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P

erched atop a clove tree in Zanzibar, Africa, Nirmala Narine had an epiphany. It was the year 2000, and Narine was on vacation from her job as director of human resources for a marketing firm in New Jersey.

“I was munching on some cloves, and thinking, what am I going to do with my life?” she remembers. She was good at her job, but she wasn’t passionate about it. It was at that moment that Narine decided to forego the 9-to-5 grind for a more exciting (if uncertain) career as an entrepreneur.

“In life and in business, you have to take risks,” she declares. So after a stint with her own corporate gifts business called Impressive Things, three years ago, Narine finally turned to her real passions: food and travel.

“I love traveling,” say Narine, who prefers to traipse about the world solo, “and I started cooking at an early age. I could close my eyes and make a spice blend.”

One of Narine’s first creations was a Moroccan tagine spice blend she perfected by spending two weeks with Berber tribesmen in the desert.

Indeed, as a little girl growing up in Guyana, South America (her great-grandparents migrated there from India), Narine was often found in the kitchen alongside her grandfather, a Hindu pandit who was skilled in Ayurvedic cooking techniques. It was there that she developed a fascination for food. So when her family left Guyana for another new world—Queens, New York—Narine carried that tradition with her.

When it was time to develop a new business, it was that love of food that propelled her to start Nirmala’s Kitchen, her own line of gourmet spice blends. One of her first creations was a Moroccan tagine concoction she perfected by spending two weeks with Berber tribesmen in the desert.

Nirmala Narine on her travels.
Nirmala Narine on her travels.

And that was just the beginning. Since then, Narine has made it her job to regularly travel around the world, studying and sampling the foods that real people eat. No tourist hot spots for her—Narine gets down with the locals, often lugging back various spices in her luggage. “I don’t just sell food, I sell culture,” she explains.

And though she’ll sample foods like deep-fried cricket in Oaxaca or Burma, Narine is skilled at distilling exotic flavors into ones that suit not-so-exotic sensibilities. “I try to balance authenticity with the American palate,” she says.

It’s that attention to balance that has caught on. Soon after the launch of Nirmala’s Kitchen, her spice blends could be found at some of New York City’s most exclusive restaurants—several have commissioned her to create specific recipes for their menus. Her products are now sold at upscale foodie havens like Williams-Sonoma, and she’s expanded her line to include rice and salt blends, as well.

Though she’ll sample foods like deep-fried cricket in Oaxaca or Burma, Narine is skilled at distilling exotic flavors into ones that suit not-so-exotic sensibilities.

Now the empress of her own veritable spice empire, Narine has turned to sharing her travels—and the foods that accompany them—through her new cookbook, In Nirmala’s Kitchen: Everyday World Cuisine. In the book’s foreword, executive chef Eric Ripert of Manhattan’s acclaimed Le Bernardin writes that “Nirmala travels the world and seeks out the exotic. She then brings it home to share and, in doing so, inspires creativity in those around her … You’ll find recipes that are exciting and authentic.”

But what makes the book so lovely is not just the recipes but the insightful and humorous stories and photos of her adventures peppered throughout its pages. These anecdotes—like the escapade in which she had to bribe a government official with seven packs of cigarettes and her Patagonia jacket to get through a Tibetan checkpoint—bring the book to life.

And yet, despite all her success, Narine is most proud of her work with children. She insists on visiting orphanages during each of her trips, because she loves bringing a little bit of the world to the world’s children. “Food connects us spiritually and emotionally,” she says. “If you get a child to try a new food, you get her to try a new culture.” We all—young and old—have Narine to thank for that.

Try these recipes from Nirmala Narine’s new cookbook:

Bahamian Codfish Fritters

Bahamian Codfish Fritters

½ pound salt cod
½ cup mashed russet potato
1 tsp baking powder
2 to 4 tablespoons warm milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp minced garlic

1 T finely chopped chives
1 T chopped parsley
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 T seeded and finely chopped Thai or Serrano chile
Vegetable oil for frying

Place salt cod in a medium bowl and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. In a colander, drain fish; discard water, and rinse fish under cold running water for 1 minute.

Place fish in a medium saucepan and cover with 1 inch cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 12 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat, drain, and set aside to cool. When fish is cool enough to handle, remove any bones or skin. Squeeze out excess water, then shred the codfish into small pieces and set aside.

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, slowly heat enough vegetable oil for deep-frying (about 3 inches) until a deep-fry thermometer reads 365°.

Prepare the fritters: In a medium bowl, mix together the potato, baking powder, 2 Tablespoons milk, and the egg. Add the garlic, chives, parsely, thyme, chile and shredded codfish; stir to combine. The mixture should be fluffy yet just thick enough to roll into balls. If the batter is too thick, add up to 2 more Tablespoons milk, gently mixing to incorporate it. Be sure not to let the batter become too thin.

Lightly dampen your hands with water and form the fritters into 1-inch balls. Carefully drop them, a few at a time, into the hot oil and cook until light golden brown, about 3 minutes, turning once or twice so the fritters brown evenly. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Serve warm with mango chutney. Serves 16.

Veracruz Crab Quesadilla

Veracruz Crab Quesadilla

1½ cups lump crabmeat, picked over for any pieces of cartilage
2 T finely chopped green onions (green parts only)
1 T chopped cilantro
1½ T finely chopped shallot
2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and chopped
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
8 round flour tortillas, 7 to 8 inches in diameter
2 cups (about 5 ounces) shredded Queso Chihuahua cheese
About ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 T chopped chives for garnish
Guacamole

In a medium bowl, combine the crabmeat, green onions, cilantro, shallot, chiles, and lime juice. Gently toss until well combined, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Place 4 of the flour tortillas on a work surface. Spread one-quarter of the crab mixture evenly over each tortilla to within 1/2-inch of the edges all around.

Spread one-half cup of the cheese evenly over the crab mixture. Press remaining flour tortillas over medium-high heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.

Fry one quesadilla at a time until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes on each side, adding more oil when necessary. Let cool for 2 minutes, then cut each quesadilla into 4 triangles, sprinkle with chives, and serve with guacamole. Serves 4.

Hibiscus Tea

Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea

1 cup dried hibiscus flower petals
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches long)

2 T freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ cup sugar
Lime wedges for garnish

Rinse and drain the hibiscus flowers in a colander. In a medium saucepan, combine 5 cups water, hibiscus, cloves, and cinnamon; cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes.

Strain the tea through a fine sieve and discard the flower petals and spices. Add lime juice and sugar to taste, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Pour into a pitcher and refrigerate until well-chilled. Serve in glasses over ice and garnish each drink with a slice of lime. Serves 4.n

Ismat Sarah Mangla won’t eat fried cricket, but she’ll try just about anything else.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: By Tina Rupp, courtesy of Lake Isle Press. Travel photo courtesy of Nirmala Narine.
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