UPDATE: Aarti Sequeira beat out 11 talented contestants to win Next Food Network Star yesterday. This guarantees her her own cooking show on Food Network. We wish her all the best!

The show Aarti Party, is set to premiere this Sunday, August 22nd at 12pm ET/PT. In addition to the new show, Aarti will be featured in Food Network Magazine and at the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival in October. On her new daytime series, Aarti invites viewers to join her for a playful Aarti Party, where she shares approachable and delicious ways to enhance American favorites with simple but unique Indian influences.

Aarti Sequeira is one of the 12 finalists on Food Network’s current show, The Next Food Network Star.

My mum wouldn’t let me leave Dubai without a jar of chicken tikka powder.

I was packing for my new life as a journalism student at Northwestern University, when she put a small bottle of her secret blend on the bed next to the mounds of clothes, photos, shoes, and notebooks gathered there.

“You never know when you’ll need a taste of home,” she said.

How right she was. In fact, years later, it was a craving for that taste of home that led me into the kitchen. There, I experimented with the unfamiliar (the spices, seeds and herbs) in search of the familiar (dal, rice, chicken curry, green beans with coconut, yum!).

I never conquered Mum’s recipes in college though; nothing ever tasted the same. I followed her recipes but, if any of you have harangued your mum or grandmother or aunty into writing down their signature recipes, you know how difficult it is to follow them—instructions like “a little turmeric” or “cook until the chicken is cooked” (my favourite!) ran rampant through my Mum’s neat handwriting. I couldn’t blame her though; Mum had been cooking for so long, ever since her own mother had passed away leaving her to take care of her four younger siblings, that I don’t think she could remember a time when she didn’t know how long chicken takes to cook.

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And so I gave up. But thank goodness for that chicken tikka powder. All through college, Mum’s secret blend turned up at Valentine’s dinners, camping trips, birthdays, even Thanksgiving one year. It was a taste of home, a signature perfume that took me right back to our kitchen in Dubai, where Mum would serve it with a potato and green pepper salad. On those freezing Chicago winter nights, that chicken was a welcome blast of warm desert air.

A few years ago, I started playing in the kitchen again. I was flush with the joy of being a newlywed; I had just left New York for Los Angeles to be with my husband, Brendan, who is an actor. My visa was still processing so I couldn’t work.

The first few days were a lazy bliss of watching The View and drinking as much coffee as I wanted! But I soon grew restless. I’d thumb Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, a wedding present. Then I’d plot out my shopping list, and trot down to the supermarket, about a 20-minute walk. I’d stop at Surfas, a restaurant supply store (every food-lover’s heaven!) for the perfect pan or spoon, and lug all my booty back home. By the time my husband had returned from work, there was a hot meal on the table. Rinse, repeat, for a few months.

I have to give my husband a lot of credit here. He ate a lot of less-than-spectacular meals! But he could see something brewing in me that I couldn’t. I was starting to get really passionate about cooking; I’d watch cooking shows all day, get cookbooks out from the library, all in a quest to learn as much as I could about what makes cooking tick. Lo and behold, for Christmas that year, Bren presented me with a gift certificate to the part-time cooking school in my neighborhood so I could take my passion to the next level.

After I finished my internship at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, I still wondered what I was supposed to do with my life. I didn’t think I could cut it in a restaurant kitchen for the rest of my life. A friend suggested I make my own cooking show. But  isn’t this a waste of my education, I thought? This doesn’t seem to be a serious enough profession, one that would make my family proud. It took another friend of mine, a fellow journalist to say, with your cooking show, you can make people feel happy. You can teach people. That’s serious and important!

Bren suggested we call the show “Aarti Paarti,” and within a few weeks, we were shooting our little cooking-variety show in our tiny kitchen! You can find it on YouTube and on my blog, aartiparti.com. The show helped me figure out my cooking style—Indian food by way of America. A great example is my grilled cheese sandwich with tomato chutney, which you’ll find below (you can also find the video for the recipe on my blog). It’s a great way to introduce Indian flavors to the unseasoned, plus for us desis, it makes for a nice sweet spot between the food of our ancestors, and the food of our future generations here in America. Right?

Well, I hope this column has given you a good sense of who I am and where I come from: a South Indian girl, who grew up in Dubai, and who is blessed to call Los Angeles home. And you’ll find all of that reflected in my food. Give this recipe a go, and stop by my blog to let me know how it turned out!

Grilled Cheese With Tomato Chutney

2 cups grape tomatoes a little more than 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup red onion, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
Handful cilantro, minced
2 tbsp vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp urad dal (optional)
1 tsp black mustard seeds
Pinch of red chili flakes
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
White bread
Cheese of your choice, freshly grated (I used cheddar)
Mayonnaise
Throw tomatoes, vinegar, and onions in a pot over high heat. Season with salt and boil for 5 minutes.
Add garlic, ginger, cilantro, and brown sugar, plus a splash of water if it’s too dry. Stir and boil for another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, warm oil until shimmering. Add urad dal and red chili flakes. When dal has turned a little darker, add mustard seeds, and stand back! They’ll splutter! Once they’re done spluttering, pour into the tomato mixture (which should be done boiling).

Turn the heat down, simmer 20 minutes until the tomato mixture takes on a jam consistency. Try to keep some of the tomatoes whole.

Allow chutney to cool.

Heat nonstick or cast iron skillet over moderately low heat. Make the sandwich with cheese and tomato chutney.

Slather some mayonnaise on the outside of one side of the sandwich. Place it mayo-side down in the skillet. Slather mayo on the other side.

Wait a couple of minutes until it’s browned, then flip and brown the other side.

Cut into triangles and serve!

Aarti’s photo courtesy Food Network.

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