Alamelu Vairavan’s career as cookbook author and food show star began with an open window on a summer night.
Aromas from her kitchen brought her neighbor, Patricia Marquadt, to her kitchen. Marquardt, who came over to find out more about the source of the wonderful smells, asked Vairavan to teach her more about Indian food. As they chopped and stirred and cooked together, a friendship developed. Eventually, Marquardt, a Marquette professor of Greek, Latin and Italian, suggested doing a cookbook. (See a couple of recipes at the end of this article.)
Today, Vairavan, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumna (’83 BS), has published four cookbooks and contributed to two others. She’s offered wellness and team-building programs to many corporations, and presented a sold-out workshop on “Enticing Indian Flavors” at the prestigious culinary institute, the James Beard Foundation in New York.
A cooking series she did for Milwaukee Public Television (MPTV) in 2010 and 2011 was shown around the country, and a new series, “Healthful Indian Flavors with Alamelu,” (www.mptv.org) started in January 2012.
“Although it’s Indian-inspired,” she says of the show and her culinary approach, “it appeals to a wide range of people who want to eat healthier, because it includes vegetables, flavorful rice and lean meats. All the recipes are easy to prepare, and some of the spices have intrinsic health benefits, too.” The show also features commentary by Margaret Pfeiffer, a registered dietitian and expert in preventive cardiology.
A magical experience
Becoming a well-known chef still amazes Vairavan. “It was a truly magical experience,” she says cheerfully. She arrived in America as an 18-year-old bride not knowing a thing about cooking – either Indian or American food. “I couldn’t even make coffee or tea,” she says with a laugh.
She’d grown up eating the wonderful foods of her homeland but had never actually prepared any of them – her family had a cook. However, as she started to make her own home in America with her husband, K. Vairavan, then a graduate student in engineering at the University of Notre Dame, she decided to learn to cook so she could prepare the comfort foods of her homeland.
With the support of her husband, now a professor emeritus of engineering and computer science at UWM, she took advantage of an offer of a private cooking apprenticeship. Her uncle, a diplomat at the United Nations who frequently entertained, invited her to spend time at his home learning from his personal chef, a top professional. She was eager to learn and didn’t come in with any bad cooking habits, she says with a smile. “I was starting with a totally clean slate.”
Vairavan and her husband eventually moved to Milwaukee and raised a son and a daughter. Recognizing her energy and intelligence, her husband encouraged her to go to college. She enrolled at UWM in her 20s, eventually earning a degree in Health Information Management in what is now the College of Health Sciences. She credits her UWM education and her husband’s support with helping prepare her for her eventual career as a nursing home administrator – and also for her current career as a cookbook author and cooking show hostess.
“UWM really opened my eyes”
“I was able to take courses from different disciplines. UWM really opened my eyes,” she says. She remembers especially John Lynch in the Health Information Management program, John Schroeder in the History Department and Meg McCaffey, professor of English, who helped her develop her public speaking ability. “When I made my first speech, I was so petrified that I wanted to run away. Now I’m quite comfortable in front of an audience.”
After graduating from UWM, she became director of health information management at a nursing home and went on to earn her Nursing Home Administrator license. She eventually became a consultant to long-term care facilities. However, as her cookbooks and presentations took up more of her time, Vairavan switched careers to pursue her love of home cooking and teaching people about healthy eating full-time.
She’s a passionate advocate of preparing food that is both tasty and healthy. Vegetables – with all their variety and “awesome colors” – are a special favorite, as are the aromatic spices that entice even children to eat their brussels sprouts and lima beans.
Even with the TV show, books and corporate presentations, she makes time for numerous free community programs to spread the word. She’s gone into schools on “Career Day” to slice and dice with youngsters, helped nursing home residents spice up the menu in their cafeteria and advocated for healthier, more appealing food in institutions.
“We need to teach people how to eat healthy.”
A couple of tasty recipes
Alamelu Vairavan shared a couple of her recipes with UWM readers.
Green Bay Packers Poriyal (Green Beans with Ginger and Coconut)
Vairavan nicknamed this green-and-gold vegetable dish for her favorite football team.
1/4 cup yellow split peas or moong lentils*
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon minced green chili
1 pound green beans (stems removed), diced (about 3 cups)
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut powder or fresh shredded coconut*
* Moong lentils, powdered coconut and fresh shredded coconut are available at natural food stores. Vairavan adapted this recipe from her cookbook to use easily available ingredients.
- Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Add split peas or moong lentils and turmeric. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for about 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft and tender. Add up to 1 cup additional water while cooking if necessary. Drain and set aside.
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and cook until toasted. Add onion and chili. Stir for 1 minute.
- Add green beans and stir. Stir in ginger, salt and 2 tablespoons water. Cook, covered, over medium heat until beans are crisp-tender. Stir in cooked lentils and coconut powder or fresh coconut. Serve warm.
Butternut Squash Masala
2 cups butternut squash, cubed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon asfoetida*
1 whole dried red chili pepper
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds*
1 teaspoon urad dal*
4-6 fresh curry leaves (optional)*
1 medium onion, cut lengthwise
1 small tomato, chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup tomato sauce
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup coconut powder*
* These spices and ingredients are available from Indian grocery stores and other specialty shops, as well as online. Vairavan’s website, www.curryonwheels, has a link to a Brookfield Indian grocery and instructions for ordering a packet of beginner spices online.
- To easily cube squash, rub it with oil and poke with a fork. Microwave for about 3 minutes, depending on size, to soften slightly. Cut in half, remove skin, pulp and seeds. Cut into cubes.
- Pour oil in skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add asafoedtida powder and red pepper. Add fresh curry leaves. Be careful, since the oil may splatter when adding ingredients to the hot skillet.
- Add mustard seeds and urad dal and cover. Fry until mustard seeds pop and urad dal is golden brown.
- Add onion and tomato and stir-fry for one minute.
- Add turmeric, cayenne and ground cumin. Stir well.
- Add tomato sauce and salt. Mix well. When the mixture begins to bubble, add squash and stir well.
- Cover and cook over medium heat until the squash becomes somewhat soft. Add a small amount of water (about 1 tablespoon) periodically to facilitate the cooking process.
- Add coconut powder and stir well.