Much like her meticulously researched historical novels, author Sujata Massey carefully curates the family meals and lists them on a small chalkboard hanging from a wall of her kitchen. “Usually, I try to plan my menus on Sunday,” says Massey, who lives in a late 19th-century Tuxedo Park home with her husband, Anthony, and children Pia, 16, and Neel, 13. “Tonight, they’re going to have coriander chicken.
They’re going to have couscous. And they’re going to have ratatouille,” she says, pointing to the handwritten “specials” on the board. “The kids like it better when they’re not surprised. There’s usually one night when it’s blank, and then they can suggest something.”
Also appearing on the chalkboard: Moroccan meatloaf, pork tacos, and crab-cake mac and cheese. It seems there is not a pedestrian dish served in Massey’s charming, renovated kitchen, with cabinets, countertops, and a Kitchen Aid oven purchased from Second Chance.
“Not that my kids would like everything I make,” she says with a gentle laugh, “but we wouldn’t have tuna casserole for dinner. It just wouldn’t fly.”
Foods from around the globe were an integral part of Massey’s upbringing. She was born in England to parents from India and Germany, but raised in the United States. (California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota are all places she’s called home.) “My parents met in England in the late ’50s,” says Massey, a former reporter for The Evening Sun and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University. “My father was not that thrilled with my mother’s German cuisine, except for the desserts. They did a lot of international cooking together, not just Indian food.” Cooking was a way of life for her family, she recalls. “I remember my parents making pita bread from scratch,” she says, “and they made fun things like empanadas. There was always a lot of cooking.”
Massey and her two sisters were schooled in the culinary arts as well. “By the age of 10, we were each responsible for one night a week of cooking,” she explains. “When I went to college, I went with Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times International Cook Book—that was our family’s bible, not the Joy of Cooking. I did a lot of his French and Greek dishes. I loved Indian food, but didn’t start cooking that until college.”
Today, the writer continues her family’s culinary traditions in her kitchen (her latest novel, The Sleeping Dictionary, even includes recipes for mustard shrimp and rice made with cardamom and cinnamon), devising dishes such as the one for cilantro chicken below. “It’s like a gateway dish of Indian cooking because you don’t need to purchase Indian spices for it,” says Massey. “You can get all the ingredients at the Waverly Farmers’ Market, and you can eat it with Mexican, Mediterranean, or Indian foods.”
Massey also finds cooking to be the perfect balance to a writer’s more sedentary life of laboring over a laptop. “It’s a really good physical release after sitting and writing for hours,” she says. “It’s a form of movement for me and intellectual freedom.” There is also a complementary relationship between what she whips up for her family and what she creates on the page. “I tie a lot of the things I make to what I’m thinking about and reading and doing,” she says. “Right now, I’m writing about South India, so I’ve gotten interested in cooking South Indian food. Last week, I made a soup called sambar—it’s easy, healthy, spicy, and low-calorie. Cooking unites me with what I’m writing.”