13 years ago is coming to be with your persistence and encouragement. Marrakesh has been a life long desire to visit ... perhaps this is the beginning??
    Thanks for a brilliant job! Thank you Maryam! I would be honored to have the privilege of meeting you! By the way I know the recipe to make Paneer matter where you are ... if you are interested, let me know! Always B

  3. Thank you to Shanti for sharing these beautiful recipes! I made Garam Masala that has scented my entire kitchen and I am loving it! I used it in Dahl with Swiss Chard on cous cous. Your Roti bread is next on my list of must-try items!


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