First Person

Aarti Sequeira: Food can change the world

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Aarti Sequeira joined Oxfam's outreach effort at the New York Wine and Food Festival. Photo courtesy Imran Jaffery/

In a conversation with Oxfam America, the chef and TV star shares seasonal recipes, smart cooking tips, and much more.

Aarti Sequeira is already a multi-hyphenate kind of person: chef, author, mom, blogger, and host of TV shows on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, among other accomplishments. And on top of all of that, she’s also an Oxfam supporter. I spoke with Sequeira by phone last week about her recent work with Oxfam and her belief that food has the power to change lives.

Anna Kramer: Aarti, thanks for supporting Oxfam. You contributed your recipe for Chickpeas and Rice Pilaf to our seasonal effort to fight hunger. Why did you choose that particular recipe?

Aarti Sequeira: I wanted to choose a recipe that could help consumers help small family farmers. That’s why I chose something that used rice. My dad’s family were rice farmers in India … it’s such a tenuous practice! I remember when something happened and my granddad’s farm wasn’t doing well, they fell into some really hard times. I support anything that will help family farmers around the world have a more stable way of life.

That dish is a pulao, the Indian version of pilaf. I love it because it’s simple and it’s a really wonderful way to dress up a grain that we don’t think much of—rice, which can be just another starch on the table. Adding a legume to it, adding spices and a little heat, transforms this everyday grain into something really special. You also don’t need to add too much to your table to make it a complete meal.

AK: When I was working on our quiz about family farmers, I was surprised to learn that rice is a staple for 3.5 billion people—not just in Asia but all over the world. In your TV shows and cookbook, you emphasize global cuisine. What is it about food that can bridge cultures?

AS: People talk about cooking as another form of art. Music, painting, acting: those are all ways to reach across cultures and teach people and communicate ideas. But the thing about food is that everybody eats—while not everyone likes to sing, for example. … That’s one of the powers of food. Even if we don’t speak the same language, even if we haven’t lived the same lifestyle, even if we don’t agree with each other, we can agree that we need to eat. And we may as well sit down and eat together. … It’s a great meeting point.

There’s also a connection between feeding your tummy and feeding your soul. There’s a connection between food and comfort, food and celebration, and food and sadness. On your first date, you eat. Today is my daughter’s first birthday and I’m driving around trying to find a cake made with fruit juice … because she needs a cake on her birthday. Food is connected to our emotions and our daily lives.

“Even if we don’t speak the same language, even if we haven’t lived the same lifestyle, even if we don’t agree with each other, we can agree that we need to eat. And we may as well sit down and eat together.”

AK: You’ve been an advocate for Oxfam’s five principles for feeding the planet. What is it about these principles that appeals to you?

AS: So many times when we talk about wealth, hunger, or food injustice, they’re such big, heavy words. I feel like I’m just this one person, how in the world will I make any difference? I love that when I’m sitting down to feed my family, I can also feel good about contributing in some small way, which adds up to a big way. And that I can contribute to helping to solve this global problem just by choosing what I eat for dinner. That’s a powerful thing, and empowering, too.

The one that has stuck with me the most is the idea of a meatless Monday [or another day of the week]. Not only is going meatless a good thing physically for our bodies, but it affects the environment. You are saving gallons of water and saving energy. … I tell people about it, that eating less meat is not just a health thing. It’s an environmental thing too.

Source: “The Food Transformation,” 2012.

AK: Do you have a favorite vegetarian recipe?

AS: Right now I’ve been traveling a lot, and you don’t get to eat a lot of greens when you’re traveling, so I miss them. I have a recipe in my cookbook for something called greens and beans. It’s just kale and a can of Great Northern beans, and then I make a cilantro pesto with cilantro, almonds, olive oil, and garlic.

AK: I had kale last night, actually, though I didn’t put pesto on it. I’ll have to try your recipe.

AS: The thing about kale is that … we found out that this vegetable is good for us, so we try to eat it all year round. It’s a vegetable like any other and it has its season. If you try to eat it out of its season it’s not going to taste as good. Now is a great time to eat kale, because it’s in its season. It’s a little sweeter.

AK: Shopping seasonally: that’s another of Oxfam’s five principles! How else have these principles changed the way you eat and shop?

AS: The things I find most useful are going meatless one day a week, cooking seasonally, and saving food. Using your leftovers. Something I try to do, at the end of the week, is to throw everything into a massive huge salad with all kinds of random things in it… whatever [produce] was in the fridge. That’s a Sunday salad. Now that it’s getting colder, I’ll try doing a Sunday soup. You take everything in fridge that’s about to go, throw it in your stock pot, and make a big old soup out of it. That will last the whole week as well.

AK: You just joined Oxfam’s outreach efforts at the New York Wine and Food Festival. What was that like?

AS: We made a huge batch of that pulao recipe that I gave to Oxfam. People could come and grab a bowl of food. We had a stack of recipes with the five principles. … I was able to say hey, have you heard of Oxfam, the things they do? I talked about Haiti, for example, how Oxfam stayed and is now helping people grow crops more efficiently. And I also got signatures on a petition to take to Congress to change the way the US hands out food aid [to make it more effective].

One huge advantage we had was that at the Grand Tasting there is a lot of wine and not a lot of food. And it was a cold day. People were so happy to have a bowl of real food to eat. And it was warm too! [I thought] could this be more perfect? It’s true to what Oxfam does, and what I do: making real, good food; making good choices; and making food that sustains people.

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