We are thrilled to publish an essay from the author of the picture book, Anni Dreams of Biryani, Namita Mehra. Read her inspiration and why she wrote this beautiful picture book below:
One of my previous roles as a freelance food writer was to write articles for Michelin Singapore. A small, local Biryani restaurant in Little India Singapore caught my attention when it received a Michelin Bib Gourmand honor. Biryani is one of my favorite foods in the whole world! I LOVE rice and rice dishes but biryani is incredibly hard to make, and even though I’m a cookbook author, a spice business owner, and a decent cook, I hardly make biryani myself at home. I was keen to try the Michelin honored biryani and ended up researching the restaurant and learning about the owner as well. It turns out, he was quite a character! In Singapore, we use “Uncle” and “Aunty” with endearment and respect – the biryani restaurant “uncle” and his story…plus his delicious biryani of course, inspired me to write ANNI DREAMS OF BIRYANI.
My story is also based in Little India and purposely didn’t mention Singapore specifically, because Little Indias all over the world, whether New Jersey or Singapore, are inherently the same—the colors, the crowds, the energy, the excitement for food!In the story, Anni, who lives in Little India with her Ma & Grandma, loves to cook! She’s a proper little foodie and happens to live across the street from a biryani café owned by a grumpy uncle. Biryani is her favorite food and Uncle’s is the best! Every Friday is biryani night, and every Friday, Anni runs into the café with questions for Uncle so that she can figure out his biryani recipe. No matter how hard she tries, Anni’s biryani never tastes as good as Uncle’s. Is there a secret ingredient he’s not telling her about?
I’ve always been obsessed with recipes, and cookbooks. And the idea of secret family recipes, heritage recipes, and secret ingredients, is not only exciting and mysterious, but also true to many cultures. In India, for example, wives often joke that even their mother in-laws won’t tell them all the ingredients in their son’s favorite dish . . .Biryani has an interesting and royal heritage and history, and because it is a very complex recipe, it made sense in my story that this was the recipe Anni was after. Uncle was cooking his biryani from a 200-year-old secret family recipe – I imagine many chefs might have such treasured recipes . . .and many of us might have treasured recipes from grandmas, and recipes passed down from loved ones which we hold dear to our hearts. Often cooks like Anni, have a dream to open their own café or restaurant, and I wanted to portray Anni’s character as one with great determination, ambition, and agency. She is persistent and despite Uncle’s grumpy character and unwillingness to share his secrets, she doesn’t lose hope. My daughter loves to cook and spend time with me in the kitchen—she’s a true foodie like her mama and I hope one day, when she discovers her dream, culinary or otherwise, she pursues it with a passion and never gives up!
Namita Moolani Mehra is a children’s book writer, cookbook author, and freelance food writer. She is the author of children's cookbooks, The Magic Spicebox and Superfoods for Superheroes. Anni Dreams of Biryani is Namita’s first picture book.
Namita is the founder of a social-impact business, Indian Spicebox, that helps fund hot meals for underprivileged children in India. You can read more about her products and programs at https://indian-spicebox.com
Namita was born in Nigeria, grew up in England and India, and moved to the United States for graduate school. She has an MS in Marketing Communications from Northwestern University, and spent 12 years in New York working at advertising agencies and was also a creative strategist at Facebook.
Namita lives in Singapore with her husband and two young children. www.namitamehra.com Twitter @namstwit Instagram @indianspicebox