All her children wanted for Christmas was her recipes so they could savor a taste of home while away at college, recalled Pleasanton resident and cookbook author Bhanu Hajratwala. She started off slowly, handwriting the ingredients, quantifying exactly how much spice was in "a pinch."
That seemingly simple project, begun 20-plus years ago, grew and grew until last year her cookbook, "Gujarati Kitchen," was published in India by Westland as part of its countrywide food series.
"In 2009, the publisher in India asked my daughter Minal (author of "Leaving India") if she knew someone who could write a cookbook," Bhanu said. "My daughter was doing a book tour."
They contacted Bhanu, and it turned out that the editor-in-chief, although Punjabi, is a huge fan of Gujarati food.
"She told me to use just Gujarati recipes," Bhanu recalled. "She was interested in fact that I was not born in India, and how did I manage to cook at all?"
Bhanu's family moved to Fiji in the early 1900s where they re-created Gujarati recipes as best as they could given the dearth of available ingredients. They treasured these traditional recipes to remind them of home, although back home, meanwhile, the cooking has changed over the last 100 years.
As a girl, Bhanu enjoyed eating but only helped in the kitchen to make her favorites such as meatballs or chapatti, the round bread.
"I learned to cook after I got married," she said. "I was busy going to school, then graduate school to become a physical therapist."
When she married Bhupenda in 1967 she knew it was time to learn how to cook the foods she enjoyed eating. The young couple moved to Iowa City for him to pursue his doctorate in pharmacy but first they stayed for one month with his family, where she asked her mother-in-law for advice.
"One day she said, 'Get a pen and paper,'" Bhanu said, and after that she spent many hours in the kitchen observing the meal preparation and learning about spices and fresh ingredients and how to turn them into Gujarati feasts.
She also observed her mother and sisters as much as possible, then in Iowa City, gamely tackled her kitchen.
"I started cooking -- burned some things, made some too salty, others not salty enough," she recalled with a laugh.
"Her cooking has always been good," disagreed Bhupenda. "And, like wine, it ages well."
"We came to the United States, and I had to start substituting," she added, because Indian ingredients were rare, especially in her new home. The nearest fresh spices for Indian food were in Chicago, 250 miles away.
After Bhupenda earned his doctorate they moved to Daly City, and then to New Zealand. In 1979 they settled in Michigan where they raised Minal and their son, Nayan. Everywhere they made themselves at home in the Indian and international community, and Bhanu added more and more recipes to her repertoire.
"Friends and family members were more than willing to share their recipes with me, but they rarely had any measurements, which I found challenging," she wrote in her book's introduction.
After Bhupenda retired in 1997 and Bhanu sold her physical therapy clinic in Michigan, they chose to live in Pleasanton and the Bay Area where they have hundreds of extended family members and friends from their Gujarati clan.
"This is a mecca for fresh vegetables, spices, meat and seafood," Bhanu said.
She signed the contract for her book last January then was told they needed the manuscript in June, including a 10,000-word introduction.
"I was told no more than 80 recipes. So I chose the kids' favorites and those that are typical Gujarati, the more authentic ones," Bhanu said. "I narrowed it down to 97 recipes and sent it to the editor. She used every one."
"They wanted pictures, too," she added. "So I cooked each and every item in that book, and put it in nice dishes."
Bhupenda was the photographer and did the necessary sketches plus typed the recipes and input it all onto the computer.
"The introduction was challenging," Bhanu remembered. Her first effort yielded one page, just a few hundred words; as she expanded it, Bhupenda and Minal kept coming up with stories to include.
"The introduction was to give it a life," Bhupenda observed. "It's one thing to know the story, another thing to put it on paper so other people will find it interesting."
It tells of her culinary journey, from developing her taste buds as a girl to learning to satisfy them no matter where she found herself living. One anecdote tells of a flight to another town in New Zealand where a baker gave her dough to make an Indian treat, "phulia." He put a little lump into an oversized box and taped it, but the dough rose and rose, popping open the lid quite loudly in the overhead bin on the flight home and continuing to rise. They rushed home where Bhanu hurriedly rolled out the dough and Bhupenda deep-fried it.
The book, which is available at www.GujaratiKitchen.com, has received great reviews in India.
"We could not have paid people to write so well," Bhupenda said.
"In India the concept of Gujarati is that everyone is vegetarian," Bhanu noted. "So many who reviewed it said they didn't know Gujaratis were non-vegetarian."
Bhanu has taught classes at the UC Berkeley Cooking Club, including two sessions of Culinary Kids for ages 9 and up.
"I may do more cooking class but I would like to do them in my home," Bhanu said, recalling loading the car top to bottom with cooking utensils, heavy mixers and ingredients.
The Hajratwalas' food culture is high, as evidenced by her vast assortment of freshly ground spices and equipment that includes a sugar cane juice extractor from India. Whether or not she is cooking for get-togethers in their community, each day she prepares traditional Gujarati tea with sweets in the afternoon, then dinner for the two of them, along with chapatti she makes fresh each day.
"Some days are more elaborate than others," she said.
"Even my leftovers for lunch are sometimes a gourmet meal," Bhupenda added with an appreciative chuckle.