Years ago, Aneesa Waheed might have laughed if someone had told her she’d eventually become a cookbook author.
Then again, she probably would have had the same reaction if they’d told her she’d run several Moroccan restaurants and have a line of cooking sauces.
“For me to have my own cookbook, published and printed that people are reading is such an incredible dream come true,” Waheed said. “Thirty years ago, had you said that to me, I’d have [said] ‘how is that even possible?’ ”
Waheed, who founded the locally loved Tara Kitchen restaurants, was never one to help out in the kitchen growing up in India and later as a teen in Schenectady. Instead, she usually focused on other creative pursuits and, after graduating from Schenectady High School, she went on to study fine arts and graphic design. Her career started in graphic design and then moved into the production side of the publishing industry, where she worked for about 13 years.
It was on vacation from one such publishing job that her love for food, particularly Moroccan food, took hold.
“I felt like I could stay there forever, eating a bowl of harira and letting the magic of the country envelope me,” Waheed writes in her introduction to her book, titled “Easy Moroccan Cookbook.”
On that trip to Morocco, she also met the love of her life, Muntasim Shoaib, who stepped in to help with translation after Waheed had undergone a harrowing journey through the desert to get to the city of Marrakech. They married three months after meeting and Waheed returned to Morocco many times in the year or so it took to get Shoaib a visa. She learned to make all sorts of dishes during her visits; pairing savoy meats with tangy fruits and warm spices.
Eventually, they settled down in Schenectady, starting a catering business and selling food at the Schenectady Green Market, which led to the opening of the first location of Tara Kitchen in the Electric City in 2012. They’ve expanded into Troy, Guilderland and Wildwood, New Jersey.
At each location, the focus is on serving accessible Moroccan dishes; packed with flavor, often warm but not overwhelmingly fiery. It has kept customers coming back week after week and it’s part of the reason Waheed wanted to write a cookbook, particularly one that would simplify cooking traditional Moroccan meals.
“What I am doing with Moroccan food . . . and the way I’ve been able to adapt it for our American palate is something that I have not seen anywhere else,” Waheed said. “There’s some amazing chefs and writers and authors who have done incredible books on Morocco and the cooking techniques in it, but [they’re] all very daunting, even to someone like me, who loves cooking and cooks 14 hours a day.”
Instead, she pared down recipes without compromising on flavor. It took months of recipe testing. Since the cookbook is aimed at family and home cooks, feeding between four and six diners, she had to rethink most of the tried and true recipes she uses at Tara Kitchen.
“We had all these criteria that I had never thought about in recipe making because I’m always thinking [of] recipe making according to the restaurant. So that was hugely challenging,” Waheed said.
There was also a time crunch. Working with publisher Callisto Media, she had from October 2021 to January 2022, to write and test each of the 60-plus recipes.
“I had previously already planned trips to Morocco, Spain, [and] India, so I was traveling an immense amount. It was literally ‘Book Mission Impossible,’ ” Waheed said.
Luckily, she had some help. Some of her employees tested out recipes at home, as did one of her editors.
“I had friends and family around the country [testing],” Waheed said.
Despite the stress of balancing travel with running the restaurants, Waheed enjoyed the cooking throughout the testing process.
“I can’t tell you how much love and joy and peace I find in it. I’m extremely hyperactive . . . and I find that the only thing that really calms me down and centers me is cooking,” Waheed said.
In the book, she included a range of recipes, nearly all simple and quick with relatively few ingredients, taking readers from appetizers to desserts and staples. There’s a recipe for baked chicken wings with honey, harissa and an orange glaze; one for eggplant with chickpeas, prunes and honey, and another for Moroccan mint tea.
At the start, Waheed also breaks down the spices and tools one should have at the ready and offers time-saving strategies and ways to pair dishes and drinks.
“I’m very happy with how accessible the book seems and as daunting as it was to try and pare down the recipes, they’re so flavorful,” Waheed said. “I want people to have this in their kitchen and comb through it and . . . use it as much as possible because of the simplicity and the clean way of cooking. That would be the biggest gift back to me.”
“Easy Moroccan Cookbook” will be released on Tuesday, June 28. From noon to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 30, The Open Door Bookstore will host a book signing with Waheed. The book will also be available online on Amazon.com and Target.com.
Waheed credited the Schenectady community for supporting her and her business, both in the early days and now.
“I want to profusely thank the community for that because they embraced us, they supported our vision and helped us in ways that I don’t even think people realize,” Waheed said.
She hopes those who read her story will be encouraged in their career journeys.
“Absolutely anything is possible and the road to where you want to be is not straight. You have to take so many detours, . . . just stay at it, stay positive,” Waheed said.