Sajida Ben Tzur, Kfar Vradim, 27.01.14
Sajida is 32, born in Ajmer, India, and moved with her family to Israel 2 and a half years ago. She is the chef behind Masala – Indian Kitchen boutique – and a professional Kathak dancer (classical Indian dance). After being practically neighbors but not knowing each other, I’m really happy I had the chance to meet with this amazing woman just before she leaves the Galilee and follows her work to Jaffa.
After the interview Sajida made Rajma Masala (red kidney beans curry) – come back next week for her recipe!
What are your earliest food memories?
As a young girl I wasn’t very much involved in the kitchen. Maybe at the back of my mind I was hearing my mother, since in Indian families everybody is so much involved, and a lot of time is spent on food preparation or related to it. However, it was my husband who taught me how to boil rice. He is, actually, a very good cook himself, very precise about every little detail about the food, so I was afraid I’ll mess up. After we got married, I started making food, and since my first day in the kitchen it came out really good. I never used recipe books, and till today I don’t like to follow a recipe. I read books or look on the internet just for inspiration. When I’m in the kitchen, I create. So my earliest memory is of that first meal I prepared in our house after the marriage.
Do you have a favorite dish?
Yes, I love fish. I’m from Rajasthan, which is a desert area, and there’s no fresh fish there, so for me eating fish is a treat. From the dishes I make my favorites are malai kofta and the meat dishes, like korma. The latter is a Muslim dish prepared from beef, lamb or goat and cooked with yogurt and spices for 6-7 hours until it is tender. In my family it’s a festive dish made for special occasions; its aroma, texture and taste are amazing.
In what ways food and dancing/music intersect in your life?
Both are my passions, and both are ways for me to create. Dancing or cooking, they come with love from my heart. It’s not just work, but something I really enjoy. When I teach dancing or when I cook, I feel very accomplished and fulfilled.
Food and music are two major elements in our lives. My husband is a musician, so we have music in the house all the time. That’s what we combine in our home concerts – the music of my husband and the food I prepare. We give our guests something that really comes from us; they feel and appreciate it.
Do you include dancing as well?
Sometimes; it’s very hard after being in the kitchen for the whole day. I used to do dancing workshops, taught private lessons and a few times I performed at my husband’s concerts. Now I dance at home for myself and for my daughter, whom I teach; she loves it. I think once I’m a little bit settled down, I’ll teach dancing again, because that’s what I miss most now. I’m a mother, a chef and a dancer – to hold all those occupations together is not easy. Right now I’d like to focus on being a chef, and later I can always go back to dancing.
How do Israelis respond to Indian food?
Although Israeli and Indian cuisines are very different, Israelis love Indian food. They are open, experimental people, and they love good food. Many people here are used to the spices. Also eating Indian food brings back the memories of India, where many Israelis have traveled and became familiar with the cuisine.
India has many regions and, accordingly, different cuisines. Are you making the Rajasthani cuisine or is it a mix?
It’s a mix, mainly northern Indian elements with some southern touches.
Do you adapt your recipes to the Israeli palate?
Yes, a little bit, especially the amount of chili that I cut by half. I make original Indian gourmet food, and people here love it.
You moved from India to the Galilee. What was it like to live here?
We didn’t plan to come to the Galilee; however, a month before we arrived in Israel a house of a friend from Hararit, who was going to travel to India for 9 months, became available. We decided it was a good chance, and ended up in Hararit. It was a very good experience in many ways, among them starting my cooking business. On the first day we landed I got a proposal to do a wedding for 500 people in Yodfat on the next day.
Were you nervous?
Actually, no. When I take something upon me, I concentrate on it and just shoot. This event was a big success.
Did you start cooking for groups here or in India?
I started in India. We lived in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, where we had a beautiful house, and the idea of doing home concerts with food originated there. When we came to Israel I started with the wedding in Yodfat, then I had some private events and takeaways in Hararit once a week. Every experience teaches you something: I learned how to cook in big quantities, what works, what people like. At the time I didn’t realize that my name was spreading, but after a few months people started talking about me, and that’s how I got to do the private events. Motivated by that, we started the home concerts in Hararit. And it just grew more and more.
After two and a half years in the North you’re following your work and shortly moving to Jaffa. What would you miss most about the Galilee?
I love Galilee. In Hararit I had a lot of spiritual experiences, because it is a very peaceful place. I used to go to the Arraba market, and people were so nice to me; we became friends. I’ll miss Galilee, but at the same time I need the action now. I’m new in Israel, and I’d like to explore and experience living in other regions. Coming originally from a city, I’m very excited to move to Tel Aviv. We have a lot of family there, and my work is there. I’m open to anything new.