As a firstgeneration Indian American growing up in New Berlin, Sheil Shukla sometimes envied the meals his friends had.
He couldn't wait for Tuesdays. That's when his family would step away from the traditional Gujarati meals made by his mother and ba (grandmother) and try things like pasta and pizza.
The family always cooked vegetarian, but it wasn’t until he moved away for college and found limited options that he began cooking for himself. That’s when he really started to dig into plant-based meals and the traditions and tastes of his Indian roots.
After a bit of encouragement from friends and family, he started photographing his cooking and sharing on Instagram as @plantbasedartist and his website, sheilshukla.com. As his audience grew, so did his awareness of nutrition, health, and the impact of plant-based meals.
Now a practicing internist with Northwestern in Glenview, Ill., Shukla has also just published first cookbook. Balancing his roles as a doctor, recipe developer and food photographer, he includes chapters on shāk (spiced vegetable dishes), dāl (legume stews), rotli (flatbreads), bhāt (rice dishes) in “Plant-Based India: Nourishing Recipes rooted in Tradition” (Aug. 2022, Experiment Books, $30).
Shukla, a graduate of Brookfield Academy, lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Rachel, and their son, Shrey. His book launch was Aug. 3 at Spirit Elephant Restaurant in Winnetka, Ill.
Question: What were your food experiences growing up? How did you learn to cook?
Answer: Growing up, my ba (grandmother) was living with us. She did most of the cooking at home. I wasn’t even thinking about the food. I was just going to school and learning. It never occurred to me it might be something I did for a lifestyle. I moved to Chicago, that’s when I started cooking for myself. I moved to the dorms, and I was vegetarian initially. The options were limited. I started cooking in my dorm.
Q: What was the first recipe you mastered?
A: One of the first was a chile paneer, and that one I actually modified to make a vegan option with cauliflower.
Q: What pushed you to grow this with social media and a website?
A: My senior year of undergrad, 2015, that’s when I went vegan and have been since.
I just started posting pictures on my Facebook account, which didn't reach a big audience, just friends. I was encouraged to open an Instagram account. I remember, it was after I took the MCAT. It was just a relief being done with the exam. Why don’t I open a social media account and post pictures for fun? Then I had a really good response and it started reaching people I didn’t even know.
Q: You are purposeful in using the term plant-based rather than vegan or vegetarian with the book. Why does it make a difference?
A: Those are very intentional choices from the beginning. When I was exploring veganism, at that time there were a lot of negative connotations about vegans being overly aggressive in their approach and showing graphic pictures of animal violence. For me, I wanted to distance myself from that approach to promoting veganism. Now it has exploded, but at that time plant-based was just starting to emerge as more approachable and inviting, that’s what drew me to that term.
I was able to practice my own veganism, but in a way that was respectful to others, which is a way I think to invite them.
Q: One of the things you talk about is how medical students and programs don’t spend a lot of time focusing on nutrition. What pushed you to create this conversation and reach out to different audiences?
A: A lot of that stemmed from being able to reach an audience I wasn’t able with just my own family and friends, my patients. There is only so much I can do for my patients in a 20 minute visit, for example. My time is limited. I just started full practice this week, actually, so I’m really getting to know that.
Social media is a way to get to know so many other people and reach them with what I’ve learned about nutrition and food.
Q: These recipes are based in traditions of Indian cooking, but you note you are in the Midwest. You grew up in the Milwaukee area and now live in the Chicago area. How does this region known for cheese and sausage influence your approach to food?
A: Honestly, I grew up eating all that stuff too. I used to go to the state fair and I’d have all the things the state fair was known for, the fried butter and all that. I’m well versed in that Milwaukee culture, but for me growing up in that area and being connected to my own culture, I learned to connect both worlds.
My ba, she’d take advantage of the produce and her Gujarati recipes and roots. I think I tell this story in the book, this handyman had a large garden in his backyard. He’d grow peppers, zucchini and other produce. He’d bring a box to my ba. She’d take advantage, like using zucchini in place of a gourd used in India. For me that is what helped me blend together those two influences.
Q: How do you define your approach to cooking?
A: It is a seasonal approach that is conscious with regard to health, overall wellness, taste and deliciousness. If I were to describe it in one word, it would be conscious.
Q: Let’s talk ingredients. What do you want people to know?
A: Things are easily adaptable for different diets. I could call for cashews, but there are plenty of things that could be used in place of cashews. Even potatoes when cooked, steamed and blended could be used as a replacement. I want people to be inspired to create modifications and not be limited.
Q: You include a reference for ingredients, noting some ingredients people may not be as familiar with or find in some groceries, like Eno fruit salt, which is a leavening agent. Where do you shop for ingredients? What should people know about adding these ingredients to their pantry?
A: When I was less than 12, that is when ingredients were harder to find in the Milwaukee area. My family would travel to Chicagoland to get ingredients. Funny thing, I ended up in that exact area, Devon Ave., for school. That is where the first Indian grocery in the Midwest is, and it became a hub in the Midwest in general. That's where my family would shop. Later, there were a few groceries in the Milwaukee area. It was easier as I got older. When I started cooking for myself, Devon Ave. was a key place to shop. Now, there are tons of Indian groceries everywhere.
Q: Who or what has been the biggest influence on your approach to food?
A: In terms of who, my ba and my mom, as I make it pretty clear in the book. In terms of what, the idea of a plant-based diet and the health benefits surrounding that.
Q: What is your favorite recipe or ingredient to introduce to others?
A: My go-to recipe when I cook for others is any sort of creamy north Indian dish, like a gravy style dish, such as matar tofu, one of my favorite dishes. Garam masala, which translates to home spice blend, a combination of cinnamon, clove, coriander, cardamom. … it is an easy way to introduce Indian flavors without buying a bunch of ingredients.
Q: What do you cook after a long, hard day? What’s your comfort food go-to?
A: I don't reach for Indian food all the time. For me, after a long day it is a hardy stir fry with whatever I can grab from the fridge. I usually have tofu on hand and some rice. When I think of Indian, kichadi, a hearty stew like dish with rice, lentils and sometimes vegetables. You can make it on the stovetop but also with a pressure cooker. When I’d travel to Mumbai, you'd hear them going off all day.
Q: Are your parents and family still in the Milwaukee area?
A: They are still in New Berlin, in the house I grew up in. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is the newspaper that came to our house every day, so this is special to have this interview.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brookfield grad pens 'Plant-based India,' a cookbook celebrating culture