Years ago, Aneesa Waheed might have laughed if someone had told her she would eventually become a cookbook writer.
But then again, she probably would have had the same reaction had they told her she would run several Moroccan restaurants and have a range of cooking sauces.
“For me, it’s an incredible dream come true to have my own cookbook published and printed that people are reading,” Waheed said. “Thirty years ago, if you had said that to me, I would have… [said] ‘how is that even possible?’ †
Waheed, who founded the locally beloved Tara Kitchen restaurants, was never one to help in the kitchen growing up in India and later as a teenager in Schenectady. Instead, she mostly focused on other creative pursuits, and after graduating from Schenectady High School, she went on to study fine arts and graphic design. Her career started in graphic design and then moved to the production side of publishing, where she worked for about 13 years.
It was on vacation from such a publishing house that her love of food, especially Moroccan food, took over.
“I felt like I could stay there forever, eat a bowl of harira and be enveloped in the magic of the land,” Waheed writes in her introduction to her book, titled “Easy Moroccan Cookbook.”
On that trip to Morocco, she also met the love of her life, Muntasim Shoaib, who stepped in to help translate after Waheed endured a harrowing journey across the desert to reach the city of Marrakech. They married three months after meeting and Waheed returned to Morocco many times in the year it took to get a visa for Shoaib. During her visits she learned to make all kinds of dishes; combining savoy cabbage with spicy fruit and warm spices.
They eventually settled in Schenectady, started a catering business and sold food at the Schenectady Green Market, leading to the opening of Tara Kitchen’s first location in the Electric City in 2012. They have expanded to Troy, Guilderland and Wildwood, New York. Jersey.
At each location, the focus is on serving accessible Moroccan dishes; brimming with flavour, often warm but not overwhelmingly fiery. It has kept customers coming back week after week and is part of the reason Waheed wanted to write a cookbook, especially one that would simplify cooking traditional Moroccan meals.
“What I do with Moroccan food . † † and the way I’ve been able to adapt it to our American palate is something I haven’t seen anywhere else,” Waheed said. “There are some amazing chefs and writers and authors who have written incredible books about Morocco and the cooking techniques in it, but [they’re] all very discouraging, even for someone like me who likes to cook and cooks for 14 hours a day.”
Instead, she scaled down recipes without sacrificing flavor. It took months of prescription testing. Since the cookbook is aimed at family and home cooks, feeding between four and six guests, she had to rethink most of the tried and true recipes she uses at Tara Kitchen.
“We had all these criteria that I never thought of when making recipes, because I’m always thinking [of] make recipe according to the restaurant. So that was a huge challenge,” Waheed said.
There was also a time constraint. In collaboration with publisher Callisto Media, she had from October 2021 to January 2022 to write and test each of the more than 60 recipes.
“I had previously planned trips to Morocco, Spain, [and] India, so I was traveling a lot. It was literally “Book Mission Impossible,” Waheed said.
Luckily she had some help. Some of her employees have tried recipes at home, as has one of her editors.
“I had friends and family all over the country [testing]’ said Waheed.
Despite the stress of balancing travel with running the restaurants, Waheed enjoyed the cooking throughout the testing process.
“I can’t tell you how much love, joy and peace I find in it. I am extremely hyperactive. † † and I find that cooking is the only thing that really calms and centers me,” Waheed said.
In the book, she included a series of recipes, almost all of them simple and quick with relatively few ingredients, that took readers from appetizers to desserts and staples. There is a recipe for baked chicken wings with honey, harissa and orange glaze; one for eggplant with chickpeas, prunes and honey, and another for Moroccan mint tea.
In the beginning, Waheed also breaks down the spices and tools you need to have on hand and offers time-saving strategies and ways to combine dishes and drinks.
“I’m very pleased with how accessible the book seems and how daunting it was to try to simplify the recipes, they are so flavorful,” Waheed said. “I want people to have this in their kitchen and comb through it and … use it as much as possible because of the simplicity and the clean way of cooking. That would be the greatest gift for me.”
“Easy Moroccan Cookbook” will be released on Tuesday, June 28. From 12:00 to 13:30 on Thursday June 30, The Open Door Bookstore will host a signing session with Waheed. The book will also be available online at Amazon.com and Target.com.
Waheed has credited the Schenectady community for supporting her and her business, both in the early days and now.
“I want to say a huge thank you to the community for embracing us, supporting our vision and helping us in ways I don’t think people even realize,” Waheed said.
She hopes those who read her story will be encouraged in their careers.
“Absolutely everything is possible and the road to where you want to be is not straight. You have to make so many detours, . † † just stick with it, stay positive,” Waheed said.
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Categories: Food, Life & Art, Schenectady