Why I Cook, with Soniya Saluja

Blogger and TOH Community Cook Soniya Saluja re-imagines Punjabi classics in her own modern kitchen.

The cuisine of the northern Indian state of Punjab is rich and luxurious: curries, rich with ghee and cream; grilled meats and vegetables, abundantly seasoned with onion seeds and fenugreek leaves; flatbreads, stuffed or deep-fried, often served with cultured butter. Soniya Saluja, co-founder of the blog Belly Rules the Mind recipe developer, “Punjabi foodie” (her words) and since 2019, re-imagines the classic dishes of her childhood—from malai kofta, cheese dumplings cooked in creamy tomato-based gravy, to samosas, deep-fried pastry parcels filled with spiced potatoes and peas—for busy, health-conscious American families like her own.

Her creations capture the cuisine’s essential flavors and textures, but leave behind its heavy, hearty nature. Saluja relies on simple substitutions, such as using low-fat Greek yogurt rather than heavy cream, and leans on timesaving appliances like her Instant Pot or air fryer. Her approach combines “modern cooking techniques with traditional tips and tricks, all simplified for the reader,” she says. Love kitchen gadgets? Try some of these air fryer Indian recipes.

The Route to Her Roots squeezing a lemonCourtesy STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG

Saluja’s interest in food was encouraged by her mother, who instructed her in their Mumbai kitchen and enrolled her in cooking and baking classes as a teenager. Later, she honed her skills as a new immigrant and a mother herself, as her own palate broadened and her children, now 8 and 14 years old, grew into adventurous eaters. She began posting her kitchen experiments in Facebook groups shortly after the birth of her second child.

Her most popular posts illustrated novel ways to make deep-fried Punjabi snacks such as dahi vada—lentil fritters soaked in yogurt—and kadhi pakoda—gram flour fritters simmered in a yogurt-based curry—using an aebleskiver pan. “People were really excited about my recipes,” she says. “I got a lot of encouragement.” Check out these other kitchen tools from around the world.

The Route to Her Roots pouring chutneyCourtesy STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG

Belly Rules the Mind soon followed in 2013, when another group member, Anvita Bhatnagar Mistry, invited Saluja to contribute to her blog. “It was all kinds recipes initially,” Saluja recalls. “My kids were my early critics. They tasted everything I made. If they didn’t like it, it didn’t go on the blog.”

Today, Belly Rules the Mind houses 400 vegetarian and vegan recipes and has a robust social media following. The pair consult their community as they develop new recipes. They read every comment on every platform; “We ask them questions,” Saluja says. “We want to make sure there is something for everyone.” Although the blog highlights recipes across a variety of cuisines—including Italian and Mexican, also beloved by Saluja—she often returns to her Punjabi roots and her guiding lights, her family and their health, for inspiration.

The Route to Her Roots taste testCourtesy STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG

Most recently, she has been reworking a poori recipe; this puffy, crispy flatbread is deep-fried in ghee and served for picnic lunches, weekend breakfasts and special occasions. She takes credit for introducing her mother to the air fryer, her culinary journey now full circle. “Obesity and related health issues run in my family,” she says. “I told my parents that they can make samosas in an air fryer—and enjoy it! Food is an integral part of our culture and traditions; it’s a great feeling to transform my mom’s cooking.”

Next, read up on these delicious Indian main dish recipes you should serve for dinner tonight.

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