Location doesn’t have to limit your menu.
Vaishali Sharda teaches cooking classes at UFM Community Learning Center, specializing in Indian dishes. As she’s explored different types of food, she’s found ways to adapt recipes and share strategies with her students.
“Something so simple can transform into something super good,” she said.
Sharda, 40, recently became an assistant professor in the department of biological and agricultural engineering. She had already started teaching cooking classes at UFM early this year. Sharda grew up in India and moved to Auburn, Alabama, in 2006 for grad school with her husband, Ajay, and then-infant daughter, Anvesha, now 14. Following a stint at Washington State University, they moved to Manhattan in 2013 and have had son Vihaan, 5.
When in Auburn, Sharda found she had few options when it came to eating dishes from her native country.
“I started cooking more out of necessity than anything,” she said.
A church group there took international graduate students shopping, but they only took them to Walmart, Sharda said. It took some time for her to discover other options that could provide a wider variety of ingredients, especially international ones. Sharda said having limited options forced her to be more creative.
“I used tofu instead of paneer (an Indian cheese) because it was the closest replacement,” she said. “It pushed me into creating recipes that didn’t depend on the grocery store.”
During her time at Auburn, Sharda also started attending cooking classes at the university. In addition to learning some American recipes, she learned some Thai dishes and also about making sushi.
In Manhattan, she likes to shop at Asian Market and said Dillons and Aldi also offer good options for international ingredients.
Sharda started publishing a blog on her explorations in various cuisines last year at kitchendocs.com. She’s written about Indian recipes but also dishes like ravioli in white sauce, roasted red pepper gouda soup and watermelon salsa. Her favorite ingredient to cook with is lentils.
Kayla Savage, education coordinator at UFM, said Sharda brings this creativity to how she teaches as well. Savage said Sharda is passionate and knowledgeable about cooking and about Indian food and is able to make it approachable for all of her students regardless of their experience level.
“She’s organized, creative, and thoughtful in her approach to sharing the love she has for Indian food, for cooking, and for the cultural sharing with that,” Savage said.
Sharda said she enjoys being able to share cooking advice as well as her culture in the classes. She explains the health benefits of popular Indian ingredients like turmeric and some of the differences between regional cuisines in India.
“Each part of the country has different cuisine, and it’s based on what’s grown locally,” Sharda said.
Sharda is from northern India, which she said she said uses lots of fruits and vegetables. She loved visiting farmers markets while living in Washington because they had so many fresh fruits and vegetables and she said she’s gotten to know local farmers at the farmers market in Manhattan too.
Sharda also likes to garden to get even more fresh ingredients. She grows lots of common ones like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. She grows okra, but picks it at a time when it’s smaller and more tender, as is preferred in Indian recipes. She also grows Indian squashes and a variety of herbs.
Sharda said she thinks some people have difficulty eating enough vegetables because they get tired of eating them the same way.
She said she hopes teaching her students another option for how to prepare them can make them appetizing. Flavoring them with a sauce made with masala spices, tomato, onion and garlic can make them more versatile and more flavorful.
“Having those options in cooking makes it not boring anymore,” Sharda said. “It can make it so much more appealing.”