Priyanka Naik is a vegan cook, globetrotter, TV personality, and soon-to-be author, whipping up delicious plant-based meals inspired by international cultures. This self-trained chef is also a Food Network Champion and Quibi Dishmantled winner. When Naik is not preparing food content for her blog and social platforms @chefpriyanka, she works in tech and leads US API Partnerships at Twitter, based out of Manhattan, New York.
Here, in an exclusive interview with The Beet, Naik talks about how her Indian roots and global travels have inspired her recipes, the vision behind her first-ever vegan meal kit collaboration, and her advice on switching to a plant-based lifestyle. She even provided us with a couple of recipes, showing us how you can travel the world right from your kitchen with plant-based ingredients. Let her story motivate you to spark wonders in your kitchen, with lots of plants and love.
The Beet: How long have you been living a plant-based lifestyle?
Chef Priyanka Naik: I have been cooking all vegan for 3+ years, but I myself am vegetarian, with a majority vegan diet. I eat dairy in occasional occurrences and desserts.
TB: Wonderful. So why did you go plant-based?
PN: I went fully vegetarian about 13 years ago, and began cooking vegan 3+ years ago for environmental, ethical reasons, animal welfare and for my personal longer-term health. My motivation has always been animals and the environment first. We should treat others as we want to be treated. Therefore, consuming animals and animal products is not treating the animal or environment with equal respect, care, and love, in my opinion. Also, I am a first-generation Indian born and raised in New York City that grew up almost 100% vegetarian.
TB: Your blog is filled with recipes from around the world. What inspires your global vegan recipes?
AN: Travel is a HUGE part of my life. I grew up traveling with my family, where we would visit India every year since I was 3 months old. I travel a lot for work and a few years ago, I set a personal goal to travel to at least 2-3 new countries a year. I have traveled to nearly 40 (37 to be exact) countries around the world. This year would’ve reached 40, but did not due to the coronavirus pandemic.
My inspiration comes from my travels, my upbringing as a first-generation Indian, and seasonal produce. Many of my recipes are a culmination of different cultures. For instance, my most recent recipe “Tostones Chaat” is a combination of Latin American and Indian, inspired by my travels to Belize, Costa Rica, and frequent visits to Miami.
AN: I am always envious of folks who eat cuisines that vegetarians cannot partake in, like barbeque! But there is some form of BBQ in many cultures outside of America, including in India with the tandoor and plenty of grilled items that are equivalent to BBQ. So I wanted to create a rub that embodied Indian flavors but in a familiar Western way. Thus my Chef Priyanka Indian BBQ Rub was born! I debuted my Indian BBQ Rub at one of my pop-up’ last November 2019. And it was an absolute hit!
Come 2020, I couldn’t do any more pop-ups and folks are struggling at home to feel inspired to cook. That’s when it hit me: I can leverage the custom BBQ rub I developed in a meal kit to bring the taste of veggie BBQ flavors to anyone’s home! This is something I’ve always wanted to segway into because the joy of being a chef is taking joy in seeing others eat your food!
Thanks to the wonderful chef and owner of Desi Galli PriaVanda Chouhan, I was able to bring my meal kit to life and make it accessible to people nationwide across the country. It was a fabulous way to support a woman-owned local NYC small business and continue growing the presence of WOC in the food industry. My custom Chef Priyanka Indian BBQ Rub (included in the meal kit) is fantastic as a rub, as a marinade or even to sprinkle into a quick sauté! The flavors are going to get you fired up for more!
Food is a form of emotional expression for me. So I’m hoping to continue using my global platforms to continue bringing awareness to plant-based food and selling more of my food products down the line!
TB: Where do you usually shop for vegan ingredients?
AN: I tend to use and buy ingredients that are easily accessible to all, as I want people to be incentivized to recreate and make my recipes. I tend to visit regular grocery stores, small business grocery stores, and farmer’s markets. There are so many vegan substitutes on the market, so I actually love exploring all the vegan yogurt, vegan sour cream, vegan cheese, and vegan dairy options. I tend to buy those rather than making them from scratch because they’re easily accessible, fairly inexpensive and generally all made in the US.
TB: What is one ingredient you could not live without?
AN: This is a tough one! Probably bread – that’s not an ingredient though! I am a self-proclaimed “breaditarian.” I think it would be a few – fresh coriander, garlic, cumin and peanuts. They are all so different, so versatile, but really bring out the best in a dish and help balance all the flavors.
TB: When you are not cooking up delicious vegan recipes and managing the Chef Priyanka blog, you are working your day job at Twitter. Everyone must ask you, how do you manage it all?
AN: That’s the biggest question of the hour — it’s really a few things to me. Firstly, time management and prioritizing is key. For starters, I don’t attend every social gathering or party out there. I have to pick and choose, and that can become difficult. But it’s helped me hold onto those that are valuable to me in my life and visa versa. Secondly, Twitter is one of the few places that truly embraces entrepreneurs and those that are hustling. This aids in my ability to juggle both careers. Also, I am single and do not have kids. Obviously, my marital status makes a huge difference as to how I allocate my time and what I focus on!
TB: What do you usually eat in a day?
AN: I’m not big on breakfast, but here’s what it looks like: I start my day off drinking coffee with a coconut-based creamer. Then, I have a heavy lunch of some open-faced sandwich with homemade sweet potato and lentil tikki or vegan chick’n substitute with coriander-garlic aioli, fresh veggies, lettuce, tomato, some melted vegan cheese and chilies.
My dinner can really vary each day. For example, the other day it was my new recipe for Blackened Plantains Fajita.
TB: What is your favorite snack?
AN: I love snacks! I generally love a good quality kettle popcorn — it’s all about that sweet n’ salty life! I also enjoy a Chooda, an Indian snack mix composed of flattened crispy rice, nuts, dried fruit, chilies, spices. My mom makes delicious Chooda from scratch.
TB: What is your favorite restaurant?
TB: What is your favorite meal?
AN: My favorite meal is probably Alipaak, a Maharashtrian Indian street food dish made of moistened flattened rice, ginger, green chilies, coconut and puttani (a dried lentil). So good!
TB: How do your non-vegan friends feel when you go to dinner with them?
AN: Most of my friends are non-vegan and they actually love eating out with me or eating my food because it helps expand their perspective on what they can eat, what they can order, and what they can cook! Most generally eat all veggies while around me, so we can share.
TB: What advice would you give someone who wants to go plant-based?
AN: I recommend picking a day or two and sticking to it. That will get you in the habit. Next, focus on a vegetable a week! For instance, you can pick a new vegetable every other week, and challenge yourself to create new dishes from it. Like cauliflower for one week and eggplant another week. Lastly and probably most importantly, please use SPICES! There is more in the world than salt and pepper – that is NOT seasoning. How do you think Indian people eat? There are hundreds of spices you can use to brighten up your meals! You can buy them in bulk and they won’t go bad! My advice is to get whole spices because they are cheaper, it stays fresh, and the oils and flavors stay intact.
TB: What’s your Mantra? Do you have any words you live by?
AN: Treat others who you want to be treated. This extends to every part of life. I try to do good and bring out the best in people and all beings. That is why I am plant-based, don’t wear leather or fur, use everything cruelty-free, and continuously try to build good karma. The earth wasn’t built by humans, so we shouldn’t be the ones responsible for destroying it. Everyone has to do their part – it’s the least we can do!