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FRIEND OF ARQ FEATURE: Julie Saha
Journal
06.15.23

julie saha

For Julie Saha, late spring looks like cooking expressive meals filled with fresh produce, being surrounded by friends and family, and rejuvenating in the fresh air and sunlight. And on that note, we're committing ourselves to the same for the rest of the month...

It’s finally getting (fairly) warm over here in our part of the Pacific Northwest and we’re enjoying every minute of it. There is honeysuckle right outside the doorstep that just emanates the scent of late spring– everything is blooming, green, and happy. What parts of this season bring you happiness and rejuvenation?

I love this question. On the east coast, Spring transforms into summer so quickly that if you don’t find a way to savor the way it makes you feel, it'll slip right past you. I feel so happy these days seeing people out and about; There is such an obvious collective shift with the warmer weather and longer days that invites people out of their homes. People are suddenly more keen on interacting with strangers… which makes everything more interesting.

A walk at any point in the day will make me feel nostalgic for Springs and Summers past. I listen to the song “A Sketch for Summer” by Durutti Column every June because it captures how I feel with Summer right around the corner ~ it’s the perfect instrumental that samples bird sounds and ultimately is what I’d imagine trees would like to listen to. Spring Produce is another major source of joy for me. I work at a beautiful little restaurant called Dinner Party and with each week's changing menu we get to work with new seasonal produce. Nothing is more special than a menu that is overwhelmingly green in hue because of all the spring produce like stinging nettle, sweet plump peas, sea beans, and every herb under the sun. The sensory experience of handling produce is consistently rejuvenating for me.

We love talking to chefs because we are captivated by the way cooking and sharing meals together can be the most natural way to foster relationships (not to mention partaking in communal healing, tradition, and sustenance). What can you share with us about your personal history with food and cooking? Where, and from whom, did you learn to love it?

I totally agree with that; It’s also so interesting to reflect on how our relationship with food is affected by the attitudes around meal sharing in our childhood homes. All throughout college and through my early 20’s I’ve never hesitated to host or cook for a lot of people, even in the days when I hadn’t done it before. I now realize that ingrained confidence exists in me because of how often I witnessed my parents doing that for their community. I grew up in New Jersey which has a really large Bengali community and so the social lives my parents lead always involve gathering and feeding each other the dishes of their home country. My parent’s love language is cooking for me and always having something they want me to try, even if it's right after eating a whole meal…

My more personal relationship with cooking started out with me learning about plant-based cooking in an effort to take care of my physical health, but slowly transformed into the most fun, experimental pastime that will be my lifelong creative medium (I hope). Of course I first had to unlearn the toxic narratives around healthy eating and diet culture that I had absorbed early on (still an ongoing journey). Now that it is my job to cook for others whether it be at the restaurant, or during a pop-up event, I am more conscious of the spiritual, physical, emotional transfer of energy that occurs when you share your food with others. My love for it grows when I think about how powerful of an interaction that really is. It also makes me all the more grateful for the people who cook for me. The creative and curious process of cooking is what brings me the most joy. Ultimately I just want to make beautiful, delicious, new things and share them with loved ones.

In your Instagram bio, you have the phrase “cooking is caring” and if you couldn’t tell, we agree wholeheartedly. What meal do you make for yourself when you’re in most need of care and nourishment? Do you have a favorite, simple recipe you might want to share with us here?

Yes yes yes, Cooking is Caring. One of the most tender things to do for yourself. In the moments that I need the extra care and comfort, I turn to a very simple dish called Kitchuri. It’s a one-pot lentil and rice dish that can take as many or as little fix-ins as you’d like. It traditionally doesn’t even call for onion or garlic. However when I make it I don’t skimp on any spice or aromatic.

I start by boiling a 1 to 1 ratio of thoroughly washed basmati rice & red split lentils in a pressure cooker or pot with a tsp of salt, a tsp of turmeric, a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick, and double the amount of water to dry goods. About 20 minutes into simmering, the rice grains are tender and the lentils are broken down into a delicious porridge. In a separate pan, I heat up a mix of neutral oil and ghee for cooking my spices. I add ground cumin, coriander, dried red chili or fresh green chili if I have it on hand, nigella seeds, and more turmeric. As soon as the spices start to bloom, I add sliced onion, chopped tomato, and any other veg that is sitting in my refrigerator (like broccoli stems or cilantro stems). I then add this spicy, fatty, veggie mixture or tadka into my pot of Kitchuri, and taste for salt and spice. Mixing in an extra tbsp or two of ghee helps it become even more luscious. Although this process sounds intricate, it comes together quite fast; it feels rich and luxurious despite it mainly consisting of rice and lentils. Even if it is the most scorching summer night or I have not one ounce of energy for cooking left, I’ll push myself to make Kitchuri because it brings me so much comfort.

This time of year always reminds us of the healing power of movement, fresh air, and feeling the sun on our skin. Outside of food, how do you nourish yourself physically and emotionally? Do you have any practices or rituals that you work into your routine for well-being?

I am so glad that winter is over ~ I really struggle with feeling connected to my body in the colder months. In the spring and summer, it feels like anything I do that involves sunlight and fresh air, energizes me (this seems obvious but sometimes the basics alone aren’t enough to make you feel new). I love to spend time at the park even if it's just for a short moment. I recently went bird watching with a friend and now I’m finding myself obsessively waiting at the park to catch a glimpse of the private lives of even the most common birds. My emotional recharge has been coming from spending any time I can adorning my home and making it feel like my palace. I can sometimes get carried away with spending time in the company of friends when I am not working because I feel super energized by people in general, but for that reason my moments at home can feel few and far between. I’ve been getting better at staying home when I can, stretching my line-cook body, and leaning into my sleepy self these days. Every few months it feels like I have to reset and reevaluate my temporary routines, to build a new one for the present moment. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I personally love the newness of it.

Julie on Instagram: @foodbebo

Photos by: Bridgett Magyar @brdgtmgyr