A chance introduction to Buttered Up, a food blog run by 26-year-old Sarah Khanna currently based in Kuala Lumpur, gave me thoughts that perhaps, the kitchen isn’t too daunting a cave in one’s house to step into.
Buttered Up has been causing quite a stir in Egypt as people pass on by word of mouth the blogging efforts of Khanna: it is part food blog and part personal diary. Short essays about life as a stepmother and expat living in Malaysia written in a tone that is both witty and endearing accompany beautiful shots of her culinary accomplishments.
Buttered Up reads like a conversation with one’s best (girl) friend.
Khanna refers to herself as an “ex-corporate slave,” having worked previously in advertising creating many print campaigns and promoting several clients ranging from the Four Seasons to Mercedes-Benz and SODIC. It was a chance relocation to Kuala Lumpur that prompted her to step into the kitchen.
Daily News Egypt: Your passion for cooking comes across so beautifully in your blog. Was it always a passion for you growing up?
Sarah Khanna: As a child (because I still like to call myself that) of an Indian father and an Egyptian mother who both worked in the hotel industry, the process of making food was something that didn’t cross my mind very often.
With a sister who has loved to bake from an early age, a mother who excels in the kitchen — as she does in everything else — and a father who was the head of many hotels, I was dramatically intimidated by the kitchen.
I had the liberty to go into the hotel kitchen and bother the pastry chef and yet, it never hit me early on that I could actually do something with everything I observed. Only recently have I chosen to revive in me the family tradition of loving the kitchen wholeheartedly.
Apart from that, I have a penchant for photography, I dance in the kitchen, I will never wear a toque, I love kitchen knives and I’m taking up running.
What inspired you to start this food and photography blog?
I don’t think I can really pinpoint that moment of inspiration. It wasn’t a eureka moment where the little people sitting in my head stood up and clapped.
After collaborating with a friend on a baking project and overcoming the fear of making sugar cookies and macarons, I realized that there had to be a next step to all this. And then, there was Buttered Up. It started off as a side project really. Something I could do to keep track of my personal development and a more interactive way to store my recipes. I also really needed to get back to photography. I originally took portraits so food photography was very new to me.
What recipes do you use and do you ever come up with recipes of your own?
I don’t use a recipe on my blog without crediting it which is a responsibility that I take very seriously. The recipes I don’t credit are either recipes I created on my own based on obsessive reading or things I learned growing up, either from my mom or by tiptoeing around the hotel kitchen.
I can never follow a recipe to the dot anyway but that bad trait has benefited me.
How has becoming a stepmother of two changed your approach to cooking?
Big question. It wasn’t my approach that I changed. Instead, it was the children’s palates that I was trying so hard to mould.
Exposing children to the world of flavors out there is actually quite a daunting task. Unfortunately, we do not, as Egyptians, give high priority to what our children consume in terms of variety.
I support those parents…watch the nutritional value of what they’re putting into their kids’ bodies but what I personally aimed to do is educate my stepchildren about nutrition alongside flavor pairing so that they could learn to match unexpected ingredients in their minds to form something new and exciting.
The fresh produce market here in Kuala Lumpur became a regular family trip that everyone is happy to participate in. Food has to be made fun to get them interested — rainbow pancakes, plate presentation, etc.
You’d be surprised to know that many children I’ve dealt with really appreciate the way food is presented to them on a plate. Present TV on a plate to them; that is, what they see in movies and cartoons. Disney’s ‘Ratatouille’ movie has minimized the chances of the average mother’s plating skills being accepted though.
What are the struggles of keeping a food blog? What inspires you to keep going into the kitchen?
Keeping it going is the biggest obstacle. It’s not the lack of ideas that stops me. It’s actually the circumstances of life that keep standing in the way; or is it that I allow them to stand in the way?
I broke my right ring finger last October and needed surgery and physiotherapy so that’s taking a while and it’s definitely a challenge getting my hand to work the way it normally does. The progress I’ve made is great though. I had to push myself to cook earlier than I should have to actually get back that ‘lovin’ feeling’ I had towards my blog.
I think my cravings are what push me into the kitchen. I’m always looking for ways to reinvent dishes that we know or to recreate dishes that reside only in childhood memories.
Have you had any response from unknown followers? What are the hit counts on your blog?
I’ve received quite an amount of feedback from visitors worldwide — many American and European followers along with a decent number of people in Egypt and Lebanon.
Buttered Up has received a Lifetime Medal at BigOven.com as well as being featured twice in the Top 9 Recipes on FoodBuzz.com, which is one of the most prominent online food blog communities. That garnered more attention that I thought it could.
In terms of hits, the blog is getting between 8,000-9,000 hits a month. In all humbleness, I think that if I boost my efforts, I would be able to aggregate higher numbers.
What are your favorite things to bake/make?
I wish I had a favorite. I get bored easily and thus my favorites change constantly. I love making pizzas because the possibilities of toppings are endless. I love using apples and pears and I have a thing for roasting peppers. Peppers are bizarrely comforting to me.
Seafood is something I’m trying to focus on lately because Malaysia offers massive quantities of it and it’s an opportunity to work with ingredients I wouldn’t normally find elsewhere.
What are your favorite Egyptian foods and have you been able to replicate anything and photograph it for your blog?
If only someone could send me a bowl of koshary from any regular place in Cairo, I would be so thankful. I think I miss all the regular things that I don’t make so often. Egyptian bamia or okra is something I miss because the okra here is different and doesn’t take to the same method of cooking easily.
The things I’m proudest of making are kahk (traditional cookies made during Eid) with date filling and baladi bread-Egyptian pita bread. I’ve actually posted the bread recipe on the blog. That was a definite moment of triumph because that way, we got to make fatta during Eid. Sometimes, a taste of the city you love is needed.
It’s a shame that many Egyptians have eliminated the need for that beautiful smell of baking in their homes to celebrate the start of a holiday. You won’t lose your designer lifestyle if you decide to bake kahk with your kids or friends during Eid. You will instead, retain a part of your culture that is disappearing and bond better than at the beach, which you can do anyway.
Has Malay food inspired you at all while there?
Many of us don’t realize that Malaysia isn’t a country full of ‘Malaysians,’ like we consider ourselves to be a country full of Egyptians who share the same or similar culture and customs.
Malaysia is based on three main nationalities: Malay, Chinese and Indian, so the food includes all those influences along with a variety of adopted food cultures like Thai, Javanese and Nyonya cuisines.
So really, the people who hold a Malaysian passport, only really share a love of one thing: food, or makan, as they say. It’s definitely the national pastime but you’ve got to love chili.
I’m more inspired to work with Northern/Southern Indian and Thai food than I am with the rest. I’m also enamored with the amazing ingredients that pour in daily from everywhere and the fresh markets available in the country.
Could you share a recipe or two with our readers?
For a different breakfast, make an Egg Bhurji. It’s a nice break from the norm and most people are very accepting of this simple Indian dish. If you’ve got the time, I urge you to make your own pizza dough at home and to take the time to roll it out.
The recipe I use results in a very stretchy dough, which gives you a smooth and pliable canvas to work with. Both those recipes are available on my blog.
Egg Bhurji: Breaking kids into Indian food
1 medium onion
2 small tomatoes or 1 large tomato
2 tablespoons of ghee or butter (You could use vegetable oil, just not olive oil please.)
1 handful of frozen peas
2 green chillies (I didn’t include it this time because of the kids but I urge you to do it if you can handle it. You could also use some chili powder for some extra heat.)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
1/4 teaspoon garam masala (optional)
1/4 cup of milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh coriander, to garnish
Khanna’s Egg Bhurji
1. Chop your onions, chillies and tomatoes up.
2. Let them sweat then add your peas, turmeric and coriander powder (as well as the chili and garam masala if you’re using them).
3. Pour the egg mix in, scramble and let it set according to your preference and garnish with fresh coriander. Serve, preferably with a flat bread.
Happy kids every time. Happy adults every time. Who says no to happy?
Look for Khanna’s upcoming weekly food column in Daily News Egypt.