Behold the Spice Goddess's strength

This is a woman who was born into such poverty that she was not even given a birth date.

This is a woman who was told it was a good thing she could cook because she was too ugly to get a husband.

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This is a woman who, when she left her arranged marriage and moved into a shelter in Vancouver in 1995, had so little education that she did not know that decades earlier a man had walked on the moon or that the Great Wall of China even existed.

And yet, when you ask Bal Arneson where shell be in 20 years, and she tells you that shell be as famous as Martha Stewart if not more , you know it to be true.

Bal Arneson has earned her goddess status the hard way.

Its heady times for someone whos recently been named one of the sexiest women on food television. While it was her first cookbook, Everyday Indian, that put her on the cooking worlds radar, it was the huge success of her show, Spice Goddess, which is shown in 40 countries, that has positioned her in the galaxy of food stars.

When the Food Network created its spin-off, the Cooking Channel, Arneson was chosen as one of the bright lights in its firmament. Her new reality-tv cooking show, The Spice of Life, launched in the US last month, is sure to boost sales of her new cookbook, Bals Spice Kitchen, which will hit bookstores in the next few weeks.

The new show is shot at her home just outside Vancouver and always starts with breakfast a time to connect with her children Anoop, 20, and Aaron, eight.

No one is allowed to swear in my house, she says during an interview at Cafe Artigiano on East Hastings, even if its the word stupid. I believe negative energy goes into the food. If you want to yell, go out of the kitchen because this is a sacred place. Its a place of love.

Cooking has always brought her comfort, from the age of six when she first started adding spices to her mothers cooking to a few years ago when she and her second husband were breaking up. The divorce was heartbreaking and I went to fenugreek seeds and turmeric for healing. I live and breathe spices.

If each soul is on a journey of its own making, as Arneson believes, then it seems odd she would choose a beginning such as hers. And yet, as she tells her story, she says she wouldnt change a thing.

She doesnt know the year she was born; her mother thinks it might have been when Pakistan attacked India in 1974 because they couldnt light their cooking pits at night. She chose Feb. 1 as her birthday because she had a crush on a handsome Bollywood star born on Feb. 1. In another twist of fate, when she moved to Canada (to marry a man she didnt know), the Canadian immigration official misread the 1 and put her birthdate as Feb. 7. That means she turned 40 last week. (Happy Birthday!)

Everyone in her Punjab village would have cried when they heard that her mother had given birth to a girl. Girls had no value; their only role was to be married off when they were 16 or 17. The message to Bal was always clear, never subliminal: youre worth nothing, youre worthless, your only job is to be a wife and be subservient.

Even at the age of six, she knew that this was not to be her life. I knew it in my core, my DNA.

And so she did what her DNA told her to do. I embraced what I wasnt allowed to have. Boys could climb or play marbles or run around the dirt streets. Girls couldnt leave the home. I did everything I wasnt allowed to do even if I knew I would be beaten. I embraced what life didnt have to offer.

Rejecting centuries of negative cultural mores would have taken up too much of her energy, she says. If you start rejecting, its a loss. Its too much. It becomes a conscious effort. I accepted rejection. I pushed myself through all those challenges. I didnt want to believe this was going to be my life.

When she was a teenager, her uncle arranged her Vancouver marriage. She moved here, unable to speak any English, and had a daughter, Anoop Virk. She was still a teenager when, with baby in arms, she found refuge in a shelter.

Leaving her husband also resulted in being cut off from her entire family.

My mother told me, Youve brought us so much shame I wish you were dead. It was the last conversation I had with her.

Young Bal decided that since she had no family, it was time for a little rebirth of her own. My name was originally Baljit. Bal means strength and jit means winning. I took the jit off because I felt it wasnt about winning or losing, it was about strength.

Working as a housecleaner to earn money, she found her salvation in education, eventually earning a Masters degree. It was while she was working as a teacher in Coquitlam that she wrote her first cookbook. Today, shes seriously considering getting her PhD.

During her rise as a food celebrity, Arneson has transformed the scars from such a hurt-filled childhood into roots that burrow deep into her soul.

I tell her that I admire people who are confident without going over to the dark side of being egotistical. But she gives me a different perspective: Ego is good. I had to force myself to be egoistic. I needed the ego within me to get me out of [the culture of subservience] but what do you do with it? I demand Whats my worth? In the business world, your confidence can get you to a place but ego demands. Your presence should demand the results that you already have in your head. Youd better have ego if youre a woman but you have to have the ability to turn it off and on. It helps you push the envelope.

You cant pretend to have this aura of power; Arneson exudes it, taking it from something that could be hard and controlling and making it deeply feminine and attractive. It reveals itself, unbidden, in her every movement. Shes a woman who can make a ratty old sweater look like it came off a designer rack. She was wearing a $12 pair of sunglasses from London Drugs during a visit to LA and someone asked if she got them in Paris. When Spice of Life shot a camping episode that shows her walking from her tent to the lake, she didnt feel comfortable strutting around in her bathing suit so she wore a shirt overtop. When they filmed her taking off the shirt, the image was so sexy it wasnt appropriate for the show.

For Arneson, the awareness of how other people react to her is almost like an out-of-body experience. Im put on a pedestal, which is such an honour. I smile and nod. But my own conversation with my soul took me a long time to accept me.

She knows shes a sensual being and, after all those years of being told she was ugly, sees beauty through a different prism.

I was in LA for business, with these big CEOs, extremely intelligent businessmen who are millionaires, she says. Every single guy said to me, The beauty is not the woman who takes her clothes off. The beauty is confidence.

If youre comfortable within yourself, people will listen. You can own the stage.

After all those years of poverty, being thrifty is an impossible habit to shake. She may get driven around in limousines and stay in expensive hotels when shes on business, but shes still a thrift store shopper. When she was in Paris she fell in love with a piece of old lace that she brought home to sew onto her curtains.

Arneson is also probably one of the only Food Network USA hosts who doesnt have an agent. Shes not about to give up control of what happens next to someone else.

I want to have time to connect with all the people who are making my show famous, she says, reaching for her smart phone so she can read out loud an email from a fan who has been touched by Arnesons message.

Arneson may no longer be at the front of a classroom but, simply by being who she is, she can still teach other women how to find and follow their own journey.

I wouldnt change a thing about my life, she says. I was disowned by my entire culture and now here I am. This is my path, so I can be the voice for young girls who are lost.

Bal Arneson is one of the speakers at the Feb. 19 Public Salon hosted by Sam Sullivan. Tickets are $20 at Tickets Tonight or $30 at the door of the Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton Street). Tickets for a pre-salon dinner and reception with the speakers are $130. Go to GlobalCivic.org for details. Go to WEVancouver.com/contests for your chance to win one of the very first copies of Bals Spice Kitchen, published by Whitecap Books.

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