About Rani and Her Journey

When Roma Kaur contacted me about writing a six-page spread on cooking with my mother-in-law in her magazine for Sikh women, she felt “women can inspire more women in the family.” It was also a confirmation of all that had transpired in my life to that point. It was also a tribute to all the talented women who had been my role models. 

My two grandmothers were my earliest culinary teachers. Both had Middle European cooking in common and made a wide variety of German and Hungarian dishes. My Grandma Veronica was also a gifted pastry maker. She made heavenly strudel with paper-thin dough, nuts and cheese – made with milk from her own cow!

I joined a very strict Catholic missionary convent in high school and was taught by very dedicated, inspiring women for four years. I had every intention of joining the order but when a diving injury sidelined me from the formal Catholic religious life, I discovered there was much work in store for me in another religion. I met my future husband, a Sikh, in a little town in Michigan while I was recovering from the accident. It is a wonderful story of kismet (fate) that I tell in the first vignette of the book. I was eventually propelled into a totally new and different world.   

I had always loved to cook and even at a very early age, I prepared the “exotic recipes” I found in magazines for my family. Some of them were not always well received, especially “Chicken with Cherries and Molasses Chew Chews.” They never let me forget my misses for years! My cooking was eventually appreciated at the University of Michigan, where I not only prepared food for the residents and boarders in our co-op, but I quickly became the steward in charge of all the meal planning and buying of food for forty hungry students. 

After three years of marriage, my husband (who was an only child) and I had saved enough money to migrate to India to care for his ailing and widowed mother. By that time, we already had a son who was almost two.  There, in Punjab, I watched my mother-in-law and other women cook over cotton-stick, charcoal or dung fires and the occasional hot plate depending on whether we were in the village or the city. They were all gifted cooks and produced truly memorable food. While living in India, I also learned from professionals in the homes of the wealthy and watched the sweet makers (all men as I recall) produce the stuff of childhood dreams. The memory of the simple village meals and fragrant dishes from the open-air dhabas and vendors in the bazaar are still tickling my taste buds. I captured all these wonderful memories and tasty dishes in my recipes and stories.

After we returned with my mother-in-law to the USA, we settled in New Jersey and had our two daughters. Bebeji and I also began working every day in our kitchen together -- a collaboration that would continue for thirty years. We called her Bebeji (mother) as did the entire congregation that formed around her. She was an unusually strong woman, deeply spiritual, who went in one lifetime, from being a village bride with only an elementary education to jetting across continents. 

We were one of a handful of families who began to organize the first Sikh community in New Jersey, and the first temple. During those thirty years, I learned to cook Indian food in large quantities for the free community meal every Sunday and to prepare meals quickly and efficiently for the hundreds of guests we would entertain over the years.         

The education of children was dear to my heart as Director of Counseling for a public high school and as a teacher in our temple. With Mrs. Surinder K. Puar teaching shabad/kirtan (music) and Mrs. Surindra K. Dhaliwal teaching the youngest children, we founded the first Sikh children’s education program in New Jersey. I taught a course I called “Living Sikh Religion and History” every Sunday to a variety of age groups for over twenty-five years, creating the curriculum from scratch since there were none available until recently. My husband and I also developed the first summer camps for Sikh children in New Jersey. My husband was busy as well, raising funds for the first gurudwara (Sikh temple) and was the president of the congregation when the first hall was built. Fast forward a bit, and we got to see our own three children marry wonderful spouses and grow their own families – including two sets of twins! 

We are so grateful to God for the life given to us. But no life is without suffering as Buddha realized long ago. My cookbook was born from tragedy. Early in 2002, our grandson, Bennett Singh Brand, was nearly five when he died suddenly from what we would later discover to be a rare immune disorder, CGD. A friend suggested to my daughter that a project – a new playground where our kids went to elementary school – would be a lovely memorial to him. We thought so too and we threw ourselves into fundraising while concurrently going into grief counseling. I desperately needed some glue to hold my body and mind together while my soul tried to not fall into the ever-present pit of grief. I thought it would be good mental and physical discipline for me to teach Indian cooking. I had not written down any recipes in all thirty years of cooking, so I began to standardize them. It took several months to get five menus together with standardized recipes. Then I taught all five menus consecutively in one week in my own kitchen.   
   
I don’t remember exactly when we learned that there was enough money for the playground, but when we did, I was enjoying the process of developing recipes and menus and teaching the classes so much that my husband and I decided I should continue. We began a scholarship fund in Benny’s memory. From our own seed money and that of our generous niece, Beth, and the contributions of many other family and friends, we have already been able to distribute over $40,000 to gifted students for academic summer programs. The students hail mainly from the school where I was a counselor before my retirement. All proceeds from the cooking classes have gone into the fund. We are hoping to expand our own ability to give to a new project through the sales of the cookbook and through the generous donations of those who feel moved to give. 
So many guests who have tasted the food in the cooking classes said I should develop a cookbook. So here I am with you with the 10th anniversary edition of the book with 32 chapters and 230 recipes! My spirit feels quite young, as if all the work gone before is just a beginning. And I hope to share this adventure of  Punjab with you. 

Rani and Bebeji in 1990

The Vajda Family — my mother Margaret, sister Catherine, Rani, father Nandor and brother Edward.

 

From my convent days at Holy Ghost (now Holy Spirit) Convent in Techny, Illinois: my dear mentor, Sister Theresine, S. Sp. S. and Ranidressed as her patron saint, Theresa, the Little Flower.


Parmpal and Rani in 1964


My children in 1990 in India - Sheila Sidhu, Raji Brand and Paul Sidhu


The Brand Family 


Bennett Singh Brand


Rani at her first book
launch in 2009


The "Benny" scholarship
recipients 2011

 

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