Bidisha Nag spoke candidly of her childhood voyages to Malaysia, the Middle East and beyond.
“My dad was a marine engineer,” she said. “He would take us on trips to far away lands.”
Between adventures with her family, Nag, a former professor of cultural geography, learned to cook from a young age, often helping her grandmother and mother in the kitchen as they worked.
Nag’s experience with cultures entirely distinct from that of her home in Kolkata, India, are what inspired her passion for cultural exchange. Combined with her childhood cooking lessons, it became the cornerstone for her Indian cooking class, Create Your Curry.
Create Your Curry, which was established in Dublin, Ohio, in 2017, is what Nag calls a “happy accident,” which resulted from the culmination of her passion for teaching and expressing culture through food.
Nag moved to America 20 years ago to pursue a doctorate in cultural geography from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She discovered her knack for teaching after organizing a course on the geography of Asia. With over 150 students in each class, however, she felt that she lacked the capacity to make genuine connections with her students.
“I didn’t really enjoy teaching those humongous classes,” she said. “I liked the smaller ones where I could teach more practical things.”
Meanwhile, Nag’s friends often pleaded with her to share recipes for her signature Indian dishes. She saw the opportunity to use cooking as a platform to share her wealth of cultural knowledge.
Nag eventually left Nebraska and moved to Dublin, Ohio, where she began a job search and became connected to her new neighborhood through the social networking website Nextdoor.
Nag said she was pleasantly surprised when her recent connections began to express the same interest toward her cooking as her friends in Nebraska. She then decided to see just how far the enthusiasm reached. She made a post to social media to see if anybody was interested in learning Indian cooking.
Nag was surprised when she discovered that, after only a day, over 20 people were signed up.
Nag said she decided to plunge headlong into the project. She began hosting cooking classes in her kitchen, heading over to local markets to buy ingredients and fresh produce.
Nag’s website states that each class features several of her personal favorites: saffron rice, chana masala and chicken tikka masala.
“I don’t even like cooking all that much,” Nag said with a smirk. “Rather than just talking about the food, I actually talk more about where it came from.”
Indian spices, regional dietary restrictions and an Indian religion which abstains from eating root vegetables are all included in Nag’s syllabus.
Jeremy King, a Create Your Curry attendee, was enthralled to discover that a class with Nag was just as much a history lesson as it was a cooking lesson.
“She told us that the chicken tikka masala, which is one of the most popular dishes in India, isn’t even Indian. It’s actually a British dish that came about,” he said. “I feel like we walked away with quite a bit of knowledge.”
Since Create Your Curry was established, Nag has been invited to teach her classes at 1400 Food Lab, an industrial-sized kitchen center in Columbus, Ohio. The new location allowed Nag to expand the size of her classes to 10 or more.
With Create Your Curry reaching new heights, Nag is no longer focused on finding a new teaching career. Nag finds her business much more fulfilling than her prior teaching job.
“I like the interactive part of it,” she said. “They ask me things, I ask them things in return, and then, you know, we discuss. It’s more of a social interaction than just teaching.”
When it comes to cooking, Nag remains vocal in the fact that she isn’t a professional chef. She said she often measures by a pinch or a handful rather than with cups or scales. Given that she regularly uses American ingredients for her Indian dishes, she is hesitant to use the term “authentic.”
“She was very accommodating to everyone,” King said. “She showed us several different substitutes for ingredients and encouraged us to personalize the dish however we wanted.”
This is because Nag’s philosophy is that “there is no authentic ‘this’ or authentic ‘that.’ Whatever you create is authentic to you.”
She said she simply aims to ensure that each step of the process remains grounded in its historical roots.