Getting to Know You: Rekha Balaji
Updated: Jun 4
A series of Q&As with members of the vibrant Irish international community to share their cultural heritage, food memories and stories.
Rekha Balaji is the host of Kitchen Stories, an audio documentary produced by Good Day Cork. She was born in Chennai (Madras), grew up in Qatar, Chennai, and Bangalore before moving to Ireland in 2003. An occupational therapist, Balaji has taught Indian cooking and hosted supper clubs in Cork. Banu is an avid saree wearer and promotes cultural integration through her activities with the Saree Not Sorry Cork group and the Schools of Sanctuary movement.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Chennai, which used to be called Madras. When I was two, my family moved to Qatar in the Middle East, which was where I really grew up. I did all my schooling there.
From my child’s point of view Qatar was idyllic, for it was a safe, contained community. There was a really great lifestyle there. We had tennis courts and swimming pools. Now, reflecting back as an adult, I realize that it was a very segregated existence. We were Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in a privileged world.
However, if I had only lived in Chennai, I would have only been exposed to the Tamil community, its customs and cuisine. India is massive. Growing up in Qatar meant being exposed to all of India.
Growing up, I was never sure where I belonged. In Qatar, there was a sense that we were always going to go back to India. However, when I finally went back to Chennai as a teenager, it was hard to settle in, because my English was different and my Tamil wasn’t good enough. It was such culture shock! I had no idea that this, the real India was so different from the Indian community in Qatar. I suppose that this was my coming-of-age.
When I came to Ireland, this dislocated feeling has carried on for me a little bit. I feel like it is difficult to connect with Indian communities here because I didn’t grow up with the same experiences.
How did you come to Ireland?
I came to Ireland in 2003 because I got a job as an occupational therapist. When I was eighteen, I told my father that I wanted to study literature. He told me that I would have to do a professional degree. Occupational therapy seemed at the time pretty cool, but really, I landed into it by accident. Seven years ago, in Ireland, I did get worn out from my job, which was why I started my supper clubs. I realised then that I love to engage with things that are different.
Also I love correcting people! Perhaps cooking helps me get it out of my system.
Are you a good cook? Who are the best and worst cooks in your life?
I have been cooking since I was young. I remember being thirteen, frying something on the stove, saying, “Please, don’t talk to me now.” I can see this aspect of myself reflected in my children these days, because in the kitchen, when I make suggestions, they are not interested.
My mother is a pretty adventurous cook, considering that she was a vegetarian orthodox Brahmin. She wasn’t always making garam masala; she would experiment with Indian foods from other regions. Mind you, she probably wouldn’t make Italian.
My late aunt was an amazing cook. Also my friend Sumaiya, who is Tamil. My friend Nadia taught me what I knew about Muslim cuisine, including the effort it takes to set a table. She still lives in Doha, Qatar, and I still taste what her mother made and what she makes today.
Worst cook? I want to say my husband, but he’s making such an effort. Like all Indian boys, he lived in his family’s home until he was thirty and didn’t know how to boil water.
He was the other reason why I stayed in Ireland, of course. But before he was in Ireland, he was in Mozambique and had to cook for himself. He learned 6-7 dishes there, and even now, for our family, this is what he makes. On repeat. He makes a poriyal. This is a traditional Indian dinner built around a carbohydrate; in South India, this is rice, lentils, and bread. He can make a set of things with sour yogurt – mor kozhambu, which is sour yoghurt and spices, a poriyal stirfry, and a molakootal lentil dish with coconut and chillis. He cannot do complicated – nothing like sambar or chapatis, but he can cook to feed himself and the kids in a pinch.
What is your favorite dish, and your favorite food memory?
I love savoury foods and spicy foods – I can’t think of one thing that is a favourite, but you know what I would love right now is a dosa and hot sambar with hot chutneys. What I would really like is for someone to make it for me!
I used to get so annoyed with my grandmother’s idlys. As a teenager, living with her in Chennai, it was boring because my grandmother would make them every morning. The thing about idlys (and dosas) is that you have to let it ferment, and you have a stone grinder to pound the flour, and a wet grinder to make the batter. The conversations that can go on between my mother-in-law and mother about the making of an idly can be endless. Then when I first came to Ireland, my parents’ friends knew someone’s in-laws, and of course I was put in touch with them. I had only been in Ireland for six weeks. They had idlys and I ate them like I had never seen them before.
What is your most traumatizing food experience?
I can still remember sitting at the table, crying, because I wouldn’t eat aubergines and my dad wouldn’t let me get up. These days, my daughter won’t eat cauliflower.
When I was in college, I was posted to a leprosy hospital, in a remote village far away from the nearest town. It was a self-contained hospital with a residential centre for the staff and they had a canteen. Now an Indian canteen in India is hot food, but the quality is not standardised. There were rock hard idlys with a tasteless sambar and bad dosas. I thought to myself that first day, “I can’t eat this food!” Even today, I don’t like to be far from creature comforts, and am not fond of camping.
However, It made me realise that I was born into privilege and we had good, rich food. At my mother’s table, while she makes a variety of things, there is at least one dish that everyone will find exquisite. Yet my mother had not just the talent, but also the resources to make her food – ghee, fresh coconut and beautiful nuts. I was spoiled with that, and not to have it, in that hospital canteen, was a rude shock.
Where do you shop?
Indian food is versatile, so you can use local ingredients. Wild garlic is in season, and I will be using it as much as I can. There are few Asian shops in Cork. Our closest shop is in Mallow, and there are a few vendors who have opened online.
However, I don’t buy things like okra because I am mindful of a carbon footprint.
A good asafoetida lasts a long time, so that can come in my suitcase when I see my family. Similarly I bring home my mother’s spice mixes for sambar and garam masala, and also pappuds. I prefer pappuds brought from India – not the factory made ones, but the cottage-industry produced ones that many Indian households have.
Are you particularly excited about the cuisines of other cultures, and if so, which ones? Likewise, are there ingredients/dishes that have turned you off
I love foods of all cultures of course! Being in Qatar, I was also exposed to a lot of Arab food. At the moment I am doing Middle Eastern. After leaving Qatar, I am yet to have a truly great falafel or a great mezze.
Growing up, exotic for me was Northern Indian. When we went out to a restaurant, Northern was what we ate. Butter chicken, naan, and kormas. Now, in Ireland, my children eat South Indian, the food of my heritage, because it’s become exotic to me!
Because my family are traditionally vegetarian, there was no meat in the kitchen where we grew up. My first time eating meat was with my brother, and we ate it outslde the house. I eat all the meats, but there are certain cuts I can’t bring myself to eat.
Also I grew up with Kraft singles! It was the only cheese that we knew in Qatar. My mother never grew up with cheese, so she once put a Kraft single with jam in a sandwich and it came to school with me, and perhaps because of that, my relationship with Kraft Singles is ambivalent. After I came to Europe, I was astonished that there could be so many other cheeses, and I love them.
Do you have any thoughts on authenticity and the relationship it has with food?
There is a difference between authenticity and taste. For instance, what I was eating in the hospital canteen in India was authentic food, but did not taste good.
You can do whatever you like as long as it is delicious, but you need to be responsible with how you name it. If you are making a poorio, there’s an important method to that. Also with sambar, you have to understand that there are so many varieties around India, and there are separate sambars appropriate for different dishes, like for rice and for idly.
Also, take daal makhani, which is black lentils, kidney beans, cumin, and butter. Those ingredients are a hallmark of that dish. Now I have seen “daal makhani” that is vegan, made with olive oil or another vegetable fat, and while it might be tasty, don’t call it daal makhani!
Wild Garlic Daal
This recipe is my own, because it's a lovely way to use all the wild garlic that grows so abundantly in the spring. It's a take on a more traditional palak (spinach) daal.
1 big bunch fresh wild garlic
1 ½ cups red or moong daal
3 cups water
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 red onion finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic
1 slit green chili (optional)
1 inch piece of ginger
1 tomato, finely chopped
1 tsp. cumin powder
1 tsp. turmeric powder
1 tsp. coriander powder
1/2 tsp. black salt
1 tsp table salt
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp oil or ghee
Wash and soak the lentils in hot water for an hour.
Heat the oil /ghee in a heavy bottomed pan. Temper the cumin seeds. Saute onions and garlic and green chili. Add the lentils, the tomato with the turmeric and water and simmer until the lentils are cooked
Add the remaining spice powders with the salt, chopped wild garlic and grated ginger and simmer for another 15 mins.
Serve hot with rice or roti.