Aashima Manek of Caloriesmart.in

When did you start cooking and who introduced you to the kitchen?
I baked my first cake at age 7, with a recipe I got from a school friend’s mom. That was it I was addicted. The high of creating something amazing and having everyone gush over it was just something else!

Were you encouraged to learn cooking as a child? Who was your biggest mentor?
My mom is not a great cook, it is my nanny -Manda Didi (who took care of me and cooked in the house) who I’ve really looked up to for cooking . She still makes the most amazing Indian food ever and is so diverse that she can pick up any cuisine with ease. She’s still with us 35 years on and still is the best cook in the world to me.

Where did you grow up and what are your favorite foods?
I grew up in Delhi, got married and went to Mumbai for 8 years. The move to Mumbai I think has really helped evolve my palate. Because while food in Delhi is amazing, the versatility and exposure from street food to world cuisine that Mumbai has is incomparable. My favorite food is anything that’s spicy and full of flavor.

Which cuisines do you cook today and which is the one you most favour?
I cook Punjabi, Gujrati, Italian, Chinese, Burmese, Moroccan, Thai, a bit of French, Middle Eastern and a few Greek recipes; I always put the CalorieSmart twist on any of the cuisines that I make, as in the food is healthy with lots of fresh ingredients and low on empty calories from processed ingredients.

What has been your biggest culinary challenge till date? Tell us about it!
Starting a Premium Platter in CalorieSmart which would have 5 items everyday with a different menu and cuisine, all under 500 Kcal. We try and do a different cuisine every day of the week , and keeping that in mind, design an entire meal which has a salad , a soup/starter, an entrée, a main dish and a dessert / curd / yogurt… all of this within 500 Kcal . These platters have been very appreciated every day of the week and that has been a super reward .

How would you describe your relationship with food & cooking?
I have always loved to cook. Our joie de vivre Punjabi heritage coupled with my father’s camaraderie with his armed forces colleagues translated into innumerable luncheons and dinners hosted at home. The gratification from my indulgent family and friends encouraged me to take up subsequent cooking endeavours with even more gusto and over time as I honed my skills, I gained a reputation for serving the most delish cakes, cupcakes, brownies and pasta. Even after I got married and moved cities with my husband, bonding with new friends and relatives was always made easier over meals that I had worked hard to prepare. Cooking for my children’s school field trips and parties always garner the sweetest responses and at the end of the parties I would be on cloud 9. It is this feeling that I wanted to replicate every day of my life and hence the call to switch from being a dentist to a chef. There is an Indian maxim which loosely translates to consider the moment you wake up to be your time of dawn. I did not wish to be strait-jacketed to an externally prescribed path and hence decided to switch from dentistry to my true passion- food. CalorieSmart was the perfect amalgamation of my background (Health) and my passion (Food). Hence, to answer the question now ;) food is my passion which I have turned into a profession.

Do your children share your passion for food?
My kids are a bit young . But my son (who’s 6) loves helping me with cakes whenever I bake one for them at home and my daughter(who’s 3) is always a keen helper. But my son watches food shows on TV with a real passion, he loved Foodistan and Ultimate Cake Off , as they are competitive and related to food. He also loves watching Fabulous Cakes and Junior Masterchef. So I think somewhere, he’s quite interested in it.

Do you plan to go into business for yourself? What would you offer potential clients?
I along with my partners (Priyanka and Dimple) run a successful business in Gurgaon called CalorieSmart. We provide healthy , calorie counted, balanced meals to office goers in Gurgaon. We are a healthy meal subscription service. Our meals our designed such that each food group in the meal is in the the right proportion and the calorie and fat content of the meal is low. At the same time our meals are full of variety, flavor, taste and fresh ingredients. We have grown to over 250 happy subscribers in a year.

Who do you call when you’re puzzled over a cooking related problem? Why?
I have different mentors for different cuisines, like for North Indian food it would be my Nanny – Manda Didi , she’s the God of North Indian food. For Gujrati and Parsi dishes, my mother in law (Aruna Manek), sister in law (Saunhita Bhabi) and our cook (Rabbi) in Mumbai , because that’s their expertise, and they are brilliant at it.

A word of advice for young and novice cooks?
Experiment and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Salvaging a ruined dish is the test of a real cook.


Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.