Spice Goddess Bal Arneson Puts a Healthy Spin on Everyday Indian Cooking

Vancouver's Bal Arneson got her start over a fire pit in India, but today she's cooking alongside Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson

Credit: Terry Guscott / Styling by Heather Cameron

Terry Guscott / Styling by Heather Cameron

Bal Arneson teaches modern Indian cuisine with a focus on healthy ingredients

Vancouver chef Bal Arneson once cooked rotis over a barbecue pit in India, but now she’s rubbing elbows with celebrity chefs on her own Food Network 
TV series

As early as five years old, Bal Arneson remembers helping her mom start the barbecue pit in the tiny Punjab village where she grew up in India. And, as early as seven, she was creating her own dishes. Her father travelled as a businessman and would come home raving about the food he sampled. His young daughter noticed and realized that cuisine was a way to make a mark in life. 

Bal Arneson’s Early Cooking Exploits

Arneson began experimenting with food as a way to impress her father and family, but, moreover, as a creative outlet. “I remember it gave me a sense of freedom, and a sense of creating something,” says Arneson. Now, what may have started as a regimented female role for Arneson has turned into a thriving career as a chef with a bestselling cookbook and TV shows, including a slot on the Food Network’s new Cooking Channel, alongside the likes of Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.

It’s a long way from her humble beginnings with one pot, one knife, and an outdoor fire to cook on.

Arneson describes her rise in the culinary world as a fluke. She came to Canada 18 years ago with nothing, via an arranged marriage. The marriage didn’t last and her family in India disowned her. Alone, with a small child, she lived in a women’s shelter, cleaned houses, learned English, and eventually earned a master’s degree in education.

Story-oriented Approach to Cooking Attracts Audiences

Throughout, cooking remained a constant in Arneson’s life, and she began giving informal cooking classes. “I love cooking and I love sharing,” says Arneson, and people respond to what she calls her “story-oriented” cooking, embracing tales of her childhood and first culinary forays.

The simple philosophy of cooking she grew up with is the basis of her fare today. Cooking didn’t take more than 25 minutes in the village because women had other chores to do. And food had to be accessible, incorporating whatever was fresh and seasonal. This same mantra is what makes her cookbook, Everyday Indian: 100 Fast, Fresh and Healthy Recipes, such a success. “No one else has focused on authentic, healthy Indian food,” says Arneson. 

Arneson’s Modern Indian Cuisine is Health Conscious

Arneson’s “modern Indian” cuisine combines tradition with today’s health consciousness, but it’s how food has always been prepared in the villages in India. “The perception of Indian food is much more complicated than it is,” says Arneson, explaining that you don’t need a long list of spices or ghee and heavy creams, and prep and cooking time doesn’t need to take long.

With this fresh take on Indian cuisine, Arneson convinced publisher Whitecap Books that her cooking concept deserved a book. Ten weeks after the book came out, it was a national bestseller and into its second printing. Now she’s been chosen as the sole Indian chef for the Food Network’s new channel, reaching an audience of 50 million. The apt name of her show (airing in the U.S. in July and in Canada in September) is Spice Goddess. Her daughter, Anoop, came up with the name. 

Spice Goddess and Family

Arneson’s children are actively involved in her culinary career. She’s turned her home kitchen into a high-end studio so she’s never away from the kids. All of Arneson’s photography and filming happens here and her kids take part in the action.

Anoop’s “sophisticated and complex” palate makes her mom’s number-one recipe tester. And six-year-old son Aaron (with second husband Brad) wants to follow in mom’s footsteps. He has his own rolling pin to make his favourite rotis, and is already asking mom to jot down his ideas for his own cookbook. “I can see my son being the next Jamie Oliver,” says Arneson.

Arneson relishes the irony of how her children’s roles contrast her own upbringing: her daughter has no desire to learn how to cook, whereas her son loves everything to do with cooking. “It blows my mind,” says Arneson. 

She can’t quite believe how her life has turned out. “I tell people that for the first 20 years of my life I cooked on a barbecue clay pit [fuelled] with cow dung patties,” says Arneson. “People now call me Chef, but I call myself a cook. I just have a passion that has turned into a career I never imagined. I am an everyday cook who got lucky.”

No Fear of Food or Cooking

Arneson is also adamant that there be no fear when it comes to food. “What’s the worst that could happen?” she asks. “You might have too many spices. So what? Next time cut it down. Food is all about love and no fear.” 

And that sentiment goes far beyond cooking. Arneson wants her story to give hope to women who are stuck in an unjust situation like she once was, and she now donates part of her book proceeds to women’s shelters. Arneson even jokes that “No Fear” should be the name of her next book. It certainly fits.

See Bal Arneson’s recipes for:

Bal Arneson’s 5 Kitchen Must-haves

Tool: Victorinox’s chef knife. Arneson uses it for everything (for 11 years now!) and even travels with it.

Kitchen Feature: CaesarStone counter. “I am a messy cook. Every time I cook it’s like a tornado has gone through the kitchen,” says Arneson. She likens it to the splotches surrounding artists’ painting canvases. With this durable stain-, scratch-, and heat-resistant quartz counter, she doesn’t worry about spilling anything, including bright-orange turmeric.

Spices: 1. Garam masala. 2. Turmeric powder. 3. Cumin seeds. “That’s all you need to begin with Indian food,” says Arneson. Then add two more: dried fenugreek leaves and degi mirch (known here as Spanish or Hungarian paprika). Start with those as a base, and then “Follow you own palate. Spices are so earthy and warm and flavourful – you can’t go wrong with them.” 

Arneson is launching a spice line with 100% certified-organic spices sourced from Indian villages. Partial proceeds will go to Arneson’s home village to support educational programs for women and children. 

Dish: Five-minute chickpeas. “I say five minutes, but honestly it’s less than two minutes,” says Arneson. And her recipe changes every time: she sautés onion, garlic and spices, and throws in ginger or tomato paste or mint, and, of course, a can of chickpeas. The result? “It’s fantastic, to die for.”

Guilty Pleasure: Chocolate and wine. “I’m no different than any other woman!” says Arneson.

See more pictures of Bal Arneson cooking in her home studio.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.