At BHAV, we believe in empowering women to find unique ways to embrace their cultural heritage. We started 'The Culture Connection' to explore the impact (both good and bad) of heritage on a variety of incredible women, and understand how it continues to play an influential role in their lives. We invite you to join us on this journey, with the hope that you find value in these conversations.
Alia (@aliadalal) is a health and wellness chef who's mission is to help you understand the food you eat and enjoy preparing healthy scrumptious meals. She's has had the rare opportunity to learn holistic remedies by working at Ananda in the Himalayas, experienced an Ayurvedic spa in India, and been educated about sustainable farming all of which she incorporates into her business. In her spare time, you can find Alia enjoying other creative and crafty pursuits like dance, embroidery, and music. She also enjoys reading.
On Her Mixed Heritage:
What's your background? I identify as South Asian American. My father is from Pakistan (with parents and ancestors from Gujarat, India) and my mother is German-American.
How has, or currently does your heritage play a role in your life?
My palate and recipes are definitely influenced by the strong, bold flavors in South Asian cuisine. I love spices, sourness, herbs, and warm, cooked food. Having a multicultural background also exposed me to other cultures and cuisines perhaps more early on than other folks because my parents were constantly trying to expose us to different neighborhoods and cultures in Chicago. Having Muslim family also gave me lots of exposure to Middle Eastern cuisines and cultures since there is a lot of historical and cultural overlap and that definitely plays into the flavors I like to use.
One of my favorite things about being South Asian American is, in general, how accepting and curious a lot of us first generation "kids" are. In my immediate circle of friends, we come from different language, religious, and cultural backgrounds (including mixed like me) but at the end of the day, we focus on our similarities. As an adult one of my favorite social and fitness activities was joining a Bollywood dance team. We basically only perform at each other's weddings now, but we formed such great friendships in the years we've been dancing and having fun together.
A lot of your recipes and culinary advice/tips focus on healthy living, sustainability and a holistic approach. What sparked your interest to focus on these topics? Did you have any particular life experiences that influenced this?
I was actually in college the first time I traveled anywhere in South Asia. I decided to study abroad in Kerala doing a concentrated performing arts program where I learned Carnatic music, Malayalam language, and Keralan art and history. To this day, it's still one of the most transformative experiences of my life and gave me my first direct exposure to Ayurveda. Having two parents who work in the U.S. healthcare system, I was blown away by the holistic approach to health when I saw an Ayurvedic doctor there, from the length of time the doctor spent with me to the focus on food, massage, and herbs. After culinary school, I decided to go to India in 2011 to work in an Ayurvedic spa (Ananda in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand) to learn more about Ayurveda, particularly the foods and culinary techniques. It's been interesting to see the growing interest in this topic in the US over the last decade.
You mention you focus more on a teaching approach to help others enjoy cooking in a healthy and creative way. How have you been able to help your clients change their lifestyle and habits revolving around food and what has the response been?
I think my emphasis on teaching is something that sets me apart from other chefs or even recipe creators or content creators out there. I'm not trying to show you only my life or give you a single recipe: I'm trying to teach the life skill of cooking and of using food as medicine.
I think the biggest thing I've noticed with clients or students who are successful in making healthful changes is that you have to find food you love and you have to want to treat yourself well. I know that might sound obvious but American culture has a twisted way of viewing food as punishment or reward. Even our language around healthy food can be really strange like using the phrase "guilt-free." Why should I feel guilty for eating?! When I can show people that cooking real food can be fun, or surprisingly tasty, or how it can fit into a busy week then it becomes an adventure and I've been successful.
Food is so much more than "fuel." I spent the first years of my career cooking for people with serious health problems like cancer or autoimmune diseases. Sometimes the ingredients that I used had a profound impact on the way they felt, and sometimes, no amount of nutritious food was really going to impact their physical health. It's times like these that the social and emotional impacts of food--enjoying taste, feeling cared for, caring for someone else--really take center stage.
How has your experiences of living in different cities/countries over the years (Boston, NYC, and India to name a few) along with your South Asian background influenced your culinary taste? Have you experienced challenges in the culinary world because you are a South Asian female? If so, how did you tackle those issues?
As far as challenges in the culinary world go, it's no secret that the culinary world in the U.S. is dominated by white men and that it has a reputation of being a macho, often exclusionary culture. So being a woman puts you in the minority, and being a South Asian woman, even more so. It's one of the reasons I had no interest in pursuing anything in the restaurant world beyond getting some experience under my belt. I think South Asians also often have a lack of support from their own communities when it comes to pursuing a creative field or a nontraditional life or career path.
That being said, I know I also carry a lot of privilege that other minorities do not whether that's from my skin tone, class privilege or education. Often the culinary world and media can make us feel like we are in competition with one another for the spotlight and I think the biggest mistake we can make is believing that. I definitely see a massive shift happening in the food world now about making sure diverse voices are heard and culinary cultures are represented in an authentic, multidimensional way and I'm excited to move into that future.
What do you love most about South Asian fashion? Any favorite pieces/outfits growing up?
The colors and the sparkle! I have a naturally somewhat gaudy fashion sense and so I love the maximalist aesthetic that is most South Asian partywear. Growing up, we always wore salwar kameez only, and even then only for rare special occasions. In college and as an adult, I've enjoyed learning different ways to drape a sari (still 100% need an Auntie to help me out) and get to wear lehengas, which are my favorite for comfort and aesthetics.
I don't have many family heirloom pieces, but I do have some of my grandmother's gold bangles that I wore to my wedding which was very special because she passed away before I was born. Jewelry was a lot simpler back then so I actually went with a whole pared down look which worked for the fusion vibe we had at our wedding.
What's your favorite thing in your closet right now, or the piece that gives you the most confidence?
This has been the year of lounge-wear so I'm embracing comfort all the way. There's definitely something nice about still making it an outfit (versus gross stained sweatpants) that gives you confidence and makes you feel put together. I have a silky soft matching lounge-wear set that I've been prancing around the house in.
What's your go-to cocktail, spirit or drink?
I love cocktails that are tart or botanical so my go-to's are Daquiris and Gimlets. But realistically I'm drinking herbal tea most nights.
What are you currently watching?
I just started watching the original Gilmore Girls and it's been a delightful and strange return to the early 2000s.
Name of the best book you've read in a while?
I read Elizabeth Gilbert's, 'The Signature of All Things' this year and loved it. I read for an hour or two every night so I could share a lot of great books! I also really enjoyed Ijeoma Oluo's, 'So You Want to Talk About Race.' It's an important topic written in an approachable way and helped spark conversations with people in my life.
Morning person or night owl?
I think I'm genetically a night owl but I desperately want to be a morning person.
What's one small thing you couldn't give up (daily ritual, accessory/personal item, etc.)?
I love tea and it's one of my favorite indulgences and parts of my day.