Up Close and Personal with Surbhi Sanhi

From her childhood cooking in India to her fancy desserts in New York, Surbhi Sahni was born to be a chef. By blending textures, tastes, colors and cultures, Surbhi creates irresistible Indian desserts to satisfy her clientele.

NAC: We heard you started cooking when you were seven. What began your journey in the kitchen at such a young age?

Surbhi Sanhi: There are usually a lot of responsibilities at home for a girl in India. Moreover, since my mom was an asthmatic patient, she used to frequently fall sick. So, most of her responsibilities fell on my plate. At seven years of age, I was working in the kitchen and taking care of household chores. It's ironic, I never liked this back then but now my career revolves around my kitchen.

NAC: How did you enter the world of desserts? What makes Indian desserts unique and different from other Asian desserts?

Surbhi: While I was taking my hotel management course in India, I developed an interest in cake decorations, which gradually led me to become a pastry chef. Authentic Indian desserts usually have a lot of milk in them. They are very sweet and heavy but usually homemade desserts are lighter. Sweets for us mean love, respect and giving. I feel we just need a reason to eat sweets in India.

NAC: How do you balance the authentic taste of Indian desserts and sweetness for health-conscious customers?

Surbhi: Indians are known to be more prone to diabetes, and that could possibly be because of the high sugar level content in their desserts! I usually reduce the sugar level in the desserts that I create. But that doesn’t mean that I compromise the flavor by using less sugar. The whole idea of desserts is when you put it in your mouth, it’s not just about the sugar but also about flavors and texture too. So, I balance out the sweetness from sugar with other ingredients but still maintain the same authentic taste of Indian desserts. I’ve never had any customer say the desserts are not sweet enough.

NAC: Your desserts are known to be a blend of textures, tastes and culture. What inspires your creativity?

Surbhi: Whenever I read or eat something new, I wonder if I can use that flavor with something else. So, I try out new combinations to create new tastes. I also don’t like to use products that are not in season because they don’t give the same flavor. I’d rather change the menu a hundred times to comply with the products in season.

NAC: Having spent your childhood in India, you must be very used to authentic Indian food. What is the food like there? What makes Indian food different in the U.S. and in India?

Surbhi: Though India is known for spicy and heavy food, I believe the food in India differs in every house. We always had light and less oily food at my house. When I was young, people had no concept of going out to eat. For me, it was just three meals a day at home and maybe eating out once every three months. Thus, I wasn’t exposed to outside cooking as such. In comparison to the U.S., I’ve realized that meat is usually overcooked and food is much drier in restaurants in India. I think I’ve learned a better version of cooking Indian food while preserving the same flavors.

NAC: Can you tell us what kinds of Indian spices and ingredients are popular with the American palate?

Surbhi: Indian ingredients are fantastic. There are tons of varieties that can possibly cater to every palate. Cinnamon, corn and corn products, rice, ginger, garlic, pumpkin and squash are some popular products. Everyone cooks differently and unlike in the U.S., where people usually follow the exact recipes of cookbooks, the Indian palate is more open to different flavors and different spices that differ in every home.

NAC: Was it difficult for you to gain recognition as an Asian American female pastry chef?

Surbhi: I had my share of hardships. In addition to the $1,000 that my parents gave me, I only had 300 dollars when I came to the U.S. I took three jobs and did whatever I could to pay off my tuition. I was extremely exhausted but I knew I was here to work hard and there are many who go through the same phase. When I started as a chef, there were no books about Indian desserts. I could not even find a single recipe for kulfi! So, there were long hours of trial and error for the perfect taste. As a female, I had a hard time finding work in India since many restaurants did not allow a woman to work in their kitchen. I had to harden up and keep trying.

NAC: What is it like to work with your husband Hemant Mathur? Do you think it has helped you to have your significant other in the same profession as you are in?

Surbhi: I love working with Hemant. We support each other and there’s never anything to complain or argue. It’s amazing how we complement each other at work with even small things like understanding where food goes in the restaurant. I am very lucky and so is he!

NAC: The number of Indian restaurants in the U.S. has definitely increased over the past years. How does Devi stand up to its Indian identity?

Surbhi: Devi keeps up the essence of home cooking in its kitchen. In many Indian restaurants in the U.S, the home part is not being produced. We are putting an effort to bring that to people’s palate in Devi. We take the Indian taste that is already amazing and give it the right touch of the taste of home cooking.

NAC: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Surbhi: It’s easier to come up with an idea but it’s difficult to work with it in the kitchen and it’s harder to be able to deliver to other people as a chef. It’s challenging but fun at the same time.

NAC: What’s next for you?

Surbhi: If I don’t cook again, I d love to pursue a Ph. D. degree in food studies. Going to NYU for my Master’s degree in food studies was an eye-opener that allowed me to develop another aspect of the food business. In about 10 years, I’d like to go back to college!

8 East 18th St.
New York, NY 10003
Tel: (212) 691-1300

Kheer (Rice Pudding) with Macerated Cherries and Cranberries

1½ tablespoons basmati rice
1 quart Half & Half
2 tablespoons dried rose petals
3 whole green cardamom pods, crushed
4 ½ tablespoons sugar
Gold leaf for decoration, optional
Macerated cherries and cranberries (recipe below)

Wash the rice and soak it in 1 cup of cold water for at least a half hour. In a saucepan, bring the Half & Half, rose petals and green cardamom to a rolling boil, steep for at least 10 minutes and then strain and reserve liquid. Strain all the water from the rice and put it in a saucepan with the reserved Half & Half. On medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Then immediately reduce the heat to low.

Cook on low heat for approximately 2 hours, or until the rice is thoroughly cooked, and completely separates when tested with a fork. There should be about 2 cups of the mixture left in the pan. Stir with a ladle frequently to avoid burning the rice. Add sugar, cook for another 2 minutes and remove from heat. Pour rice mixture into individual serving bowls.

Cover each bowl with plastic wrap and slightly pierce the plastic on each in order to let hot air escape. Cool the puddings at room temperature and later refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Top with gold leaf and the macerated cherries and cranberries.

Macerated Dried Cherries & Cranberries:

½ cup dried cherries
¼ cup dried cranberries
¾ cup red wine
½ cup cranberry juice
¼ cup sugar
½ cardamom stick
2 whole green cardamom pods
1 whole black cardamom pod
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Place all the ingredients in a medium-sized pot and bring the mixture to a rolling boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and let the cherries and cranberries cook until the liquid thickens a little and is about one-third of the liquid. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Remove the large spice pieces. Chill for at least 2 hours. Makes 6 portions.

Chef's Note:
The consistency, texture and cooking procedure of this pudding is very true to its roots, and I stick to how it is made in most homes in India. The pudding is flavored with rose petals to give it a subtle hint of flowers, which is nicely balanced with the spiciness of green cardamom. Macerated cherries and cranberries add great textural and flavor contrast to complete this comforting Indian home cooking dessert.

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