Skip the recipe search. A new tarot deck holds the answers to Indian cooking

Last week, Ariha Setalvad reached out to me to talk about her project, the Tadka Tarot. The premise of the illustrated 56-card deck was totally novel to me: Each of the cards represents an Indian spice or vegetable along with flavor and usage notes, and they’re meant to teach you how to cook with these ingredients more intuitively. Or, as Setalvad puts it, with “andaaz” — an Urdu word that translates loosely to “instinct” or “sense.” The deck promises to free users from depending on recipes so that they can have the confidence to come up with their own dishes.

You can use the deck in a variety of ways, but Setalvad recommends starting with a vegetable card and reading about it on the back. Each one has a list of suggested uses and basic recipes as well as foolproof spice pairings that you can use to build a dish. Pull out the recommended spice cards to learn more about what they’ll add to the final product. Alternately, you can bring the deck to your local Indian market to help identify produce that you’re unfamiliar with.

This would be a great gift for someone interested in learning more about Indian cuisines. On a related note, another food-focused card deck worth checking out is Black Card Revoked by Dine Diaspora, which will get you into some heated arguments about which country makes the best jollof rice. (It’s Senegal.) (For more gift suggestions for food freaks, check out our Bay Area gift guide!)

I called up Setalvad, who lives here in the Bay Area, and we chatted about how people should use the deck, the illusion of a generic “Indian” cuisine and how the deck can get you to finally use those spices drying out in the back of your pantry.

Soleil Ho: Tell me about the origin of the project. Why this format and particular topic?

Ariha Setalvad: There’s kind of a glib version, so to speak, which is on the website — about trying to teach my sister how to use her pantry of spices in Bombay. But I think in a lot of ways, this has been a really long time coming for me.

I grew up in Bombay, but my parents split up when I was really young. So I actually grew up flying back and forth between my mom in New York and my family in India. I am the quintessential third culture kid who grew up in a bunch of different worlds and didn’t really fit in anywhere.

I faced all of the classic questions: “Why do you smell like that? Why does your house smell like that?” That continued for a really long time, but somewhere along the way, we as Indians went from not being assimilated enough into the U.S. to almost being so assimilated that people think that they understand everything that there is to know about us.

I get this all the time from even my friends, who I know don’t mean to be hurtful: “Why would you have a project related to Indian food? Everyone knows Indian food, right?” They think they get the culture and get the food, so they understand me. That is really interesting because I don’t understand me. So I think that that was the spark of this idea: That people here only know one tiny, tiny aspect of Indian culture and food. You’re eating food that you like, which I appreciate, but I really want you to actually learn more about it.

SH: So you’re not making some monolithic statement about what Indian food is.

AS: My family is primarily Gujarati. My dad’s side is Parsi and we have kind of a mixed bag on that end. So I grew up eating a bunch of different types of food, but to me it was just home food. The card deck is literally me saying, “This is the stuff that I grew up with; these are the veggies that I grew up seeing.”

I want people to just take a second to understand that, when they go out to “Indian” restaurants, that they’re eating something that is so specific. (And, in this country, it’s probably a Punjabi restaurant.) Even the variation that you’re eating is specific to the person who’s cooking it. The person who lived next to them in India might not cook the exact same dish the same way.

SH: How do you communicate that sort of nuance through this medium?

AS: I try to provide context on each of the cards. For instance, the Malabar spinach card includes info on what it is and what it tastes like. It’s pretty common in Bengali food, so the card has a Bengali recipe that I’ve eaten it in. With recipes, I note when it’s from family, like my grandmother’s recipes, or from regional cookbooks like “Five Morsels of Love” or “Pangat,” which is about Maharashtrian food specifically.

And even with the spices, I’ve really just tried to focus on using them the way I learned how to cook, where it’s not just a recipe that you’re blindly following. You’re actually being forced to think about what you’re using. So the recipes don’t have any quantities or times or anything prescriptive. Which is why I’ve tried to put as much information as possible on the card, like a flavor strength chart. So if you’re not a fan of like super pungent flavors, maybe use a little bit less of the heavier ones.

I’ve already gotten a lot of pushback from people who see this and say, “Oh this is so complicated! Why don’t you actually tell me what to do?” But that’s actually the point, you know? We all learn how to do things very generally by watching and listening and tasting. And I think that actually serves people well, to be able to adjust how things taste and still have a dish be a really good variation of the basic version. This deck is specifically for people who have a lot of spices and genuinely want to learn how to use them — the kind of people who nerd out about flavor profiles and pairings, and want to know how and why things go together.

SH: The approach feels very in tune with the foundational principle-focused sentiment of cookbooks like “The Flavor Equation” or “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.”

AS: With Indian food, I think what intimidates non-Indians is how many ingredients that you have to start out with, but actually the process is really easy. It’s just about layering things together, usually in one pot. The masala is where all that flavor and complexity lie. Someone might eat Indian food and think, “What are all these flavors? I could never do this!”

But you literally just have to take 10 different spices and then roast them and grind them together. That’s it. If you just take a minute to close your eyes and sniff your spices, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

On the podcast

We’re going on a holiday break, but there’ll still be new episodes for you to listen to! This week, we’re releasing the full interview with Daniel Lavery, an author, advice columnist and potato enthusiast.

What I’m eating

The turkey tourte from Maison Nico.

I spent last week working through all of the delicious things I got from Roong Jing Jing, a Thai market in El Cerrito that I checked out for my Top Thai Restaurants list. My score included about two pounds of jackfruit that I ate while watching Melrose Place, prawn pad see ew, crab pad thai and steamed coconut pudding.

The highlight of the Thanksgiving feast I shared with my quarantine pod was the turkey tourte from Maison Nico. Filled with chestnuts, quince and turkey meat, the domed pastry was really gorgeous, and the rich jus that came with it made everything on the table taste even better. In second place was the gooey macaroni and cheese that I made from a recipe by Angela Davis (AKA the Kitchenista) that is truly the greatest of all time.

Recommended reading

• Chronicle urban design critic John King has this look at some of the most eye-catching parklets that have popped up this year in response to the pandemic. Did you know San Francisco’s restaurants and bars have put up at least 300 parklets this year? I’m glad to see Cassava listed here! It’s super cute.

• Bookmark José R. Ralat’s ultimate Texas Tacopedia at Texas Monthly. The taco editor and author of the fabulous book, “American Tacos” gets granular about all of the Lone Star State’s taco variations, from vegan to Cajun-Mex to birria, and it’s so fun to scroll through.

• In an opinion piece at the New York Times, author Aubrey Gordon goes in on the failure of the “war on childhood obesity.” She writes, “Weight stigma sends a clear, heartbreaking message to fat children: The world would be a better place without you in it.” (Stay tuned for my interview with Gordon on Extra Spicy, coming up in the next few weeks!)

Bite Curious is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, delivered to inboxes on Monday mornings. Follow along on Twitter: @Hooleil

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