Baking Is Therapy for Samah Dada

“I like to use things that are already in my pantry, and hopefully in yours, too.”

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Samah Dada is a former Today show production assistant who decompressed after long days with baking; when higher-ups discovered her now-Instagram-famous chickpea blondie, “Dada Eats” became a regular segment. We talked with Samah about her journey while she baked banana muffin tops and chocolate-chip tahini cake.

My parents immigrated from India, and I grew up with a very strong reliance on food. Eating dinner together as a family was a nonnegotiable ritual. From very early on, it was instilled in me that food is a very important part of life. 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom use a measuring cup or a measuring spoon. I'll watch her cook, and she tosses in turmeric, cayenne, and chaat masala and all of these spices. She knows exactly how much she needs, and I’ll ask her, “How do you know how much to use? What are you even doing?!”  She says, “It’s andaaz,” which in Hindi translates to “your own style.” She just relies on her gut instinct for what makes a dish taste good. I remember my grandma would do this, too — it came naturally. It’s funny because, now when I cook, I do the same thing, and I have to backtrack recipes to fully write it out. I rely on my gut and my instinct when I cook, just like my mom.
I rely on my gut and my instinct when I cook, just like my mom.

Even though I grew up watching my mom cook — and I loved helping her in the kitchen — I never even thought of it as something I could do as a career. During college I started my food Instagram as a place to put the food photos that were aggressively taking up the camera roll on my phone. Over time, that evolved into a place where I shared my own recipes. More recently, I’ve been feeling more of a pull to share Indian food from my heritage, not watering it down for the sake of a Western audience. 
I never even thought of cooking as something I could do as a career.
I reengineer comfort-food classics to be more minimal, with less processed and more real ingredients. That’s my go-to because I want to make something that tastes good but also feels good. I like to use things that are already in my pantry, and hopefully in yours, too. And if you don’t have something on hand, it's something I cook with a lot, like alternative flours — almond flour and coconut flour. So, once you have these ingredients, you'll use them for basically all of my recipes. These flours are simple, hearty, and delicious, and they give people more confidence in the kitchen to cook with new ingredients (even ones they didn’t expect to like!). 

Because I bake with these flours, I end up with recipes that happen to be gluten-free and/or vegan, which is great because it makes my recipes more inclusive for a wider audience. I love that my recipes let people enjoy things that they couldn’t previously. But I don't always lead with that because people are like, Vegan cookies?! I want butter. I want them to try the cookies and be like, Oh wait — there's no butter in this?!
My favorite pastime truly is — not an exaggeration — grocery shopping.
My favorite pastime truly is — not an exaggeration — grocery shopping. I just walk through the grocery aisles, and I'm very inspired by what's around me. When I'm traveling, my first stop is always the grocery store. It doesn't matter where I am — I will find a grocery store. Most people will go shopping and buy a pair of shoes or a coat; I’ll buy granola bars and chocolate and spices. I'm inspired by the little natural markets and the Indian grocery stores; I love a healthy combination of them all.

Sharing food and feeding people is really my passion.
Baking is something I taught myself after a lot of trial and error in the kitchen. When I’m baking, I’m in the zone — it’s cliché to say, but it's like my therapy. I feel very at home in the kitchen; it just feels right. It’s one of those things where, if I'm having a bad day or even if I'm having a good day, the kitchen provides me solace.
I feel very at home in the kitchen; it just feels right.
Today I’m making my chocolate-chip tahini cake and my “One Banana Only” muffin tops. My “One Banana Only” muffin tops were born from an intense desire for banana bread but subsequent realization that I only had one nearly perished banana in my kitchen to make it. This is a small-batch recipe, making just four to six muffin tops, so it’s perfect for when you want a little something sweet but don't want to fully commit to a loaf. They're also a great way to cut down on food waste; the next time you make eyes with that lonely banana on your counter, don't throw it away! Make these instead. 

I love using tahini in the kitchen, especially in unexpected, plot-twist ways ... like in a cake! The tahini grounds the cake, balancing the sweetness from the coconut sugar and richness from the chocolate chips. It's my perfect celebration cake, whether you're celebrating a birthday or simply rejoicing in the fact that you got yourself out of bed on a Monday.
It's my perfect celebration cake.

Even to this day, it’s such a cool feeling when somebody makes a recipe that I created in my own kitchen. To be able to share that food — not only in person with the people I love, but also virtually with my audience — is so gratifying. I've had so many messages from people telling me that they have certain dietary restrictions or allergies and couldn't enjoy a brownie before they stumbled upon my recipe, and now it's their favorite treat. 

I truly can't choose between baking and cooking — I love them both! But baking is my thing; it’s what I get called on to do by my friends and family, and I have to remind them that I can make pasta, too! But there’s something to be said for a baked good and its ability to brighten someone's day or mood. Plus, they’re easy to transport and share. I bring cookies or brownies everywhere, and you just can’t do that with a pot of pasta. That's why I do this in the first place: Sharing food and feeding people is my passion.

Photos by Luke Austin.