Cooking Channel’s Bal Arneson talks spice, Indian food, age, and kids unscripted

There are a lot of remarkable things about Bal Arneson – that she’s an outspoken advocate for women, that she left an arranged marriage, and that she’s a fabulous cook, for example. But what parents will find the most amazing about Bal is that she does her new show with her two kids … unscripted.

“Spice of Life with Bal Arneson” premieres this week on Cooking Channel, where Bal is already a familiar face from her James Beard-nominated show, “Spice Goddess.” Her new show blends her love of cooking with spice and her fast-paced life as a single mom. And with Bal, “spice” doesn’t just mean cooking, it means a life that’s anything but dull. The premiere episode starts with bungee jumping.

“My daughter is 20 and my son is 10, and they are part of every episode,” Bal told me in an interview this week. “It’s about cooking and family and love. Cooking Channel and Food Network have never had a show like this before.”

That’s actually what caught the attention of network execs. Bal and her daughter were chatting with Michael Smith, president of Cooking Channel, when he noticed their close relationship and easy banter.

“He fell in love with my connection with my daughter,” Bal said. “We do have an amazing connection. When Michael saw that, he said we looked like sisters more than mother and daughter. And my daughter said to him, ‘My mom is the hottest, most amazing cook I ever met, and she’s also not afraid to climb up on the roof and clean out the gutters. You need to do a show about how amazing she is.’ So we put together a demo and the network loved it.”

It’s no real surprise Bal and her daughter have such a close bond. Bal was young when her daughter was born, although she isn’t sure just how old she was. She estimates she was about 18.

“I don’t know how old I am,” Bal explained.

What the what?

It’s true. She was born in a traditional village in Punjab, India, and female babies weren’t cause for celebration. She figures she’s somewhere around 40 now, but she doesn’t know for sure. And after she explained her view on that, I found myself wishing I didn’t know my age either.

“I have friends who were upset at turning 30, or 40, or 50, and I don’t have that,” she said. “My age doesn’t matter. That number doesn’t matter. My spirit is what matters. Whatever is going on in my life, that’s what matters. That’s what defines me.”

Besides her age, you can’t put any kind of a label on Bal. She’s an Indian, she’s a woman, she’s a chef, she’s a mom, she’s gutsy and outspoken and beautiful and talented. And did I mention gutsy? She left her arranged marriage, which very much goes against Indian tradition, and now makes a life for herself and her children in Vancouver – although she’s itching to move to New York.

Having authored three cookbooks and watched her recipes become search engine favorites, Bal says she has demystified spice, particularly for Americans.

“My recipes focus on spices and how to use them to enhance the flavor of food,” she explained. “I was in Paris writing my third cookbook, and when I came home, I went into the kitchen and made mango cardamom crème brulee. It’s about flavor, and about being bold enough to try different spices. People are beginning to understand that ‘spice’ doesn’t have to mean heat. It means flavorful and aromatic. Cardamom, paprika, cumin… you start adding these flavors and you end up with something so mouth-watering.”

As much as she loves talking about spice and cooking, Bal loves talking about her kids even more. They are the light of her life, and it shows. As for them, they’re long used to cameras rolling in their kitchen, so going about their daily routine and cooking with their mom is no big deal. They regularly plan meals, grocery shop, and cook together. Every day starts with a family breakfast.

“It is so much fun,” Bal said. “It’s not even work. We’re just doing our regular thing, and the cameras are around us. That’s what I like – people getting to see our real lives.”

And her kids do keep it real, as only siblings can. In one episode, Bal has taught her daughter to make risotto. When her son comes in and hears that his sister has made dinner, his response is immediate and so little brother.

“I’m not eating that,” he deadpans.

“You see the bond between them, even though they’re ten years apart,” Bal said. “My son thinks he’s the man of the house. At night he turns off all the lights and puts the alarm on. If anyone knocks at the door, he says ‘Ladies, I’ll go.’ When my daughter had a boyfriend over, he sat between them on the couch to make sure there was no funny business. Where does this come from? He’s ten!”

It’s that kind of family dynamic that comes through in every episode, and one that Bal hopes other families will relate to and appreciate.

“We fight, sometimes we want to kill each other, and the next second we’re going out to do something or making dinner together,” she said. “I think America is going to want to see that.”

It all comes down to the cooking, of course, and Bal said her children have long known their mother believes in sharing her passion for food.

“No one ever goes hungry from my home,” she told me. “The plumber was there recently, and had to have lunch. The FedEx guy at the door said ‘Something smells good’ and I said ‘Come in!’ I’m always feeding my neighbors, so my kids know I’m about food, cooking, warmth, love. That’s what the new show is about as well. I get to go into people’s living rooms. What a big honor that is. It’s truly a blessing. That’s what it’s about for me. This is my responsibility, my calling. I want to teach people the health benefits of spice. I want to share family values. I want to show women that we can do anything.”

“Spice of Life with Bal Arneson” premieres Wednesday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. EST on Cooking Channel.

Bal cutting vegetables in her garden. Photo courtesy of Cooking Channel.

Bal cutting vegetables in her garden.
Photo courtesy of Cooking Channel.

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