Monday, July 16, 2012

The Novice Housewife on Reemspeak

Though Sid would like to believe that this blog revolves around him and there is little that I add to it beyond anecdotes involving him, I do from time to time slip in posts about people or things that I find interesting.  It's always fascinating to see what sorts of things people are passionate about - I don't mean as a professional job necessarily, though it's definitely a plus if your work is your passion. I always say that if you're not passionate about anything in life (and believe me there are plenty of people who aren't!), if you have nothing that fuels you, that excites you, that one thing that when you think of it just brings you such exhilaration and peace...without that life is just a rather mundane series of events.

Cinnamon rolls

I posted some time ago about a friend who left her  cushy  corporate job to make a difference with her commitment to buying 'green and good'.  This time I am posting about another friend whose passion for preparing beautiful food caught my attention when I noticed her stunning blog. Shumaila was one  of my fellow hostelers and at the time we spent our evenings laughing about our day or predicting our futures with a handy little book called 'The Oracle' :)  At the time, the Oracle didn't reveal a charming blog that Shumaila would nurture over the years, starting out as a way to pass the time by recording her efforts in the kitchen when she got married; to developing into a visually inspiring, mouth-watering documentation of her culinary skills. It may not be a paying job, but you can tell that she pours all her efforts into it - she cooks and bakes; adds some anecdotes or facts to each post, composes beautiful photographs to capture the dishes, networks with other food bloggers and participates in various virtual cook-off's and challenges herself with various ways of just making her blog more than just a 'cook-and-post' series.  With a growing number of followers and fans...I thought I would ask her a few questions. With a rather misleading title, this Novice Housewife, is far from a novice in her blog!

What prompted you to start a blog?

In one word- boredom.

Caramelized onion, mushroom & gruyere tartlets
After getting married and moving to a completely new place (on a different continent)- no friends, no job (and no chance of getting one) and left for hours to do nothing in a small mining town, I needed an outlet. I felt very unproductive and I needed something to change that. I also have a very busy mind- and thought rather than talking to myself, its better I pen the thoughts down somewhere.

I started the blog on July 28, 2010 as a place to document my newly married life and a place to store the recipes I was trying, and of course as a way to keep myself busy. For the first five months only 6 people knew that the blog existed- my mom, four of my friends and my husband. I was too shy to let others know about it. I have never considered myself a writer nor had I ever cooked before getting married, so I did not have too much confidence in the blog being of any interest to others. Gradually, thanks to the encouragement I got from the six people who knew about my blog, I got confident and started sharing.

Earlier I used to write to document, then came a time when I was confused, when the blog started becoming a little popular. Were people really interested in my “exciting” housewife life?  But I figured, I am writing for myself. If someone wants to read my story they can read it else they can just look at the photo and go straight to the recipe. I think it works for the readers, and me, because when you stop trying to do things the way someone else likes it, you actually tend to do it better (especially when it comes to writing).


Has cooking always been a passion? Or is it something you developed after getting married or rather as a challenge to yourself so that you could keep the blog going?

Whole wheat garlic pull-apart bread
I loved baking from the start. My mom baked a lot and she was pretty good at it. I never helped her though; unless you count eating and appreciating as helping- in that case, I helped her a lot. But I grew up with the smell of freshly baked goods and always loved good food, something that I get from my dad. Two years before my marriage, I realized my passion for baking was more intense and wanted to start something of my own (even though I had no experience nor had I shown any interest in actually baking before that!). My friend and I worked on it but guess God had other plans and I got married and the plan took a backseat (for the time being).
Then, I moved to US, to a small mining town, with nothing more than the mine and a big grocery shop, a pizza place, a motel and a chinese place.
My thing with cooking (I still won’t call it love- baking is my true love) was actually born more out of a necessity than any passion. The place where we stay has just 3 restaurants, out of which one always gives me food poisoning and the other is limited on the vegetarian and chicken options (my husband’s preferences), actually that goes for the third restaurant as well. None of them serve my three favorite cuisines- Italian, thai and indian. So if I wanted to have something nice, I had to make it. No to-gos or ordering in options. No Indian spice grocery store either. The nearest being a four-hour drive away. So I had to cook my way out. The blog fuels the need to cook too- it pushes me to keep trying and experimenting- so that I have something different to post about.


You update your blog so regularly. Tell me the process behind planning each post. Do you just wake up in the morning and decide that you'll cook something. It definitely feels like there's a lot of planning!

Grilled zucchini & potato pizza slices
Earlier, I would put everything and anything that I made in my kitchen on the blog. That was during the first few months of starting my blog, when my readers were only people I knew. But, as the blog grew popular and I realized people were actually trying out my recipes, I felt a little more responsible for what recipes get on the site. Now, the blog has become more of a place to store my favorite recipes. For that reason, I generally don’t publish a post regarding a new recipe on the same day I try it. I photograph everything I make though, and what turns out nice is drafted and put on the blog.

As for coming up with what to make- well, I day dream a lot, and a lot of my day dreams revolve around food- could be something I had at a restaurant, or something I had when I was in India or something I saw on somebody’s blog, or something that just came to my mind. So I carry my iPhone everywhere I go. Anything that happens to me or anything that comes across my mind, I use my iPhone notes to write it down. Since I have a lot of thoughts (like seriously lots) I pen them down too. Every good thing I eat and would like to replicate it’s there in my notes. Any moment that sparks a food memory, I write. And then when I am in the mood, I make what I had thought about. I do try to plan a menu every week, but never follow it. Since cooking for me quite often reflects the mood I am in, plans generally don’t stick. I keep bookmarking stuff I see (pinterest has been a godsend), and then when I feel like making something new, I check my pins, or my ever-increasing pile of cookbooks or my iPhone notes and tally it with what I have in the refrigerator, and make something.

Chicken stew and appams
When I am low, I bake. Baking has always been therapeutic, probably because it reminds me of my mom, or probably because the whole house fills up with the smell of vanilla-ey freshly baked goodness.

Over time I have developed a routine for the blog, so that I stick to posting things, since I can get lazy about posting. I started a Garam Masala Tuesdays series where I take an Indian dish and try to explain its history or any other snippet related to it. I also try to explain the steps of making it the best way I can. I avoid as much as I can to post about a recipe on this post the day I try it for the first time, so there is some planning involved in it. But generally since I cook a lot there are always 2-3 recipes to choose from for my post.

Then there are things I have joined for which I need to post something every month- like the Secret Recipe Club, or the Daring Bakers’ Challenge and the Monthly recipe Swap.

So, in a way yes there is some planning to it, since for a lot of things there is a schedule to stick, but since it’s your blog, you can be as flexible as you like.


You're a well-networked blog. You keep a track of other food bloggers, take part in baking/recipe challenges etc - how do you manage to keep track or how do you go about it?

Dutch crunch bread
As far as networking goes, I’m the worst, especially since the past few months, I have been trying to do an internet detox thing, where I try not to spend too much time online. But doing a technology detox is very difficult while you are running a blog. Networking surely helps in increasing your blog’s presence. I have got to know about really good bloggers, just because those bloggers commented on my blog. You have to take time out for it, and once you do you just get swept away by the creativity and wonderful recipes floating around the Internet that it doesn’t seem so difficult to spend hours on people’s sites. Following a blog you like on Facebook or twitter helps in keeping track of what others are cooking.

As for keeping up with baking/ recipe challenges, it can be difficult as sometimes you have other things planned but you can’t do that because of being committed to a particular group event. But one learns so much from these things- for example thanks to the Daring Bakers I have learnt about Dutch crunch bread (I had not even heard of it before), then there was the Battenberg cake we made recently, something I was dying to try and might not have been pushed to make, had it not been for the Daring Bakers.
Thankfully these events are all evenly spaced and give you enough time to complete a challenge. I have always been a procrastinator; so managing the blog has helped to actually improve that habit of mine, because I have learned the hard way that waiting for the last minute to do something can be really taxing when it comes to blogging.

Other than the amazing sounding recipes on your blog, what makes it a real treat to follow are the beautiful photographs. The blog seems to indulge another passion - photography?

Everybody knows that you eat with your eyes first.

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
I was always the one amongst my friends to carry a camera all the time. I loved capturing moments spent with my friends and family. My love for food photography only came after I started blogging.

During the initial one and half years of blogging, I used a point and shoot camera, and would photograph at any time of the day. There were a lot of poorly lit photographs. I wouldn’t even bother with composing much. So those photographs were all poorly composed too. As I grew into the blog and learnt a whole new world of food blogs, I got impressed by the talent all these bloggers had and their photographs would have me drooling. I would also look at the photographs on FoodGawker and TasteSpotting (2 very popular food porn sites) and all that inspired me to improve my photography. I started giving more thought to the composition, started shooting during the day- and make use of natural light. I would submit my photos to the above-mentioned sites, only to get rejected. But the rejection is what made me want to improve. I know photography is very subjective- what appeals to you might not appeal to me, but the approval of these sites became a measure on which I improved my photography. Slowly, my photos started getting accepted, and along the way I learnt I really enjoyed the whole process- of composing a shot, choosing props that would make the food pop, the angle and playing with the light. This article by Six Bittersweets helped a lot. I also saved up enough to buy a DSLR and learning that became a new hobby.

Food photography has now become a passion and I mainly use the camera for that, and now and then capture people’s faces, their emotions. I love being behind the camera, not in front of it. If someone takes my close up I am ready to scream bloody murder.
 

Can you describe the time involved - planning what to make, then photographing and accessorizing during the cooking process and then once you have made the dish, photographing the finished product, editing the pictures and posting everything. And of course finding the time to eat in between.


Channa masala
It takes time and effort both. You really need to have a passion for all of it. Sometimes (actually a lot many times) I get frustrated and have had my share of meltdowns. Sometimes a dish takes longer to make only because I have to photograph each step. And since I always use natural light, finding it in my kitchen isn’t always easy, and I have to shift the setup somewhere else. Having a strong dislike for cleaning dishes doesn’t help either. Most of the times, the props used to serve food for the blog are different from the ones used for cooking the dish, and that means additional utensils getting dirty. If not for the blog, I would definitely be serving food in the pot that it is cooked in, but using that for the blog might not be its most flattering shot.
So, if it takes 20 minutes to make a particular dish, taking photographs, getting the props ready and getting the necessary stuff for the shot set up might take an hour. Its not always like that but generally yes, you end up spending double the time. And that can be a little too much effort, especially when you have been up since 5am to go for your run and then on your feet to dust, vacuum and mop the whole house yourself. Its difficult not to have the thought cross your mind that had it not been for the blog, I would have been free much earlier with all my work. But then again, if it hadn’t been for the blog I would have felt completely unproductive and would not have learnt so much about myself along the way.

Crepes with lemon curd
Earlier I would post process a lot. With a point and shoot, you don’t have a lot of control with how you want your pictures to look, plus it took me time to understand photography. So even post processing took time. But as I am getting better at the whole photography thing (there’s still a lot to learn), the time I spend on post processing has reduced significantly- Lightroom and its auto feature helps a lot. I still have no clue how to use photoshop. The tools I use are lightroom to fix the white balance sometimes and adjust the contrast. And I use Picasa mostly to sharpen the photo. Sometimes I use Picasa’s cross process, because I like the effect it gives a photograph. I have recently found a love for the spot black & white feature that picasa has.

Chocolate ice cream
As for eating, I am lucky to have a supportive husband, who waits for me to take my shots even though he has only a half an hour lunch break and has to rush back to his office. He has also been more than happy to be a hand model for my blog (that way I don’t have to show my not so manicured hands to everyone).


Do you know how many people follow your blog? You now also have a Facebook page. Do you plan for this to evolve into something much bigger? Like a stepping stone to what Masterchef calls your 'food dream'? Do you have plans of taking it offline into your own restaurant or cooking classes or something along those lines?

As I mentioned earlier, before I got married my friend and I wanted to open a café style bakery. My friend is great at designing clothes and I had a passion for baking (although I had never actually baked too much before this realization!). So we thought to get together and open this cafe cum boutique. Although we had no experience we felt that the idea would work and we would be able to make it work. But we got a lot of resistance from our families, especially since we were at that age where the only word out of your parents is marriage. Anyway somehow the plan fell even before we got started. I feel the reason it didn’t work was because I lacked confidence in myself. The dream to open something of my own is still there and the blog has helped me to explore that possibility. I keep noting down café menu ideas, décor etc. And I day dream about it a lot! So, yes someday, taking this offline is the plan. Look out for me!

What do you enjoy cooking the most? And who's your biggest fan?

Can I rephrase the question? I am more of a baking person and I love baking- be it breads, cake, muffins. If I have to choose cooking- then I love making dal ka parantha because it’s such a great way to use leftovers and it just reminds me of summer holidays at my grandparents and the time I was staying with them working out my business plan with my friend.

Apple pie tartlets
My biggest fan has to be one of my best friends, Bhinee. She reads all my posts, actually waits for them and has tried a lot of my recipes too, giving me feedback for each.  And since, my husband asked me to say so he too is one of my biggest fans! Well, jokes aside, he is definitely a big support for my blog, as I test all my recipes on him. He likes them all. Even when I might not like something, he eats everything I make and enjoys it to the fullest, or so he says. That’s why I never trust his opinion because how can someone like everything you make. And believe me I have served him some pretty nasty stuff and he has never once said ‘I did not like that’. That, in fact, is quite encouraging and thanks to him, I can experiment freely. Plus, he never has once raised an eyebrow when I order a new cookbook, even though I have plenty lying on the bookshelf eating dust!

Any major recipe disasters?

5 minute Nutella mug cake
Lots! I love to experiment and that’s when most of my screw-ups happen. I try to be innovative and creative, like those on Masterchef and well it doesn’t always work for me. That’s why I will NEVER try for Masterchef. Also, people looking at me cook, makes me too conscious and I screw up.

I have blogged about my failures here and here and here. A lot of disasters also happen when I try to make a recipe healthier, making all kinds of substitutions and well, they don’t turn up great. I do try my best to somehow save a failed recipe though, since I hate wastage and throwing any kind of food out. But, yes I have had my share of failures. 


8 comments:

Nisha said...

Came here from Shumaila's FB page. Interesting and thankfully different questions than the ones I read in other blogger interviews. Thanks for having her; it's great to know more about bloggers I like.

Shumaila: I can relate to SO many things you mentioned about yourself. Except the photography bit - will take me years till I can take a photos like yours. Great interview!

Reem said...

Thanks Nisha...I've always been quite fascinated with Shumaila's blog and it was just a matter of time before I wrote about the Novice Housewife here. Glad you enjoyed it.

Karen said...

Shumi, you made a Battenberg cake! I am in awe of you. I saw a few Battenberg posts up on the "food porn sites" but I was't aware that you made one as well. Going to check it out. And for heaven's sake go to pastry school or start your own thing soon. Reem, when she's famous you can tell everyone that you were the first person to interview her.

Vinita said...

Hi Reem, great interview! Very inspiring to read about how Shumi created the blog and all the yummy recipes always perfecting her baking/cooking and photography. I first came across her blog through Pinterest which is godsend to me too. I love the way my horizons have expanded since then coming across lovely photos and blogs and making new blog buddies! Have a great day!

Reem said...

Thanks Vinita...Shumaila and her blog have been on my 'to write about' list for a while, i'm glad I got around to it and that you enjoyed reading it.

Shumaila said...

Reem: Thanks for having me on your space and thanks for all the compliments (I am floating in the air:)). Loved your questions! And I read all your blog posts. They always make me laugh! And yup that Oracle didn't tell a lot of things- we need to find the publishers and sue them!

Nisha: I guess all us food bloggers are sailing in the same boat! :)


Karen: K, yes I made Battenberg and its so much work. WHile I liked the cake, the marzipan covering was just too sweet for me. It is a beautiful cake though and had been on my list for a long time. Thanks to Daring Bakers I got to make it. you should join it too. People without blogs can be members as well, posting on the forums. It s a fun way to challenge yourself each month. And yes, I will hopefully be doing something more with the whole food thing soon!

Vinita: I agree Pinterest is a godsend. I can sit and stare at it for hours. And thanks for appreciating my blog:)!

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