The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Aishwarya Iyer grew up in a South Indian family of ardent home cooks. As she started to cook more, she ventured down the path to creating Brightland, the consciously crafted and design-forward olive oil brand. Here, Iyer whips up a quick sheet-pan meal while talking about her approach to home cooking, which has become a much more frequent habit since she moved to L.A.
I come from a South Indian family, so we ate lots of sambar, rasam, tamarind rice, idlis, dosas, chana masala, puri, and roti. My mom also made wonderful pasta, and my dad loves making bread and pizza, so we ate a lot of amazing homemade pizza growing up.
My grandparents have always been really into food, too. When we’re on the phone, instead of “How are you?” it’s “What did you eat for lunch?” Food is absolutely the number-one topic of conversation.
When we’re on the phone, instead of “How are you?” it’s “What did you eat for lunch?”
I lived for many years in New York City, never cooking, even though I came from this family of very passionate home cooks. I eventually decided to follow in my family's footsteps and try to cook at home more. I kept getting stomach aches. I thought it was bread, I thought it was cheese, and, it turned out, it was the olive oil I was using. I did a bit of research and found olive oil is one of the most fraudulent foods in the world. There’s a lot of mislabeling and adulteration of the product, and all kinds of quality issues. I thought that was wild, and I became interested in the world of olive oil, which is why I created Brightland.
I am very much a home cook — very unorganized, very much imperfect.
We’ve lived in L.A. for five-ish years now, and I think that move itself was a big shift for us — to go from zero cooking into cooking a little bit and then moving here with even more cooking.
What I cook depends on what kind of day I've had, what the weather is, and what I'm excited and inspired by, like New York Times Cooking or an email from Great Jones about someone who made something really yummy. Lately I've been poring over cookbooks, spending an hour or two writing down the dishes that sound interesting, and then slowly gathering the ingredients for them, so it turns into this very slow activity. I'm going through Yotam Ottolenghi’s new cookbook right now, and so far I've made a couple of things, which has been really fun. If I'm excited about a recipe, the act of making it and putting my phone away and being present in the moment is pure joy.
Today, I did my spin on Yasmin Fahr’s sheet-pan feta recipe from New York Times Cooking. I did an autumn spin on that on my Holy Sheet — it has feta, tomato, onion, yellow pepper, cauliflower, and slices of lemon. You add the slices of lemon all around, roast it for 25 minutes, and then add it to pasta or rice. (I added mine to orzo.) Obviously, you add a lot of olive oil and salt and pepper and garlic, and I also added a harissa spice blend. It's one of those weekday meals where you know you don't have to think about it too much, but you know it's going to be satisfying and tasty. The lemon adds such a nice zesty taste to the entire meal.
I am very much a home cook — very unorganized, very much imperfect. I love to listen to music and sing and dance while I'm in the kitchen, so there's a playful element to it. I use spices of all kinds as a nod to my Indian heritage; I love Kashmiri chili powder, mustard seeds, hing, and cumin.
I think food and recipes are very personal to your experiences. No matter what your background or heritage is, even people from the same heritage have family recipes that are different. It could be the same dish, but it could be completely different. I have so many recipes from my family that I put my own spin on.
Being in the food space has opened me up to incredible new brands doing interesting things in snacks and sauces and dips. It's so exciting, and my taste buds are so happy to try new things and support some of these amazing small makers that I don’t think I would have been exposed to had I not started Brightland.